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American Women's Club of Hamburg

A Day in the Life of a Substitute Teacher

becky08:00: It’s delightful to drive by the beautiful new International School, Hemmingstedter Weg 130, set back among the trees! There is sufficient parking nearby; friendly traffic controllers in red jackets greet me.

08:15: Inside, the security patrol smiles. I check in with The Boss and pick up my schedule for the day. He says, “I don’t know what we would have done without you!” How often do you hear that?

08:30: Seventh Grade English They are pleasantly surprised that their teacher Ms. Logan has tonsillitis. Substitute teachers are easier. One boy has not done his homework because “there was a bomb warning in the Elbchaussee and we all had to leave our houses until late in the evening.” It was a WW II bomb, discovered during an excavation, and had to be defused. Beats having the dog eat your homework. I always make a point to do exactly what the students are doing at any given time. In this case it means reading pages 40-75 of The Book Thief. I’ll probably read the whole book by the end of the day. In this way I have recently read The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time, The Reader, and The Great Gatsby three times. It also means that I’ve sat on the floor in drama class playing Zip Zap Boing and guessed the right word in Hangman.

09:10: Tenth Grade German I remember how to use the new-fangled DVD player and show the the film “Zorba the Greek.” I vow to look up background information on the film, in order to say something intelligent the next day. What a great opportunity for me to see a famous film.

09:50: First Break Potty stop. In the new school the lights in the toilettes go on automatically when one enters.

10:10: Seventh Grade Math The head of the math department shows me how to use the new interactive white board which is a huge computer screen upon which you can write with your finger! He reminds them how to figure percentages. After he leaves, they decide to follow their own teacher’s procedure. I, too, figure 35% of $10, 40% of 630 kg, even 85% of 176 without a calculator. They have calculators. A wad of paper flies from the back corner and hits the wastepaper basket exactly in the middle. Normally, it would miss and the culprit, Ho Jun, would have to come in during lunch to “practice shooting baskets.” But this talent must be recognized: no punishment this time.

10:50: Tenth Grade Math There is where I reach my limits. The math department head comes in, writes f(x) = x3 - 3x2 - 9x + 8 and mumbles “minimum” and “maximum.” I can only pretend to be stupefied (actually not a pretence) and tell them how amazingly brilliant they all are when they figure out that min. is (3,-19) and max. is (-1,13).

11:30: Second Break I race down to the front entrance where a book company is selling children’s books in English, with part of the proceeds to go to the PTA. I spend half my day’s salary for children’s books in English.

11:40: Free Period I go to the library and read copies of the International Herald Tribune and check out Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami. In the computer room I try to figure out the Mac and wonder why my password gets me nowhere. I go to the staff room for coffee and read the notices on the board: “seeking fifth-grade teacher,” “seeking IT director.” A music teacher is there and tells me that he has to wear earplugs when he teaches samba to third graders.

12:20: Eleventh Grade Geography I collect their essays – some of them huge bound copies. I say, “Your poor teacher flies to Australia in three days for the holidays; when will she correct these?” Edward says, “We have responsibilities and work very hard to achieve our goals and the teacher knows this and will accomplish the grading although it is sometimes an extra burden,” in a perfect British accent, all the time looking at me seriously with his blue eyes. Andreas passes out homemade cookies from his mom. I’m not so strict with Grade 11 and eating in class right before lunch. I say, “Are you campaigning for student council president?” The election is on Friday.

13:00: Lunch I turn in my lunch voucher for a cheese sandwich, yoghurt and orange juice. I could take it all to the staff room, but decide to sit with other brave teachers, who don’t mind kids yelling, eating, and copying each others’ homework. Then I go outside for for playground duty and watch the guys play basketball in the new outside court. Big excitement: the German poet/musician Wolf Biermann will talk to the entire German department in the auditorium this afternoon.

13:40: Eighth Grade Math I separate them and pass out their test. There are only eight in the class and they obviously have not studied. They are frustrated and ask what does “mean” mean and what is the answer? I say that my lips are sealed. Itty explodes, “You are a teacher, aren’t you?” I reply, “I am the invigilator (good word!) of an examination and according to strict international rules am forbidden to speak!” Sounds very official and they finish the test. Eighth Grade is always funny, but I’m not allowed to laugh.

14:20: Seventh Grade Geography Teacher Mrs. Gordon is in London introducing older students to universities in Great Britain. Her absence was planned; her preparation is top notch. Ella and Anna are responsible for passing out the atlases. We find 50 capitol cities and enter them on mimeographed maps. Steve whispers to Kiko, “May I borrow your Tipp-Ex?” I say, “No you may not! Borrow from me.” I cart a complete set of all supplies in my 2006 Filmfest Hamburg bag. My philosophy is: your friends are not responsible for your lack of supplies; you are, and therefore you must borrow from Mrs. Tan, i.e., use her funny old eraser and even funnier pencil sharpener.

15:00: School’s out Obviously I love this job. When The Boss calls, I’m there. It’s all about dependability.

Originally published in the May/June 2010 issue of Currents, Vol.XXVI No. 3 "Daily Routine"

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