Substitute: Going to School With a Thousand Kids by Nicholson Baker
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Substitute by Nicholson Baker is an eye-opening look at modern-day public schools and how they function. While the book is mostly a first-hand experience of what working as a substitute teacher is like, it also reaches beyond the first-person narrative to show readers the chaos and creation that happens during a typical school day at every grade level.
The book recalls nearly thirty days of teaching experiences for Baker, most of which are in great detail. After awhile, the book does seem to be weighed down by its details—for instance, many readers may not want to go back and relearn the lessons that Baker taught in some of these classes, but there are pages and pages of science, math and English lessons if you need a refresher course.
The real interesting parts of the book com in short bursts and appear almost halfway through the book. These moments are when Baker takes himself out of the moment and sees the bigger picture. He sees that it's hard to have real authority over children with technology in their hands. He understands that for most kids and parents, learning isn't the priority. The priority of a public school ends up being free babysitting for parents to have the time to work, and that learning often gets bumped down the list. He also gets the readers to understand that the wild, disruptive children aren't incapable of learning anything—in fact, most of them have a high intelligence. But with learning techniques that only fit for a few, over-medication and labeling a child as somehow not normal at an early age gives both the kids, the parents and the teachers an excuse to not find better ways to teach a particular student.
In Baker's experience, even the smartest kids were suffering because all day they were hearing the teacher yelling at the 'problem' children, trying to get a class to pay attention for as little as five minutes, and assigning work that was pointless, even to a Kindergartner (“Instead, she got out her poetry notebook. Poor thing: she was already fed up with being asked to do inane worksheets and she was only in kindergarten. Twelve more years to go.”). This book shed light on the inefficiencies of public school and how it is doing very little to help facilitate a real atmosphere of learning—which is not on the teachers at all (the good ones have to practically be saints to keep at it year after year with what they get paid) but on a school system that tries and fails to create one-size-fits-all learning for thousands of unique individuals.
*Received a copy of this book through Penguin First to Read
View all my reviews