From Jan Adams’s blog “Can It Happen Here?”

Purgation and perplexity in the classroom

A PORCUPINE! … March 21, 2011
Best assembly ever — wild animals. We get a fox, opossum, porcupine, a red tailed hawk and great horned owl. A porcupine! How ya gonna beat that? At the end of the day. the school secretary says that there was a baby opossum outside her house once and her husband called the SPCA and they came and picked it up. I figure it might have been the one we saw today and probably grown-up opossums warn their offspring that “if you are bad and don’t listen to us, you’ll wind up spending your whole life going to assemblies of school children.”

You get the sense that Tom Gallagher sometimes wonders whether he did something heinous in a former life that earned him a more than a decade wrangling obnoxious middle schoolers whose teachers have taken a day off. Sub: My Years Underground in America’s Schools is a sort of enhanced diary of those encounters and a fascinating window on what really goes on in public schoolrooms in the San Francisco Bay Area. It is a delight. I laughed out loud often. Meanwhile, almost insensibly, Gallagher’s deeper concerns show through: these schools, despite most people’s best intentions, are failing too many young African Americans. And closer you come to that reality, the less easy it is to imagine easy improvements.

On my second day on this job, let’s get serious here for a moment. Third period has seven black kids out of a class of thirty and I have to jump start four of them. One has no book because he forgot it. I give him a hall pass to go get it from his locker, but he comes back saying it wasn’t there. Another is spending his time cleaning his binder; two girls are drawing. None of this is antagonistic today, as it was with the kids I kicked out yesterday, but these are the only kids that I have to push.

This is a sort of situation that is repeated all over the place and it’s the kind of thing that almost no one knows how to talk about, so they don’t. For instance, I haven’t even really discussed it thus far. I usually don’t even keep notes about how many of the kids I throw out are white and how many are black. But if I really get to talking to someone about what being in the schools is like, I invariably tell them it seriously heightens one’s awareness of the plight of black America, a topic to which I shall return frequently.

***In one class a black girl with serious vision problems and special large print books complains about the Chinese kid coming up to another Chinese kid across the table from her and asking questions “in their stupid language.” “At least we speak another language,” the kid says. I tell them both to stifle themselves.

In sixth period the kids have to look up definitions. One of their words is “Martian,” but it’s not in the dictionary. I give one girl a hint that it has to do with a particular planet. She says, “Pluto?” The kid I gave a referral to is back. He’s not disruptive — other than drinking a can of soda — which is not allowed in class, but but does no work. I wonder what you do with kids like this in the long run. I tell him he’s going to spend the rest of his time in the counselor’s office and learn nothing at this rate. He says, “What about when I graduate?” I don’t say what’s on my mind — that when he graduates there’s unfortunately an excellent chance that a bench in a police station will replace the one in the counselor’s office. ***At one point, kids who’ve been doing nothing but talk say they want to work in the hall, but when the aide indicates this is not done, I shoo them back in the classroom. One says, “We’ll do our work.” I tell him I doubt it, to which he replies, “You say that because I’m black.” The aide upbraids him on that and he sits down and continues to noisily do nothing until the aide tells him to go to his proper seat which he refuses to do, and I send him to the counselor …

Does this guy actually thinks he’s discriminated against because he’s black, or does he just say it because it gets a reaction? Actually, although I think he’s wrong, I don’t know that his analysis — if it really is that — is any more wrong than most of what goes around on the topic these days. Certainly there are people who think he won’t or can’t do school work because he’s black, although not too many of them will say that publicly these days. And there’s others who’ll say that his work is poor because his school or his teachers are failing him. And I don’t think they’re actually on the mark either, to the extent that they think that the primary cause of black students’ difficulties lies in unequal treatment or unequal expectations within the educational system. He’s not being sent out because he is black, and he’s not not doing his work because he’s black, and yet insofar as he thinks that his race has everything to do with his relations with the educational system, he’s right. …***And I finish the day in a tranquil island of Algebra Class where a girl who asks me for help is apologetic for asking for the second time. Wow, is that a change! … Ms. J [the regular teacher] is black, and I really wonder how she feels about the fact that her two best classes — the Algebra classes — have not a single black student in them, but I’m sure I’ll never speak with her about it. At least I can report a measure of equality on the racial front, though — the list of students I have ejected from class [throughout the full day] already includes black, white, Asian, and Latino.

