‘Substitute’: sympathy for the student, little for the system

Nicholson Baker
Nicholson Baker Jerry Bauer

A couple of years ago, writer Nicholson Baker wanted to know what life in the classroom was really like. To find out, he decided to become a substitute teacher. Baker had never taught any school, but he had the requisite high school diploma. He paid $34 and took a course called Substitute Teacher Training that met one evening a week for four weeks. He paid $50 for the background and fingerprint check. Thus, Nicholson Baker, a writer and pacifist who looks like Santa Claus, became Mr. Baker: Substitute Teacher. He made 70 bucks a day. In the 700-plus pages of “Substitute,” Baker shares what classrooms in rural Maine were like during 28 days from March to June of 2014. Baker empathizes with the students, while criticizing much of the curriculum and some of the teachers, substitutes, and aides. He doesn’t presume to have many solutions: fewer hours and more pay, but he has plenty of comments and gives a vivid chronicle of school life.

Most of Baker’s students are “alert” and “funny,” “attentive, good-natured, and full of ideas,” as he often writes in his reports to their regular teachers. But there’s always some chaos in classrooms of captive students who, armed with iPads, face a dubious curriculum and inept instructors. There are no major classroom catastrophes, but one of Baker’s greatest challenges is class control, which is probably much easier when you stand nearly 6 feet 5 inches. Still, student voices do get loud, and Baker doesn’t like loud. He does, however, have a Santa-like empathy for the students, some of whom wake at 5 five in the morning to get to school in time to be babysat and told what to do by several people for 6-1/2 hours.

“Don’t let them break your spirit,” Baker tells seventh-grader Paloma.

Some of the kids have learning disabilities like dyslexia and ADHD. Baker complains to the nurse that 12-year-old Waylon shouldn’t be taking 30 milligrams of Paxil for supposed anxiety. Why was he taking it? Baker writes, “Because he’d cried about having to go to school. Math made him anxious.”

Baker observes, in one class, that everything the kids learned was worth knowing: reading bar graphs, learning to make change, and how to round up numbers. “It wasn’t easy for them, but it got them somewhere they would eventually need to go.” He observes that many classes will be useful later in school and in life, but the way students were taught shamed the kids who did not know the answers. The material in some classes seemed premature, too. “Why was a third-grader doing perimeter problems on his iPad when he still hadn’t mastered addition or subtraction, or his times tables?” Baker asks. In other another class, he faults the quality of the textbook. “The prose was a time-tunneling parade of disembodied terms, countries without context, and statistics.”

Some classes seem needlessly complicated. Baker disputes the worth of the assignment concerning Oprah Winfrey’s documentary with a Holocaust survivor. “So this video, called ‘Auschwitz: Death Camp,’ is Oprah Winfrey talking to Elie Wiesel. ... The idea is to watch it and then compare it with one of the books that you’ve read. I held up the assignment sheet. And you have to use these criteria. I wouldn’t know how to do this, honestly, and I write for a living.”

And he asks more fundamentally and rhetorically: Why subject teenagers to an hour of looking at dead bodies?

Baker knows by experience that teaching is a difficult job and he admires full-time teachers. He writes, “Life’s curriculum is infinite. Most of the interesting things we know we can’t explain. Most of what we need to know we were not taught.”

Baker is alert, funny, and good-natured; perceptive and sometimes sarcastic. I just wish his book was a bit shorter and put more stress on real solutions, other than just the most obvious ones: slashing hours and increasing teacher salaries.

Joseph Peschel, a freelance writer and critic in South Dakota, can be reached at or through his blog at


“Substitute: Going to School With a Thousand Kids”

By Nicholson Baker

Blue Rider Press, 736 pages

Author appearance

Nicholson Baker will be talking and signing books at 2 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 10, at McIntyre’s Books in Fearrington Village outside of Pittsboro. For more details, call 919-542-3030 or