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Review of Substitute: Going to School With a Thousand Kids by

Substitute: Going to School With a Thousand Kids

by Nicholson Baker

Four years ago, I moved to England to begin my career as a teacher. Fresh out of Lakehead University's Faculty of Education, the dry job market in Ontario left me looking across the Atlantic. Thanks to Engage Education, an agency that specializes in recruiting teachers overseas for the English school system so desperately clamouring for them, I managed to land a classroom right away. When I moved back to Thunder Bay, I got on the supply list for our adult education centre here, which operates a little differently from high schools--and shortly after being hired, I got contract, and then permanent work. So I've only briefly been a substitute teacher, and never for the age groups or types of schools Nicholson Baker encounters in Substitute: Going to School with a Thousand Kids. I was intrigued to see how his experiences tally with my own, and to get a glimpse behind the curtain of the American education system.

NetGalley and the publisher provided a Kindle proof of Substitute for review, and it was ... well, rough--and I'm not just talking about the formatting of the ARC (which was abominable, but whatevs, I don't knock the free books). From start to finish this book is a shambles of uneven, uninteresting, and underwhelming storytelling.

Am I supposed to know who Nicholson Baker is? Because I don't. I deduced from what he mentions to the people he interacts with in this book that he is a writer, older with children grown, and that he undertook the substitute teacher thing as a project with the intention of turning it into a book all along. All that's to the good (and I have no problem with stunt books)--I just wish Baker took the time to introduce himself directly to us, to give us some context for who he is, and where he's coming from in his life. Instead, all we get is a brief description of what laughably passes for substitute teacher training in Maine, apparently, before Baker dives into recounting each of his twenty-eight supply days.

Allow me a brief aside: America, what is wrong with you? Why can people with no experience in education become substitute teachers simply by taking a night school class for a few weeks?? I knew your education system was underfunded and that teachers themselves receive very little in the way of support or respect, but I didn't realize the situation was so dire that you're basically letting substitute teachers walk in off the street. No wonder things are in the state they're in.

None of this is meant to besmirch Baker or his intentions, though. He's pretty clear that he just wants a better understanding of how schools function in this day and age, and whether they are really serving our kids the way we want them to (spoiler: they aren't). As someone who fights that battle on a daily basis, I really empathize with him and respect him for leveraging a broken system to get that experience. He certainly seems to try to make genuine connections with some of the students he supervises. Unfortunately, the manner in which he relates his substitute experiences to his readers leaves much to be desired.

Each chapter corresponds to one day of substitute teaching and goes like this: first Baker describes the dispatch call and tells us which school he'll be at and what his position will be. Then he shows up at the school, gets his plans and ID badge, etc., and makes his way to the first classroom. He and the students say the Pledge of Allegiance, and then the day commences. For the rest of the chapter, he basically retells every notable conversation he has with students. While these are occasionally interesting or humorous, they gradually start to add up into a block of banal, boring exchanges.

That's something I've always wondered about in non-fiction books and memoirs: how, exactly, do authors remember these conversations so word-perfectly? Baker doesn't mention taking notes, and it doesn't seem like something he'd have much time for. Does he have some weird perfect recall? Or are these conversations fictionalized versions of what he can remember passing throughout the day?

In any case, the first few chapters of this are fine. We get a good sense of what Baker's day as a substitute is like, of the challenges he faces, the rhythm of the school day, etc. Baker holds no illusions about being a good teacher or even substitute teacher; he is admirably self-deprecating and quick to acknowledge mistakes. Occasionally he makes one-off observations, or his tone communicates his frustration with the system and what it does to kids, or he shares advice given to him by other teachers. These moments are few and far between, however, and they are unfortunately the only things that pass for introspection in this book.

Otherwise, Substitute is literally just twenty-eight chapters of Baker telling us, in minute detail, what passed in each of the classrooms he was in. I was not expecting this format. I went into this book hoping for someone to discuss substitute teaching in a holistic way, for them to relate their personal experiences back to what they perceive to be faults (or virtues) of the education system. I was expecting a lot more analysis, a lot more substance. Instead, drawing these conclusions is left as an exercise to the reader. There isn't even any conclusion or afterword where Baker tries to draw it all together: the last chapter simply ends with him mentioning that this was also his last day substitute teaching, and then the book is over. All this leaves me to wonder: so what?

Reading twenty-eight of what verge upon transcripts of days in a classroom is, to put it bluntly, dull. It's doubly dull for me, since, you know, I spend plenty of time in classrooms as it is. Even when Baker is in a staff room or other non-contact area and has conversations with teachers, they are about as mundane and far away from talking about teaching as you can get. I'm not sure what this is meant to do, other than add verisimilitude--is he attempting to show people that teachers are harried, flawed humans just like the rest of us? I don't know. All I know is that by Day 10 or so, I started skimming, then I outright flipped to the end, hoping there would be some kind of format shift into a more reflective mode. And even towards the end, when Baker describes something as interesting as a lockdown practice, he never shifts gears. This is a long, excruciatingly detailed book, and the only verb to describe reading it is to trudge. I trudged through this.

So I can empathize with Baker, and I appreciate the rare moments he seeks to show us how the system seems to be ignoring individual kids in favour of collective results. But there I go again--I'm reading into it, projecting my own hang-ups about education onto the book. I'm not sure a reader with less knowledge of the education system would draw those same conclusions, because there is no real point or thesis in here. It's more of a diary, than anything, and it long overstays its welcome. If Substitute reminds me of anything, it's those long, dull, dry textbooks I'm so happy that we're finally rid of.


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