And so the beat goes on. The kids think Gallagher looks like Jack Nicholson; some like him a little, some don’t. He “yells at children professionally.”

He is willing to suggest that maybe African Americans having arrived in this country involuntarily as slaves has something to do with the black kids’ troubles — but he is not on some doctrinaire riff. He’s just busy trying to cope.

Can the adults learn to talk with each other more honestly about race and education? Gallagher offers plenty to chew on, entertainingly.

From Deborah Meier’s blog

Tom Gallagher, SUB: My Years Underground in America’s Schools. 2014

Having started my “career” subbing in Chicago (K-8), I wondered why Tom decided to do it as a fulltime occupation. But his almost daily notes on the experience are amusing, troubling and thought-provoking. It is not quite clear what he concludes or how he makes sense of it. He is on “my side” of the education debates, but the book itself (minus the preface and appendix) might suggest the opposite!

Brief but kind notice of SUB in the “San Francisco Educator
 New Book By a Former UESF Substitute Leader
Former UESF Executive Board member and SFUSD substitute Tom Gallagher has written a new book titled SUB: My Years Underground in America’s Schools. In the book Tom offers a rare glimpse into the life of a substitute teacher, detailing decades of challenges, farce, and even beauty.
Boston Union Teacher, October 2014
Tom Gallagher is a long-time friend of mine. He was born and raised in the Bronx, NYC in the fifties. After graduating from high school in the sixties, he moved to Boston to attend Boston College on an academic scholarship. Tom remained in Boston after graduation and settled in Allston/Brighton. When I first met Tom, he was volunteering for the Allston-Brighton Community News and I was volunteering for the  during the late sixties and early seventies, a kinder, gentler time when we believed that we could improve conditions for poor and working people in this country. We also believed world peace was possible.
 In the seventies, Tom began his career as a substitute in the Boston Public Schools. In 1980 Tom was elected to the MA Legislature as a Representative of Allston-Brighton where he served for six years. Tom eventually relocated to San Francisco, CA where he resumed his career as a substitute teacher. Tom served on the Executive Board of the San Francisco Teachers Union.
In the nineties, Tom took several leaves from his teaching career. He served as a UN Election Supervisor in Sarajevo in 1997. In 1999 he served as a UN Election Officer in East Timor. His experiences as a substitute teacher took away any trepidation that one might have, for taking on such dangerous roles. His courage to persevere was taken from those teaching experiences. When referencing the dangers in East Timor, Tom states  “But I still won’t sub in Oakland.”
 One of the premises of his book as stated in the Preface is “that we don’t fundamentally have an educational crisis in this country… the educational system is working… What I do believe we have is a social crisis.” It should be noted that this is one of the premises of Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools by Diane Ravitch.
 Tom also questions the validity of the current Anti-Suspension Movement. Anyone who has ever taught, would agree that disruptive behaviors interfere with teaching and learning. This movement assumes that teachers are incompetent and racist when they ask for students to be removed. We, as urban educators know that more often than not, this is not the case. Tom states that “So where we once might have talked about big issues like creating full employment or guaranteeing adequate housing or even substantially smaller classes in difficult schools, there is a much deeper pessimism about effecting such changes today.”
SUB: My Years Underground in America’s Schools is written in a journal format. Humor permeates the pages. As anyone who has taught in an urban setting, knows that humor is one of the most important skills for survival. I highly recommend this book not only for the many laughs that it will provoke but more importantly for the thoughts on true education reform that it will illicit. Read, laugh, reflect and become involved in the movement to save our public schools. Don’t let the corporate agenda destroy public education in America.
(Mary F. Glynn is a retired teacher.)


