Existence, Purpose, and Progress


My name is Madeline, and I’m underemployed. That’s how my introduction would start at a meeting of “Underemployed Anonymous,” if there were such a thing.┬áLike many Americans in their twenties, I’ve been underemployed since before the idea was romanticised in a scripted MTV series. And like many young people, my career path has been altered by a number of factors: the recession, state budget cuts, debilitating illness, only-child syndrome, and falling in love. Now, I’m through my first quarter of life, and I feel like a kid with a D on her first report card. I haven’t failed completely, but I’m definitely not where I want to be–not yet.

Credit: Green Lane

Credit: Green Lane

I work three part-time jobs. The first is the teaching job I landed right out of grad school. My first semester’s assignment was two advanced ESL classes–seven hours per week. I thought I had it made. I thought I would be a shoo-in for a full-time position. I thought that if I worked hard, it was only a matter of time. My grandfather used to say, “All sentences that begin with ‘I thought’ are wrong.” I should have kept that in mind.

The second job is working for the family business, contributing anything and everything that I can in order to support my dad. I’ve been helping my dad at work since I was a teenager, but it wasn’t until a few years ago that he put me on the payroll and gave me an official title. This development coincided with a three-year illness that began a year after I obtained job #1–smack dab in the middle of me trying to figure out what to do with my life. I think my parents saw it as a way of avoiding having to lend me large sums of money to cover medical bills and living expenses; I could earn their charity. (In this area, I’m not sure who benefits more, him or me.) Now that I’m well, it’s unclear to me who benefits more from the arrangement, dad or me. I get a paycheck out of it. He gets tech support, a research assistant, and someone to counsel his employees when things get dramatic around the office. The lucky thing about this job is that even though it has nothing to do with my two degrees, it’s a job I like and one that I’m good at. The tricky thing about it is that my parents live 300 miles away, so most of my work is done by telecommuting. This is what prevents it from being a full-time job–that and my dad’s impending retirement. Given that I’m not trained to do what he does, there’s no possibility of me taking over the business; it retires when he does.

The third job is the newest addition and the primary subject of this blog: on-call substitute teacher in two school districts. I had my first day of subbing last week. I never planned to be a substitute teacher, but after completing my teaching credential and facing numerous rejections for full-time positions, I was forced to confront the possibility. It’s a strange feeling, starting a new job, when that job is a representation of the compromise you’ve had to make with yourself. Plenty of kids say they want to be teachers when they grow up, but I don’t know anyone who aspires to be a substitute. I realize that I’m supposed to view this as a journey, not a destination. This job could very well lead to a long-term sub gig and then a full-time position. I am trying my hardest to remain optimistic.


I’m very fortunate to possess not only a teaching credential but a master’s degree in teaching. I did something that most people don’t do, which is to get the master’s degree first. One of the things I learned when getting the master’s was the importance of being a reflective teacher. I deeply regret not keeping a journal during my first year of teaching community college. I also neglected to keep one when I was student teaching to get my credential. There’s a common saying among teachers that “The first year doesn’t count.” They say this because you learn so much in that first year that you’re like a different person by the following autumn, like you’ve been body-snatched by an alien race of professional educators. Last week, as I drove home from my first day of substitute teaching, I could feel the effects of that body-snatching phenomenon. I was a slightly different person at 3:00 than I’d been at 7:45. It occurred to me that it would be a waste not to document the changes that had taken place in the space of those seven hours–the ways in which my patience, classroom management skills, and knowledge of algebra had been tested. The ways in which my world had grown.

I could have decided to write this all down and keep it to myself, but one thing I know I’ll be missing as a substitute teacher is the opportunity to engage and exchange with colleagues. A full-time teacher has the chance to develop a rapport with her fellow teachers, to work as part of a team, planning curriculum, supervising school activities, and collaborating for the common success of their students. Except in the case of a long-term sub, it seems to me that the majority of the connections a sub makes expire at the end of the school day. I know that as I get more familiar with each school, some bonds will last longer. Still, I’ll probably never meet most of the teachers that I substitute for; I’ll only know them through their students, their lesson plans, and the feedback forms we exchange. So my role each day will be characterized by impermanence. I will drift in and out of the life of a teacher, some days waking at 5:00 a.m. and rushing to a last-minute assignment, others sleeping in until 9:00 and wondering when my next job will be. The life of a substitute is unpredictable and exciting, but also lonely and unstable. I want a place to call home. I know I’ll get it eventually, but until I do, I’m going to think of this blog as my center, my teachers’ lounge, my classroom. It will always be here, whether I’ve got a job tomorrow or not. I’m also hoping that other subs, full-time teachers, and ordinary Earthlings will be able to connect with what I write here. Teaching and learning are such universal concepts. We’ve all taught and been taught at one time or another. I hope this blog will continually remind me of the nature of my humanity and help me keep things in perspective. The last thing I want is to hate my job.


What you can expect to read on justasub is an account of my life as a substitute teacher: stories about my days in different classrooms, my thoughts about teaching theories and methodology, and more general musings about the philosophy of teaching. I can’t promise to always be entertaining, but I can promise to be honest and real, and to try to keep my sense of humor. I’ll also try to post things that I’ve read or watched online that have inspired me in the classroom.

In graduate school, I was introduced to the writings of Parker J. Palmer. If you haven’t read The Courage to Teach, I highly recommend it. The things he writes just seem so relevant for me, whatever I’m doing. Here’s one of my favorite quotations:

The life of the world is messy, a source of suffering as well as creativity, and if we want to work for change, we must learn to live with the mess.

This is how I feel about my life. It’s messy and chaotic. It’s both painful and inspiring. If I want to improve it, I need to learn to embrace the chaos. I’m hoping that writing about this journey will help me do that.

Thanks for reading.