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Knee Deep in Guilt

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For three weeks, Beth is being me.

We are amazingly alike. As women of a certain age we share a birthday and short gray hair, and we are by nature and lifestyle the nurturing type. Our brilliant 29 year old sons and talented 25 year old daughters went through school together for most of their lives. We live near each other, read constantly, love to travel, cook, talk over dinner, and we both think diagramming sentences is entertaining and gratifying.

But that’s not why Beth is me. Beth is me because she’s my long term substitute at school while I am recuperating from a knee replacement.

When I realized in late February that I was losing the end-of-the-semester race with my bad knee, I had to make a lot of arrangements in a hurry. I did not call to set the surgery first—I called Beth. “If I do the knee the week before Spring Break, can you be me for a few weeks? I’m looking at the calendar, and there’s a week of Spring Break, plus a half day and a workday. That means I’ll be out 15 days. Will you do it?”

Teaching Family and Consumer Science is very teacher intensive. You can’t fall back on stalling strategies like “Read Chapter 4 and answer the questions in a complete sentence” for more than a day or so. Good FACS curriculum is very current, very interactive, and very hands-on. So I wrote and wrote and set up materials in stacks around the room. And made lists: "Here are big ideas. Here is a list of information they should master. Here is a list of skills they should be able to demonstrate."

I worried—a lot—but guess what? I talk to Beth daily and my students are fine.

I had to call a couple of parents, and we’ve adjusted some of the plans, but it’s going okay and it looks like I’ll be able to go back in another week and a half. I know my kids are going to be all right. I know that none of them will be damaged for life because I missed 15 days of school.

School has an immediacy to it that doesn’t allow adjusting the schedule, and so teachers are forced to make hard choices about things like health, or family events, or being available for their own children. You can’t just make up the work later.

And teaching is relational, so you can’t just plug in another person and get the same effect. Ask any parent whose child has a long term substitute. I know my students are concerned for me, but I know they feel a little cheated that I’m not there. I know their parents feel the same way. I know I need to get well, but I wish I could do my physical therapy and take a nap without wondering what fifth period is up to and worrying that I’m leaving them stranded.

And I also wonder this: Does the fact that I’m struggling with all this guilt indicate that I’m a responsible educator? Does it reveal that my classroom practice is overly teacher-centered? Or does it simply mean that I have a distorted opinion of my own importance?

I think I’ll take an aspirin and lie down.

3 Comments

As somebody who has substituted for over a decade, I relish intense, hands-on experiences such as the one Ms. Graham allowed Beth to have. True, they are a responsibility, but they are also a gift. I do realize that there are stressful points during the temporary placement for all concerned, and do not wish to minimize that fact, but to share time with somebody who cares about their class yet cannot give up the demand from the outside-school world (health, kids, jury duty, etc.) is why I go to work. May your healing be swift, Ms. Graham.

I do realize that there are stressful points during the temporary placement for all concerned, and do not wish to minimize that fact, but to share time with somebody who cares about their class

A Place At The Table I relish intense, hands-on experiences such as the one Ms. Graham allowed Beth to have

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