By Joshua Freeman

Shortly after graduating college, when I thought we would seize state power in a couple months, or maybe a couple of years, I took a job as a substitute school teacher in Worcester, Massachusetts. Assigned to a junior high school — this was before the new-fangled middle school became the norm — I immediately found myself immersed in chaos, which somehow I was supposed to control. Kids raucously went about their business, whatever it might have been, paying no attention to anything I did or said. Bathroom passes and just about everything else flew off my desk, and I could not figure out how to stop the boys hiding in the coat closet from lighting matches without abandoning the rest of the class to total chaos — while all I really wanted to do was to get into the coat closet myself and light up a cigarette.

I lasted four days, or maybe it was three. My next job, in a factory making plastic Halloween pumpkins, seemed like a piece of cake in comparison.

There are literally rooms full of books about our troubled education system. Many are by advocates of charter schools and neo-liberal reforms, though there also are some fine rebuttals, including Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools by Diane Ravitch (whose blog is well worth following) and Mark Naison’s Badass Teachers Unite!

Typically, these books are written by people who either never taught public school themselves or did so only briefly. Books by active teachers are much rarer, and books by substitute teachers, the underclass of the public school system, almost unheard of.

Tom Gallagher, an old friend from my Massachusetts days, began substitute teaching in Boston during the 1970s. For a while, he was diverted from what turned out to be his life’s fate by six years representing Allston-Brighton in the Massachusetts House of Representatives, where he was known – affectionately or perhaps not — as “Tommie the Commie.” An ill-fated run for Congress and a move to San Francisco got him back into the classroom. Now, he has chronicled his years as a substitute teacher in a hysterically funny and deeply distressing memoir-cum-journal, Sub: My Years Underground in America’s Schools.

Gallagher has no illusions about what goes on in the classroom; survival is the first skill the sub needs to master, and he, unlike me, mastered it.

In his introduction, he tells of the time in 1997 when he was working as an international voter registration supervisor in a suburb of Sarajevo in Bosnia-Herzegovina. When local election officials and then military police from the United Nations Protection Force proved unable to create order as a crowd pushed and shoved in their effort to register to vote, Gallagher stepped in. Using his tried and true substitute teacher methods, he got the overly-enthusiastic Bosnians neatly lined up and obedient in a mere twenty minutes.

But Sub is more than war stories and absurdist comedy; it is a deeply revealing look at the layer upon layer of problem and dysfunction in our urban schools and a marvelous portrait of the rowdy, wonderful, lovable, destructive, and self-destructive students Gallagher has encountered. This from-the-bottom-up look at our public schools, far more than the lofty, abstract tomes that dominate education-reform writing, leaves you not only laughing but seeing how the problems of our schools can never be solved in the schools alone — for they are really the problems of our society.

Dr. Joshua Freeman is a Professor of History at the Murphy Institute, Queens College, and the CUNY Graduate Center. 

– See more at:



by  on July 3, 2014

“We substitute teachers like to think of ourselves as the marines of the public education system. Whenever a breach opens in our nation’s educational front lines, off we go: The few, the brave, the stupid.”

                                                                                    –From Tom’ Gallagher’s SUB

Review of Tom Gallagher’s SUB: My Years Underground in America’s Schools (San Francisco: Coast to Coast Publishing, 2014) 319 pp.

Thirty years ago, there was no better progressive state legislator in Massachusetts than Tom Gallagher, who migrated to Beacon Hill after graduating from Boston College and working as a part-time public school teacher.

In 1980, Gallagher won a Democratic primary in the Allston-Brighton section of the city in September. Thanks to Boston being a one party town, there wasn’t even a token Republican on the ballot in November. As Gallagher recalls in his new memoir, Sub, his personal profile at the time was:

“reasonably normal for a substitute teacher—I was a guy in his twenties sort of waiting for something to happen….So while I had a big deal political job waiting for me in January, I was flat broke and in no position to be looking for other ‘real’ work during the months of October, November, and December. So I returned to subbing for the interim.”

