No Substitute for Laura Moss White
By Carin Chea
An educator for over two and a half decades, Laura Moss White's first book, Mrs. White's Sub Snips, is an eye-opening journey into the hidden and often underappreciated world of substitute teaching.
Though White is no longer a substitute teacher, the years of subbing made an everlasting impression on the author whose revealing book is told through the guise of cartoon illustrations.
But, make no mistake: though White's book is comical and entertaining, it also exposes the ups and the (astonishing) downs of substitute teaching.
How did you get into substitute teaching?
I'm actually an adapted physical education teacher with LAUSD [Los Angeles Unified School District]. I substitute taught for 15 years because when my kids were going to schools, it was a great parent job. You're off when they're off.
When I got a full-time job, I got laid off for about two and a half years when the recession hit and I got pink slipped, so I got to sub some more. I taught general education first. I also taught elementary and secondary.
What's PE for individuals with disabilities?
Adapted P.E. is special physical education. I'm on the state council for our state of California for adapted physical education as a teacher representative. You get to really find out what's going on.
Most of the people on the council are the shakers and movers, the professors at all the universities and things like that.
Tell us about your book. What was the inspiration?
There were a lot of things that were emotionally charged. I have a lot of stories about the many misconceptions about subs, the social snobbery.
After subbing for so long, I wrote down these experiences that stood out the most to me. I wanted to get it made into cartoons, but I just didn't know how to get it made, because I couldn't find a really good cartoon illustrator.
Last summer, I went onto Upwork and I hired this fantastic professional illustrator named Caitlin Skaalrud.
What are some of your most memorable moments as a substitute teacher?
I remember this little girl [in the 2nd grade] really liked me. The girl wished she was me, and the boy next to her said, "Be careful what you wish for!"
One great thing about subbing is that you can go to a different school every day and you can wear the same outfit every day. It cuts down on the washing.
A lot of times, the school secretary would say "We call our subs 'guest teachers'", and I'd say, "Does that mean I get the key to the executive washroom?" I found that phrasing so corny.
Once, in the lunchroom, I was sitting with another sub, and I heard this teacher just go on and on about how wonderful everything was, how beautiful things were, and how all their kids were fabulous. I had this sub sitting next to me and she said, "Why is she so happy? Is she on anti-depressants?" Let's get real - a lot of times you don't hear teachers speaking so happily.
I also think it's interesting that there is a social class snobbery division between subs and the staff and administration at the school. This happened to me more than once: I'd go into the school lunchroom to eat my lunch. When I'd go to sit down, the teachers would say the chair was taken and that it was the teachers table. The subs have their little table on the side. You have subs who become full-time teachers and they don't talk to you anymore. I've had that happen many times.
One time, I was at an elementary school having a staff luncheon and the principal told me that subs weren't allowed to eat the food, but we were allowed to eat the scraps after they were done.
When I was going to the lunchroom to get my sack lunch out of the fridge, I saw my fork and spoon were missing. I saw one of the teachers using my fork and spoon, and said "That's mine." Without blinking, she said, "Yeah, you can have them back when I'm done."
Oh my gosh, they sound like the mean girls at school!
These are things that show total disregard for having a stranger come into their school. A lot of these teachers are very closed. They only respect or appreciate those that are on permanent staff or if they're a site-regular sub.
Sub teachers are often overworked and under-appreciated, and I wanted to pay tribute to them. They're brave. One time I was walking down to a class, and I saw a young sub crying hysterically. As I stared into the classroom, I heard the students laughing hysterically saying, "We got that one!"
Once I was called in to cover for a high school teacher. The students were pulling the phone out of the wall, standing on their desks, throwing things around the room, and drawing phallic symbols on the wall. I called security on my cell phone and he asked, "Is this a life or death situation?" and I said, "Well it could be!"
Another time, I was called into sub one year-round school during the summer for a 2nd grade class. I was wearing a white skirt. The lesson plan was to have the class paint watercolor color-wheels all day long. The paint got everywhere - the walls, the floors, and the bathroom. At the end of the day, my white skirt got all dirty. The principal came into the classroom with rage and demanded that I clean everything up.
Later, I found that I had been written-up and had to defend myself in front of the human resources department. Afterward, I found out that this wasn't an appropriate lesson plan to leave with a substitute teacher, but I still got blackballed from the school and was told never to come back.
But there are a lot of positive experiences, too. When I worked as a sub, I think I appreciated the younger students a lot more, because they give you colored drawings and notes and smiles. I was always surprised at the many thank-yous that the children give at the end of the day. That made me think, "The parents are doing a good job" because the children would always thank us.
Could you describe the journey you experienced leading up to materializing this book?
I think it was good therapy for me to write them down and tell them in cartoon-form so that it's easily relatable, to make lemons into lemonade. The experiences were traumatic and unfair. I wanted to share this with others because people should know what subs go through.
If you work in a small school district where you don't have the union support or health benefits, you're pretty much all alone. Most of these experiences happened in a very small school district without union support or health benefits.
After I got hired for LAUSD and was pink-slipped, then I got to work with the union. They have a large union that supports its sub teachers.
What would you like for your readers to take away from your book?
Just to appreciate and acknowledge substitute teachers and that they really are brave and creative. They keep that classroom running when teachers are absent. I'm paying tribute to them. I dedicate this book to substitute teachers everywhere. The book is black and white so it's a coloring book as well.
How cool! So, when you have an angry character in the book, you can color their face red!
[Laughing] Yes! They'd better have their colored pencils ready!
What advice would you give substitute teachers just starting out and facing challenges?
I would tell them to work in a larger district that gives the union support so they're not alone.
Also, to choose specifically what level or grade they want to teach, as well as what subject. It limits your exposure; if you know you're very sensitive and can't deal with the raging hormones of middle school or the independence and rebellion of high school, then stick with the little guys at the elementary schools.
If you have a friend working at a school, that's the best because you've got an "in."
If you go into a privileged school where the school has a large ego and a great reputation, they're going to be harder to embrace you into their staff culture and staff world. If you go to a public school that is Title One and everyone's struggling and everyone's out to help each other out, that's a much more conducive and supportive environment.
Are there any future projects you'd like us to know about?
I'm actually working on a manuscript with poetic truths called Spiritually In Origin. It's completely different. I'm writing about nature and a lot about the ocean and trees.
I've actually been working on that a lot longer than the substitute teacher book, but I'm just taking a lot of time on this.
For more information on Laura's present and future endeavors, please visit www.LauraMossWhite.org
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