March 31, 2008

Surviving limbo: a handbook for ATR subs

You'd think that the union would have figured out a way by now to give all us excessed teachers who ended up in the Absent Teacher Reserves a little support. Information, I mean. Helpful hints on how to get through the day. A trick or two.

If the union is so gung-ho on staff development (and it really is), wouldn't it have been an excellent time to give us some? It's not as if any of us ATRs got any training in how to be a sub when we went to school. We didn't student sub like we student taught.

The fact is union management hasn't bothered, and I'm not all that surprised. Weingarten only got around to calling a meeting for the ATRs last November, months after all the excessing took place and only after a whole lot of people banged on a whole lot of doors to force her hand. If the truth be known, neither the BoE nor the UFT seem much interested in helping us out. Both camps would prefer if we'd just slink away.

So, in the absence of any tangible support from either of these, I thought I'd put together a little handbook for ATRs of my own. Unlike Joel Klein, who had virtually no experience running schools or classrooms when he became chancellor, my earlier teaching experience (20 years' worth, in fact) had some value in my new ATR job. I've assessed the trouble spots and can write something up that might possibly shorten the learning curve for fellow travelers.

Here's the first draft, and I expect there to be additions and changes as I grow into my new job. Because I have no illusions: this is what the last part of my teaching career will be looking like.

Maybe others will offer some suggestions. Maybe even the UFT Legal Department could contribute some pointers about contractual obligations and loopholes. I know for one thing there's a stinking issue of parity: regular teachers get to have per-session activities, but ATRs are pretty much barred from these. An ATR can't commit to the school he's working in, and the principal who has just given him a one-way ticket out of the place sure isn't going to grant him an ongoing activity after school. It's a NoWin-NoWin situation for ATRs, and the union has begged the issue.

So, without further ado:



1. You are an inconvenience to your administrators and are essentially being tolerated. Do not try to be a goody-goody or get them to like your work, because bottom line, they don't actually want you on their budget.

2. Do what is educationally sound at all times. That's the only way you'll be able to sleep at night.

3. You are a place holder, not a place filler. You are in someone else's room doing what you can with someone else's lesson for someone else's students, a situation which lasts for the duration of that person's absence.

4. Know that you the only person in the building being asked to "wing it," and no ed school ever taught you how. In the wonderworld of BloomKlein, your job specification has just shifted, and whether you like it or not, you're now a Jack-of-All-Trades, particularly in the HSS with all those specialized classes. Either enjoy, or . . .

5. Detach. Students might be cold-hearted, either unwittingly ("Hey, Miss, did you get downgraded or somethin'?") or purposefully ("F— you. You not a real teacher.") They can also be delightful, like the girl at the bus stop who shouted enthusiastically to her friend: "Hey, there's my substitute!" You are neither a sub-order of teacher or fabulous. You are doing your job to the best of your ability under volatile circumstances.


1. Class registers. Oh, how the intruder types love subs, and what a run-around they can give you.

2. Pens, pencils: but get collateral if you lend them, because they'll walk out with them and when they remember to return them, you've moved to another room.

3. Wordfinds, math puzzles, crossword puzzles, scrap paper. There'll be days when the teacher has left you nothing, and when kids are bored enough, some will take whatever you're handing out.

4. Chalk, eraser, dry erase pens. Don't rely on the teacher's supply.

5. List of school phone numbers, like for security, guidance counselors, the program office.


1. Have kids sign in on a separate sheet. Bubbling comes later, at your convenience and when you've had a chance to reflect over the legitimacy of the signatures.

2. Assign work immediately. Better still: write the assignment on the board before they get there and don't even open your mouth. Teens respond better when they're not being told by you to do anything.

3. Announce that you'll help anyone who needs it.

4. Then help a few of them, or at least look at what they're doing over their shoulder. Send a message that you're not just a disinterested bystander. It will convince some of undecided characters to crack a book.

