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Being Ms. Rhames: Reflections From a Substitute Teacher

Guest Blogger:  Virginia Cutshall

Thumbnail image for Virginia_Headshot.jpgDuring my maternity leave from mid-November to early March, Virginia Cutshall served as my substitute teacher. I asked her to write an honest depiction of her experience in a guest blog post.

The term "substitute" implies an imitation of the original - like margarine as a substitute for butter.  At first, becoming a "long-term substitute teacher" was somewhat disappointing, since I knew that I would be a placeholder for three months. 

There were subtle reminders of this fact:  I picked up attendance labeled "Ms. Rhames;" I called the kids to morning advisory by saying "Rhames advisory;" and I was frequently asked, "when is Ms. Rhames coming back?" 

Seventh and eighth grade students have a tendency to test boundaries, and in the first few weeks after I became their interim writing teacher, I was fresh fodder.  Some of the students even went so far as to make up fake names to avoid getting in trouble (I wouldn't have his or her real name to enter a demerit into the school's disciplinary system).  But, mostly out of a necessity to learn all of their real names, we quickly got to know each other.

It was amazing how responsive students were when I noticed their new haircut, or pulled them back into the classroom after the bell to ask why they had forgotten every homework assignment that week.  These small moments created the fibers for a strong, even if temporary, sense of community.  It was this tied-in feeling of responsibility that held me together during this trying experience - knowing that many students pushed me away during class only to apologize at the end of the day.  

In fact, working with this age group was the first time I had really felt this type of adulthood. I had to remind myself not to take their insults personally and had to be the "mature" counterpart in the situation. Still, the litanies of  "Why do we even have to learn this?"; "This is boring"; and "It doesn't matter if I do it, I'll pass anyways" sometimes threw me over the edge. 

It would be an understatement to say that middle school students need a great deal of socio-emotional support.  This is especially true for Chicago Public School students vying for an ultra-competitive spot in a somewhat merit-worthy high school--forget about a spot in a selective enrollment school. 

The first week that students began to receive their high school acceptance letters felt like a death march: students wanted to reject the notion of academic value while they waited for possible rejections.  All I could do was to tell them to stay focused, stay on-task, and that everything would be OK.  While many of them got into their top choices, there was still a significant group who were unhappy with their options. 

It was hard to see students at such a young age feel disappointed with life and then, in the same breath, tell them to gear up for ISATs (the Illinois state standardized tests).  It was such a relief to know that Ms. Rhames would be back before we started testing. 

In the end, I was grateful that I was just the substitute.  After only three months of teaching, I was overwhelmed.  Preparing for lessons, grading, and maintaining five classes every day felt almost unreasonable.  Once Ms. Rhames came to the rescue, I could actually enjoy being around our students. 

Ms. Rhames and I co-taught for a week before I left, and it was liberating to share the responsibility of our group, suddenly having the freedom to work with individual students without the rest of the class descending into chaos.  It almost made me angry that each classroom didn't already have a teacher's aide or assistant - that's how much better it was.

Even though my time "being" Ms. Marilyn Rhames has ended, I still feel like I'm a part of the class:  I was an important bridge that helped carry these students towards a bright future.  That's what I tell myself anyways.  

VIRGINIA CUTSHALL recently completed a Master of Education program in Bilingual-Bicultural Education at DePaul University. She is now doing freelance work in Chicago as a Spanish-English translator and interpreter, as well as building furniture.

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