Gallagher was assigned to an inner city Boston school known for its student misbehavior. But his primary concern was “what other people might make of the new state rep thrashing about at the bottom of the educational heap.” Sure enough, a soon-to-be constituent spotted him in the halls and pronounced herself satisfied that she had voted for the right person. “She no doubt figured that anyone willing to set foot in Jeremiah Burke High School (aka “the Jerry”) wasn’t likely to be daunted by anything he encountered later in the Massachusetts House of Representatives.”

Life, as a lonely back-bencher, in the leadership-controlled Massachusetts legislature quickly got old, however. In 1985, the longtime incumbent in the 8th Congressional District, a fellow named Tip O’Neil, decided to retire. A big crowd of local Democrats decided it was time to move up and out—to Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. State Rep. Gallagher was among them.

The resulting scramble for O’Neil’s seat produced a primary field so like-minded that it even included two members of the Democratic Socialist of America! (Gallagher was the real DSAer, the other guy more of a fellow traveller.) The ten-way race also included party royalty, pitting a Roosevelt against a Kennedy. The biggest spender in the field happened to have the latter surname. Enough said about who won and why, in the last redoubt of Camelot.

Unfortunately, Gallagher gave up his seat in the state House in order to seek higher office. Not long after his Congressional primary defeat, he made a further life-changing decision—moving to San Francisco. There he has lived on Bernal Heights for the last three decades, while working as a free-lance writer and an international election observer in war-torn countries ranging from East Timor to the former Yugoslavia.

Back to the Classroom

To pay the bills and keep his schedule flexible, Gallagher returned to the bottom rung of professional employment in public education. “When asked what I do for a living, I often reply that I yell at children professionally….Five days a week, I see them on their worst behavior. That’s in a good week, of course—when I get five days work.” SUB: My Years Underground in America’s Schools (Coast to Coast Publishing, 2014) contains daily diary-type entries covering 17-years worth of subbing experience in a wide range San Francisco and South San Francisco schools. According to the author, their names “have been changed to protect the innocent and guilty alike”—but savvy natives and local public school alums will surely be able to decipher who’s who.

In the era of corporate-backed “education reform,” much has been written about the degradation of teaching work. The institutional causes include increased class-size, standardized testing, “common core” curricula requirements, and creation of a two-tier education system, based on partial privatization (ie charter schools for the more gifted and highly motivated). In big city public schools—forced to welcome one and all (until the first fight breaks out)–conditions are rough enough for the regular staff. As described in hilarious but often painful detail by Gallagher, the classroom challenges facing subs are simply off the chart, in terms of job difficulty.

Gallagher’s daily vignettes read like an account of life on the battlefield and in boot camp at the same time. After checking his voice mail box for an early morning dispatch, the author has found himself, on hundreds of occasions, headed off for a day-long struggle “to keep the most minimal order,” among unruly, sometimes physically threatening, students in dozens of schools. Early on, he decided to decline some assignments. (“A friend of mine use to find it very funny that I was willing to go to Bosnia but wouldn’t substitute teach in Oakland. I explained that in Bosnia, I had 40,000 UNPROFOR soldiers to protect me and what did I have in Oakland? Any Bosnian who might attack me was in for a lot more trouble than some Oakland high school kid would be.”)

One Policy Quandary

Gallagher’s profiles of students, parents, co-workers, and over-whelmed administrators capture the full range of human-types thrown together in the great melting pot of public education. Among principals, he most appreciated candor, such as the warning he got about one assigned class in an elementary school located across the street “from a housing project that was dangerous to even go near because people were being hit by stray bullets just passing by.”

“As soon as I got there on Monday, the principal informs me that

subs don’t usually stay more than one day with this class. It seems the regular teacher recently quit in the middle of a school day…The principal described the class as ‘wounded’…And, the class is, in fact, off the wall nuts. Even with two other adults in the room with me, teaching is simply impossible; our aspirations go only so far as keeping them in their seats.”

Most of SUB consists of first-person narrative journalism. Not surprisingly, in light of the author’s frequent disciplinarian role, the book’s one major discussion of educational policy addresses the “difficult topic” of suspensions and their disproportionate racial impact. As Gallagher notes, in 2012, San Francisco schools suspended about 2,000 students, of whom fifty percent were black, out of a total school population only 10% African-American.

