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Lesson: Substitute Teaching's 'F' -- What Gwyneth and Cameron Can Teach Education Experts

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Gwyneth Paltrow is waffling on whether to return next season to her role as substitute teacher Holly Holiday in the TV hit series Glee. Holly, I hear you. Why would we take on such anarchic work for $18,000 a year when we could earn the same hourly wage (and I'm serious) serenely filling golf divots or delivering live fish bait?

Like Miss Holiday, I once eagerly took my place in the Substitute Nation, 500,000 individuals who stand at the ready should the regular teacher fall ill or decide to take in the Home and Garden Show. I liked both the flexibility and the opportunity to relearn forgotten lessons, like the difference between Athenian and Spartan Greeks, which I'll share momentarily. And I craved a mid-life challenge. But to call substitute teaching a "challenge" would be like calling the Black Death an "irritant." Three years later, the job had wiped its Formica floor with me, and I was certain as to why substitutes are statistically 10 to 20 percent as effective as regular classroom teachers.

You decide if I'm just a whiner... after I tell you what really can happen when a teacher is absent.

My nationwide cohort of subs included the flotsam and jetsam of the economic downturn -- unemployed realtors, bankers, nurses.

Still, students set one sub's hair on fire, spiked another's coffee with hand sanitizer, hit another repeatedly on the head with a dodge ball to the point of lifelong headaches. A disabled sub asked a student for his hall pass. Bam! The student punched him. Another was left unconscious in the street after students beat the snot out of him.

In 25 years as a freelance writer, my most horrifying incident was turning in brochure copy with a company name, Slim Fast, spelled Slime Fast. Humiliating, yes, but nobody set my hair on fire.

True, some subs were naughty, even dangerous. They informed kindergarteners that Santa Claus was really their parents, and make-up causes cancer. They threatened students with guns. They passed out drunk at the teacher's desk and poured urine from a third-floor window onto students. They invited students to join them in three-ways. These true-life stories make Cameron Diaz' hard-drinking, Bad Teacher look wholesome.

"But wait," you may be thinking. "School districts train subs... "

Wrong!

Twenty three percent of school districts train their subs; using old math, 77 percent do not. (I was untrained.)

You still think Miss Holliday and I had it easy? I was once like you, charmed by gap-toothed kids and lured by the chance to erase the blackboard whenever I wanted. But the devil's in the details, so stay seated. Imagine leading a 6th-grade classroom... the bell rings... the kids stomp in...

The boys will switch desks and names. Which one is Andy and which is Andre? You'll never know.

You'll ask about lunch count procedure, and receive five different yet equally forceful answers.

You won't understand acronyms in the teacher's lesson plan -- DEAR, ELL, HO -- and you'll think, WTF?

The nighttime janitors will have switched the TV/VCR cables, so when you pop in the Eyewitness Volcanoes DVD, nothing will happen as you press remote control button in reckless combinations. It will become sickeningly apparent that for the next 45 minutes, you'll rely wholly on your wits.

After 35 minutes of polling the kids on topics like "Do you prefer black or white dogs?" Andy or Andre will return -- he had asked to use the bathroom at the beginning of Volcanoes -- and you'll realize he could have left the school grounds, robbed a bank and you wouldn't have noticed.

You'll overlook the teacher's note about sending Olivia somewhere at 2:15 for a blood-sugar check. (That's what HO means, you'll reflect that night. Health Office!)

Plus, you'll teach. In mere minutes, you must be ready to teach a cultural history lesson (Spartans -- obedient warriors ruled by kings. Athenians -- democrats who liked art projects); how to play scooter tag (note to future subs -- know the location of that HO before you start); or how to perform pan balance equations. I'm sharp enough with numbers to have figured that if I subbed every school day, I'd make $14,400 per year. But I had never heard of pan balance equations. The dismissal bell rang before I figured out that a pan balance equation is akin to asking "If I drank three, 10-ounce bottles of Samuel Adams, how many 1.5-ounce shots of Jack Daniels would you have to drink to have the same blood alcohol level?"

I have heartening news for Holly Holiday. After I quit, I spotted jobs on Craigslist that pay the same as substitute subbing including house painter and pedicurist at Twinkle Toes. Fair pay. Realistic expectations. What do you think, Miss Holiday. Should we try one?

Carolyn Bucior is the author of Sub Culture: Three Years in Education's Dustiest Corner, recently named by Time Magazine as one of seven education books to take to the beach.