Subbing the Middle Grades & Why I Kinda Like it #substituteteaching #middleschool #empathy

Photo by Dids from Pexels

“You’re doing a good job.”

“I hope you sub for us again.”

“Have a great day!”

These were some of the words expressed by my preteen bosses yesterday, and they matter to me. A lot. This is one of the reasons I show up when I get the call to substitute for a teacher who is absent for the day. The pay is lousy, but the bosses can be pretty great.

By great I don’t mean easy. They test me nearly endlessly, as 10-13 yr-olds tend to do. They can be brutally honest, a royal pain in the neck, and incredibly kind. They are our youth in the process of becoming their adult selves. In the classroom, among them, I am reminded of my own struggles, the struggles of my own teenagers, and of how darn hard it can be to be human in the process of becoming.

Each day offers a clean slate. I generally have no idea if I will get the call, and if I do, where I will end up. No matter what, though, I learn something. And usually that learning comes from my young bosses. Yesterday, while taking a mask break outside with my charges bosses, I was reminded of the power of empathy and how beautiful the face of compassion is.

“Throw the ball! Throw the ball!” the words pressured the release of the girl’s hand, which threw without aim, landing the tennis ball on the side of a young boy’s head. It was an accident that resulted in tears but also an unfolding of frustration into the pure, opened heart of empathy.

In a matter of seconds the girl was by the boy’s side, her face awash with compassion and regret. Before he could find his own words, she had made her way to the nurse’s office and back outside with a soft ice pack in her hand.

Never in those moments was there anger or blame. The tears took awhile to disappear back into joy, but they did. By the end of our brief recess, you would not have known there had been an interruption if you were just passing by.

Last week, it was my turn to express compassion and empathy. And with all that baggage of years between us, I’ll admit it took me more seconds than it did for that 10-yr-old-girl.

“Hey, Sam [not his real name],” I called over to the 8th grader who had tested my limits last year like no other kids had. I was ready for resistance. Prepared for a rough day.

Instead, the voice behind the reply sounded impressed, even flattered. “How do you know my name?”

“I remember you from last year.”

“You do?”

“Yeah.”

That was all it took. If I had told him why, the outcome would have probably been vastly different. Instead, I made the choice to be honest without expounding upon why. I had remembered Sam and that was enough for him. It was, in fact, more than enough. It made him happy. It transformed him a little, and in turn it transformed me.

I don’t know what Sam’s day-to-day life is like, but I know enough about being a middle-schooler to know that it is not always easy. Each action, or non-action in the case of children who fold into themselves, is often a call for acceptance. A call for love. I can only assume that Sam’s tendency towards disruption is a result of his own struggles. Although it can be tiresome and frustrating, it doesn’t mean he is not worthy of love.

I can’t wrap my arms around these young bosses of mine, but I can choose to show them I care in other ways. Sometimes a simple act can yield a profound reaction. I’ve only subbed three days so far this school year and each day has left me transformed.

That, to me, is a day well spent.