Some Advice From Your Substitute Teacher

Greetings from Your Sub!

Dear Student:

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I occasionally work as a substitute teacher in Minnesota.  From time to time, students will ask personal questions about me, and more often than not, the answer I give is “Google me.”  On the off chance that some student took me up on that request, I applaud your curiosity and welcome you to my blog.

As you might have guessed (yet surprisingly, many students have not figured this out), I do not earn a living substitute teaching.  In fact, it would be very difficult to do so, since it pays only about $130 a day in most districts.  I’m actually an attorney, and I get most of my income by providing continuing legal education programs to attorneys in several states.   For the skeptics who want to see my attorney license, here it is.  And for the more justifiable skeptics who want to see my teaching license, here that is.  If you’re curious why I enjoy working as a sub, that’s explained at my earlier blog post.

Why I Told You to Drop Out of School

Most of the students I have occasion to teach are great.  And on the relatively rare occasions when they’re not, I don’t need to come back!  That’s the nice thing about substitute teaching.  If I don’t like my work environment, I’m only stuck there for one day, and I can easily find a better one.  If I want to work some particular day, there are almost always numerous options, and I’m free to chose any of them.  Or I can simply take a day off whenever I feel like it.  So if I’m in your class one time, it could very well be a random occurrence.  But if you see me a second time, it’s because I want to be there (or possibly because I forgot how bad you were).  Very few jobs have that level of flexibility.  Your regular teacher is probably stuck with you for an entire year.  But I have a choice.

But there’s one group of students that is a particular concern.  They’re a relatively small percentage, but they pose a frustration.  I’m not worried about the kids who misbehave.  The misbehaving students don’t really bother me, and if they do, I simply don’t come back.  The ones that cause frustration are the ones who appear to be totally disengaged.  Occasionally, I give them a surprising piece of advice, namely, that they should drop out of school as soon as they are legally able to do so.

This probably comes as a surprising piece of advice, and I suspect that other teachers don’t say this.  But in some cases, it is in the student’s best interest.  (There is another possible course of action for them, which I’ll explain in a minute.  But my advice that they drop out of school is an improvement over what they are currently doing.)

As far as I can tell, there are three reasons for you to be in school.  You are apparently already aware of one of them, or maybe even two of them.  But you don’t understand the third reason.  And unless you understand the third reason, there’s really little reason for you to be there, and you would actually be better off just dropping out of school.

Reason 1: The Compulsory Attendance Law

gavelYou already know about the first reason for being in school.  You’re in school because you have to be in school.  Specifically, there is a Minnesota law that says you have to be in school until you are 17 years old.  If this is the only reason you are in school, you are engaging in a tragic waste of time.  At the end of the day, you are an day older, but you have absolutely nothing to show for it.  In your case, the law is doing more harm than good.  It’s unlikely that you’ll be able to convince anyone to change the law.  Therefore, if this is the only reason you’re in school (and for a handful of you, it apparently is), then my advice stands.  You will be better off if you drop out of school.  If you do drop out, you won’t learn anything, and you won’t get a high school diploma.  But if you continue as you are now, those things aren’t going to happen anyway.  So rather than continue to waste your time, my advice still stands.  You’ll be better off if your drop out the moment you’re allowed to do so legally.  Here is the Minnesota law on compulsory attendance. In general, it says that you can drop out the day you hit 17.  And that will work out better for you than what’s currently happening.  On behalf of the voters in the state who gave you this law, I apologize that you have to wait this long.

Reason 2:  Getting a Diploma

My advice changes, however, if you are in school not merely because you have to, but because you want a high school diploma.  If you attend school for thirteen years and do the bare minimum, then you’ll get a piece of paper from the school district attesting to this fact.

I don’t wish to unnecessarily downplay the importance of receiving that piece of paper.  There are certain jobs which will require your having that piece of paper.  And if you research the history of the diploma pictured here, you’ll discover that a lot of brave people who went before you fought for the right of everyone to earn that piece of paper.  So if you’re in school with the goal of earning that piece of paper, then I guess perhaps I’ll take back my advice.  Perhaps you shouldn’t drop out.  Earning the diploma is not particularly difficult, but there are some hoops you will need to jump through.  And you can’t do that if you continue to be as disengaged as you were when I saw you.  If you just sit there every day and make no effort to do the things the teacher asks you to do, then I have some bad news for you:  You’re not going to get one of those pieces of paper.  So if that’s the case, my original advice still stands.  You’ll be better off if you drop out as soon as you are able.  Your time in school will be utterly wasted.  You won’t have anything to show for it.  You won’t be any smarter, and you won’t get a diploma.  If you drop out, at least maybe you can start earning some money.  And you’ll probably learn more than if you wasted all that time just sitting in school doing nothing.

But perhaps I just caught you on a bad day.  You didn’t want to learn anything from the sub, but perhaps you occasionally let your other teachers teach you something.  If that’s the case, then I take back my advice, and I tell you now not to drop out.  At least you’ll get that piece of paper.

Before I tell you my final reason for being in school, I have a couple of secrets for you.  The first is that the piece of paper, the diploma, has much less value than you think it does.  It is the bare minimum requirement for a lot of jobs.  So if you don’t have a diploma, you will be excluded from most of the economy.

