In one tumultuous and heartwarming year, Elizabeth Rose was a substitute teacher in 25 public high schools throughout New York City. Not only did she instruct on every subject from physics to art, but, more importantly, touched the lives of her students, so much so that they would give her hugs and beg her not to leave.
When her full-time position as a songwriting teacher was cut, she was placed in a pool of approximately 2,500 teachers made to work at a new school each week. At first, Rose considered returning to her freelance music and comedy gigs. Then she realized she could turn her experience into a creative project, so she brought in an iPad, and during breaks, documented the scenes that took place in her classrooms each day. The rich dialogue she had with the kids, which includes candid conversations about everything from race to murder to immigration, make her book Yo Miz!: 1 teacher + 25 schools = 1 wacky year both an entertaining and emotional read.
As a substitute, Rose faced the challenge of getting high school students to take her seriously. One of the ways she related to them was by writing a rap song. When she started her lesson with, “I’m your Gangsta Teach…It’s you I want to reach…And I don’t want to preach, screech or beseech…,” “that turned the energy around pretty fast,” she said, laughing.
Did you have the intention of writing a book from the beginning?No, I had no intention of even staying once they dropped my position and said me and 2,500 other teachers had to go week to week to a new school and sub. Our principal overheard in a meeting that the Department of Education devised a scheme so we would get run down and so miserable we’d leave and they wouldn’t have to pay us anymore. I went to see what my first school was like…and it was a very good school, one of our best, Baruch College Campus High School. And I’m sitting there in this wonderful school in the teachers’ lounge in the second week…and all the sudden this thing came into my brain and it said, ‘You, Elizabeth are going to be sent to a new public school each week as a substitute teacher. Journalists are not allowed in the schools to report. Teachers can’t really say what’s going on. Administrators spin it. And the people who make education policy are afraid to cross the threshold in general. So, in the classroom, you have been anointed with this irresistible opportunity to tell your story.’
You realized you had a book in the making after speaking to a student who immigrated from the Ivory Coast. At the Academy of Environmental Science which, unfortunately, is closed now because it was a so-called failing school, I had all these wonderful immigrant kids who came here from Yemen and the Ivory Coast. And I met this 18-year-old named Mignon. She had been locked in her house as a young child, not able to go to school because of the civil war on the Ivory Coast. Both of her parents were illiterate, so she never learned to read or write. When she was 16, she ended up in El Barrio with a half-sister, put in a fifth grade class and given a standardized test. And she told me, “I failed and this teacher pointed her finger at me and told me that I should have learned this in fifth grade.” It just broke my heart and I went home and wrote her story. And then I realized I was writing a book.
One of your students told you he murdered his stepfather. That was at the Heritage School and I was given the job of sitting in the library to guide the students who had been failing to sit at the laptops and take these credit recovery courses. I had four or five boys, they came in and saw me, a sub, and there’s always a reaction…getting Karma, because that’s the way I used to treat subs when I was a kid. These kids were like, “I’m leaving.” You know, they start playing you right away. And I just started rapping because I can spin a few lines. They’re all the sudden my BFFs. So they were telling me about their lives. This one boy says, “I’m a thug. I’m gonna go to jail. I got arrested for armed robbery. I’m going to be in for seven years.” His other friend, a sweet, quiet, handsome young Hispanic boy says to me, “I murdered my stepfather.” And I looked at him; I thought he might be playing me. But he wasn’t. I knew he wasn’t. I just looked at him and said, “Why?” And he said, “Because he was bothering my stepmother.” And I had a vision that there was something hideous and violent going on that he couldn’t express.
What was one of your worst days as a sub?There was a time I was at the Murray Bergtraum School which is way down in lower Manhattan and it’s a very tough school. They put me in a class with some explosive special ed kids who were much taller than me, and they were starting to throw furniture around. There were only six kids in the class and I felt a little bit in danger. They were so emotionally disturbed and I didn’t have to skills to handle it.
I have learned that every single kid, without exception, has a real light in them. And that every one of them has a creative space in them, and if you are willing to meet the kids where they are and honor and value where they are- whether it’s football, rap music or robot science- they will light up. And if you do that, you find out that they’ll come with you and value what you value, which is their academic success.
To learn more about Elizabeth’s year of subbing, visit yomizthebook.com
To hear her rap “Gangsta Teach,” visit www.reverbnation.com/erosemuse/songs