Today after checking in for my substitute-teaching job at West Linn High School, I had to move my car to a different location, and decided to grab that much needed cup of Joe at the local Starbucks.
When I pulled up into the parking lot of the coffee shop, I realized that my “substitute teacher” name tag was very visible around my neck. My mind began racing with how I felt about myself with that title so closely associated with me.
“Just a sub.”
“Not a part of the real group.”
Something inside me just made me uncomfortable with people at the coffee shop seeing that label on me.
I’ve thought about this since then. Why was I ashamed for that moment about my title of substitute teacher, I wondered.
I think part of it has to do with something I have struggled with for much of my life — the feeling of being an outsider, of not belonging, of not fitting in.
And I think a lot of other people feel the same way, for a variety of reasons.
For me it can be jobs, friendship circles, church, and citizenship. Yep, that’s right; I was born in Germany, so while growing up, I was very aware that I was an “alien.” Indeed, I was a “resident alien” with a “green card” which means I was a foreigner in this country, until I decided to become a United States citizen almost 20 years ago.
And, now as an adult, some of my job titles are “outsider type of jobs”: substitute teacher, freelance writer, and freelance editor. In the past, I’ve also been an adjunct professor. For each of these work positions, I am not on staff, not part of the everyday, regular folks who make these places of employment function.
We all want to fit in and belong. We all want to feel like we contribute and are an important part of the whole. We want to feel connected to a community rather than one looking in, from the outside.
I started thinking later that throughout the Bible, you see the theme of outsider, with many references noting that the people of God are “aliens, sojourners, not-of-this world.” And, Jesus was the ultimate outsider, someone who did not fit in. And, He asks us to join him, to follow him, to identify with him, even when no one else does. To celebrate that calling, that place, that narrow path.
I know that the most important thing is attitude. The way we approach life and our circumstances is what matters.
So, when I muse upon my work positions, I remind myself, okay, this is what I do, this is my vocation right now, these are my jobs, so embrace it. Be the best freelance writer I can be, be the best freelance editor I can be, and be the best substitute teacher I can be.
I know I’ve never thought of myself as “just a sub,” though I’ve heard that term before from students; some people may look at the role in that light. The stereotypes regarding substitute teachers may be in my head, but they are there; a “sub” can be seen as someone who is just getting by, someone who is not a “real” teacher, someone who cannot actually get a full-time teaching job, someone maybe that does not know the subject as well, or someone who is a glorified baby-sitter, and so on.
But, I know those stereotypes are not true for many substitute teachers, and I surely approach the work much differently than those descriptions. In fact, I started thinking, why not redefine stereotypes of the position I have.
I actually really enjoy substitute teaching. Hey, I get to hang out with wonderful kids and then go home after eight hours and not have to prep for the next day nor grade hundreds of papers into the wee hours of the night. I’ve done that in my past.
So, I made up my mind up. I’ve made a deliberate choice to embrace my job of substitute teacher, as I try to embrace all aspects of my life. It’s all an adventure. For subbing, in fact, I made it Facebook official. (As people joke, it’s not real or it did not happen unless you post it on Facebook!) Before subbing one day this year, I posted that I was looking forward to subbing that day and that I was going to tryto inspire students and make them feel valued.
For that Facebook status, I got mostly “you go girl” type of comments, but one of my old high school friends, who’s also a teacher (but not a sub) said, “That’s ambitious, for a sub.” I know my friend was just being sarcastic, but I do think that is the stereotype. How can someone make a difference in a day as a “sub”?
But, I wrote back on my comment stream, that I do believe a sub can make a difference, even if it is just for a day or a moment, or 10 minutes or an hour. I approach all of life that way.
My goal as a sub — I say “replacement teacher” — is to try to inspire students to love school and to make them feel like they are important and valued individuals. I try to do this in a variety of ways. I try to be enthusiastic about the subject matter at hand, sharing what I love about it personally; I smile at kids who are passing me in the hallways; I ask how a kid who might be sitting alone at lunch how he is doing? During classes, I introduce myself and talk about my love for literature and learning and writing. I also remind students how blessed they are to be in school in the first place, when so many children in third world countries are out working the fields to put rice on their tables. In addition, I ask kids to tell me something about themselves, how their day is going, and so on.
My role as substitute is temporary and I may only reach a few kids and some kids may not relate to me, but I can try. You just never know.
In fact, I’ve been at coffee shops and orthodontist appointments with my kids or the grocery store, and I will see past students, from schools where I have been a sub, and they will say hello to me, by name.
“Hi, Mrs. Seigneur,” I hear quite a bit. Then, I’ll also hear the students, as they are walking away, tell the parent they are with, “That was my substitute teacher yesterday.”
Wow, they remember.
So, I’m reminded, we will be remembered. Why not be remembered for good?
Why not approach life, our jobs, our words, and our roles, no matter how glamorous or small or unimportant in society’s eyes, as if we matter to others. Because we do.
Even, if you are “just a sub.”