Tuesday, September 6, 2016


Substitute by Nicholson Baker
Penguin Publishing Group: 9/6/16
eBook review copy; 736 pages
hardcover ISBN-13: 9780399160981

Substitute: Going to School With a Thousand Kids by Nicholson Baker is an overly long-winded account of his 28 days as a substitute teacher in Maine. It was so-so for me but recommended for anyone wondering and needing a complete description of what a typical classroom day might resemble for a substitute teacher.

In 2014 Mr. Baker took a brief night class, got fingerprinted, and was then eligible to earn $70 a day as an on-call substitute teacher in a Maine public school district. Once he was called in to a school he arrived and did his best to follow the lesson plans/sub plans left by the teacher. Be forewarned that this truly is a moment to moment, day by day account of Mr. Baker's days as a substitute teacher, in grades K-high school, a roving sub, and also several times as an "ed tech" in special education (which is called by other names in other states, but usually a paraprofessional).

I guess I need to disclose that I have been a licensed teacher (many years ago) and a paraprofessional in sped (more recently) in the public schools. I too struggled to get fingerprinted (apparently my fingerprints are also hard to take). There are several differences that any reader of this account needs to take note of before making assumptions that Mr. Baker's experiences are all applicable across the USA. Subs are required to have a college degree and the teacher preparation program in my state; paraprofessionals need to have the equivalent of an associate's degree or take a test.

There are some high points and more low points in this overly long and detailed account. For anyone who has ever worked in the public schools you will recognize his struggles and accomplishments, as well as the various personalities he encountered. There is the ever-present struggle to maintain order and quiet, to teach students of greatly differing capabilities and diversity, the arduous scheduling of the day, and worksheets galore. It must be noted that sub plans are often easier, and can consist of more worksheets and busy work than a normal classroom day. I would agree with him and the teacher who declared that iPads are the bane of education. The quality of subs differs widely and Mr. Baker didn't strike me as a particularly well-qualified one, no offense to him. Obviously he was doing it in order to write this book. Many subs are retired or former teachers and are much better at classroom management than Mr. Baker.

This book would have been more effective if it wasn't a day-to-day detailed listing of everything that happened every day. The days could have been summed up and the highlights noted. Then Baker could have included some personal thoughts and reflections about the day. The current book drones on too long and becomes tedious and repetitious.

Highlight: Why was six afraid of seven? Because seven eight nine! (A joke I've heard and had to laugh at numerous times.)

Disclosure: My advanced reading copy was courtesy of the publisher for review purposes.

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