5. Standard behavior for immature classes is to test the sub, and they can be merciless. So, it's now time to annotate that sign-in sheet. Look really serious when you do this, as if the mark you're giving them really means something. Tell one person he gets a check because he's working, another a half-check for not working so hard, or NW for No Work at all. Give your own marks for anything you can think of: being disruptive, intruding (contact Security to remove these kids), breaking school rules (don't contact Security for these because you'll annoy them, but you can write the student up later and let other people handle it).

6. A malicious child can really hurt you, but remember this. There are Chancellor's Regs on abuse to protect the student, but you won't find any regulations for the kind of abuse substitutes are frequently subjected to. In BloomKlein, teachers are abusers, students are . . . well, just kids.

7. Put the room in good order when you leave and the work in a neat pile. It's like wampum: you're trading a bit of effort for a bit of good feeling, and you'll be needing as much of that as you can get.

Part IV: DOCUMENT EVERYTHING, for example:

1. When no assignment has been left for you
2. The kids who enter late
3. When kids sign the attendance sheet, then cut out
4. Dangerous items left around the room (broken glass, formaldehyde, etc.)
5. Ripped books
6. Security not arriving if you've called them
7. An AP or principal walking into the room, for whatever reason
8. A kid's tirade of vulgar, aggressive words. It might get worse before it stops, but it will stop, especially when the rest of the class sees the humor (i.e., the stupidity) of it.



  1. Nice work...At the HS level have students give up their ID cards prior to entry. The real dirtbags will slink away and the rest will know that you KNOW who they are.

  2. Everything that you've listed reflects dedication and professionalism and really makes for sound educational practices. I've never seen something like this even given to covering teachers!

  3. Anon., 5:37.

    Actually, I haven't found this to be successful. The good ones will show ID. Heck, they'll show it to anyone, because they're good kids. The ones who will give you trouble — and particularly the intruders — will make every excuse in the world not to: I lost it, I don't have it, Do I have to open my bookbag?, F— you!, You ain't gettin' my ID, and so forth. I'm not in an easy school, it might be better elsewhere.

    To circumvent all this, I prefer to catch them off-guard later, because when I announce "I really want to get this attendance right and give you credit for being here" and start calling off names from the sign-in sheet, their heads invariably go up when they hear their own name. It's instinctual, they almost can't help it. That's the time to attach the specific bad behavior you've been witnessing all period to the name. You actually don't need it earlier, because knowing their name is not going to correct the behavior. Your teaching and classrooom management will. In the scheme of things, you can afford to get the name later.

    Remember: the goal is not to squabble, but getting as many as possible working.

    PS: There are still atrocious classes, like a couple of the ones I had today, where some of the kids were simply beyond description. But, when you call security, and deans, aides and uniformed officers arrive to help you out and the kids STILL backtalk and refuse to leave the room or cough up ID, then you know these are very troubled kids. Something you've said may have triggered their behavior, or maybe you just being a sub and not their real teacher, but you are not the cause of their behavior. That comes from elsewhere.

    The good news is that even in a difficult class, a percentage of students will work. If you get the same classes for a second day, some of the disruptive ones from the day before will settle down. Just keep teaching, just keep interpreting the world for them, just keep caring.

  4. Really dynamite advice. Incredibly comprehensive and extremely caring.

  5. What will happen to the ATR teachers next year? any news from the spleepy boss RW?

  6. I was told by a union person at HQ that ATRs who remain unplaced into the following year will remain on the same budget as now.

    So, if you're an ATR because your school was taken down, you'll be remaining on Central's budget. If you're an ATR as the result of a reorganization in your school, you'll continue to be on that school's budget for however long it takes to be re-situated, if ever.

    I then asked what if your school puts pressure on you to go, like trumped up charges or harassment. The response was: make sure to report such offenses to your DR immediately.

    I am convinced RW has not been sleepy, but either outwitted by Klein, who did not show his entire hand when they made the contract, or downright complicit. In any case, I believe she now thinks of ATRs as collateral damage.