But especially after a few years, nobody will really care if you have a high school diploma.  (To a large extent, that’s also true of college diplomas, but I’ll talk about that some other time.)  It’s just a piece of paper.  People will look down on you if you don’t have one, and you’ll be excluded from most jobs if you don’t have one.  But other than that bare minimum, nobody will really care if you have one.  In short, it’s not a particularly worthy goal in and of itself.  Yes, it’s something you need.  But nobody will be impressed that you have it.

The other little secret is that the school board, the administration, and your teachers have various incentives to make sure you get a diploma.  It reflects poorly on them if you drop out (unlike your substitute teacher, who doesn’t really have any incentives one way or another, and who can thus speak the truth).  Because of those incentives, your teachers will help you and do everything in their power to make sure you get a diploma if it is humanly possible.

Along the way, there will also be some standardized tests.  Your teachers also have have various incentives for you to do well on those tests.  But even more so than with the piece of paper you get after 13 years, nobody else really cares how well you do on those tests.

Your teachers might even cut corners to “help” you graduate.  For example, they might say that you passed the class, when you really didn’t learn anything.  You get the diploma, they get credit for making sure you got one, and everyone is happy.

In most cases, your teachers and administrators are much more motivated than this.  They actually want you to do well because they are good people.  They became teachers because they actually want their students to learn, and the good ones could have made more money by doing something else.  But while they have incentives to make sure you get a diploma, they don’t really have any incentive to prepare you for life.  They’re good people, but they have their limits.  At some point, as long as they make sure you get a diploma, they’ll eventually give up.  Anything beyond just getting the piece of paper is your responsibility.

For them, it’s a success if you graduate, and nothing more is expected of them.  But all you have to show for it is a piece of paper.  They were successful in getting a diploma in your hands.  But will you be successful?  It will take more than that piece of paper to make you a success.

The Third Reason for Being in School

brainThat brings us to the third reason for being in school.  We’ve already addressed the first two:  The first is because you have to be there, which is not a good enough reason, in my opinion.  The second reason is so that you can get a diploma, which is just barely a good enough reason to stay.  It’s great for your teachers, because they get credit for graduating you.  But who is more important, you or your teachers?

If you think you are more important, then you need to think about the third reason for going to school.  And that third reason is to actually learn something.  And unfortunately, there is only one person who is ultimately responsible for that, and that person is you.

Now, I will admit that some of what you learn in school is utterly useless.  As you put it, you will never need to apply this information “in the real world.”  But there’s actually less of that than you would think.   And unfortunately, neither I nor anyone else will sit down and tell you what is useless and what is important.  You need to figure that out yourself.  In fact, figuring out what’s important and what’s not important is the single most important thing that you’ll actually learn.  And to learn that, you’ll need to be exposed to both the useless and the useful information.

And even though it’s not immediately obvious, much of what you learn in school will actually be helpful in life.  However, in most cases, it will not be directly helpful.  For example, it’s unlikely that you will ever need to use the quadratic formula.  It’s certainly not necessary that you have it memorized, since you can look it up in the unlikely event you need it.  But even though you will not directly apply this one piece of knowledge, there are many times that you will need to indirectly apply the knowledge you have learned.  You need to be able to recognize that there is such a thing as the quadratic formula, and you will need to solve similar problems in life.  Very few will have anything to do with mathematics, but the same problem-solving skills will apply.  Unfortunately, I can’t prove this to you.  It’s one of those things where you’ll have to just take my word for it.

What you are really learning is that certain types of questions can be answered, some of them can be answered easily, and some can be answered only with great difficulty.  You will also learn that some questions can’t be answered.  Being able to recognize the difference is the main thing that you are learning in school.  You will be successful if you learn how to recognize the problems that can be solved easily.  If you don’t learn this, you’ll waste your life trying to solve problems which have no solution.  It’s best to simply avoid such problems.  And in school, you’ll learn how to recognize them.  And unfortunately, for now, you’ll just have to trust me as to the truth of that statement.

You should also be aware that other people will frequently give you the wrong answers to questions.  Sometimes this is intentional, but the motivation of the other person is rarely relevant.  The important thing to know is that you will often be presented with information that is wrong.  This means that you need to be able to figure out things for yourself.  Your teachers might also give you misinformation.  But in the process, they will also be giving you the tools to figure out that the information is wrong.  Again, the facts that you learn in school are generally unimportant.  But in the process of learning them, you will also learn how to separate reality from the fantasy that is presented by someone else.  The piece of paper won’t help you with this–it’s necessary to go beyond the bare minimum.

In summary, if you are only in school because you have to be, then my advice stands:  You should drop out, because you’re wasting your time.  If you’re there to get a diploma, then I guess that’s marginally useful  But at the very least, you need to make some effort to meet the minimum requirements for the diploma.  Merely showing up isn’t quite enough.

But since you’re going to be there anyway, then you may as well make an effort to learn something.  If the classes you are in have absolutely no relevance to your life, then talk to your counselor, and get put in different classes.  But even if that’s not possible, you’ll probably learn something that’s useful, albeit not immediately useful.

I enjoyed having you in class, even if I told you to drop out.  But I hope you understand that it would be better for you if you don’t drop out.  But in order for that to work, you’ll need to start actually doing some of the things the teacher asks you to do.  If you don’t, then my original advice stands.

If I was wrong, and my advice doesn’t apply to you, there’s no need to prove that to me.  There’s only one person to whom you need to prove that I was wrong, and that is yourself.

Sincerely yours,

Richard Clem, Minnesota Substitute Teacher

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