The dilemma here, of course, is that “the kids most negatively impacted by classroom disruption tend to be of similar background to those causing the disruption….” In Gallagher’s critical assessment of the “anti-suspension movement,” he argues that “most teachers are quite aware of the racial discipline disparity and the vast majority of them are also uncomfortable and unhappy with the situation.” Unfortunately, they “generally lack the resources to handle both the needs of their classes as a whole and the needs of kids who are disruptive in class.”

If America’s teacher unions want to foster greater public understanding of what their rank-and-file members, fully-employed and part-time, are up against in many urban schools, they would be well advised to publicize SUB. I seriously doubt they will, however. As second-class citizens in their own labor organizations—and often lacking any representation at all—substitute teachers are routinely ignored, as well as abused, by one and all.

In San Francisco alone, Gallagher estimates that 300 to 350 subs report for duty every day and, on some days, as many as 450. With publication of this book, they now have a Boswell of their own, a “sub” with a sharp eye for detail, a droll sense of humor, oft-tested reserves of empathy, and deep outrage over the social and economic conditions that foster and perpetuate public school dysfunction.

(Steve Early is a former union organizer who also abandoned the Bay State for the Bay Area two years ago. He is the author, most recently, of Save Our Unions: Dispatches from a Movement in Distress from Monthly Review Press. He can be reached at




Substitute teachers, like plumbers and emergency room doctors, don’t see systems at their best. Crap and blood everywhere is their normal. Worse, subs are generally not appreciated. People usually thank plumbers and doctors. In the average classroom, when the sub walks in, the devils leap with joy. Tom Gallagher’s new book, Sub: My Years Underground in America’s Schools, is a hilarious and insightful chronicle of one man’s odyssey as a substitute teacher in the bowels of public education in, well, not exactly all of America, but San Francisco and environs.

The sub’s day typically begins at 5:30 a.m., when the phone calls come in (or not) from the school district’s automated systems. Getting to the school is the easy part. Then the fun starts. Often, the school office has no idea where the sub is supposed to work. He gets sent to the wrong room with the wrong key at the wrong time and encounters the wrong set of kids. When he lands in the right place, he may be called on to lead a class in anything from AP Algebra to PE kickball. Sometimes the regular teacher, if there is one, has left a lesson plan; often not. As a Catholic school graduate and a college philosophy major, Gallagher brings to the job a saintly store of patience and an Olympian facility in any and every subject. Almost.
Every school needs subs now and then. Teachers get sick, called for jury duty, pregnant, etc., everywhere. But some schools are more voracious consumers of subs than others, and these aren’t the most fun to work in. These are the schools where teachers get fed up or scared or burned out after short stints, where subs work a day or two and refuse to return, and where the new sub is subbing for another sub, sometimes to the third generation. Gallagher experienced a lot of schools like those. He worked in hundreds of classrooms from K to 12 in over a hundred schools, far more than most teachers or administrators have ever seen. He saw enough of the schools where the system was working to conclude that “we don’t fundamentally have an educational crisis in this country,” as he says in his Preface. But those schools don’t make for interesting anecdotes; the kids there do their assignments, pay attention to the teacher, and learn the subject matter. Boring!
Gallagher’s book is at its sharpest, and draws blood, when he describes his experiences in the other schools, the ones where the dynamic between the class and the sub (and usually the regular teacher as well, if there is one) requires military metaphors. It’s war in there. Sometimes it’s physical, with kids throwing staplers, pencils, wastebaskets, and anything else handy. More often it’s language. From kindergarten up, some of the kids’ vocabularies would make a sailor blush, and they don’t hesitate to use this language on the adults in the classroom. They don’t just fight authority, they’re constantly at each other, shouting, trash talking, throwing things, slapping and kicking, girls as well as boys. The teacher’s first job, before any learning can happen, is to create order, and often enough that job takes the whole time between bells. Gallagher keeps a running tally of how many kids he’s thrown out of class per day, and has worked out a personal iron rule: if he sends a kid to the counselor and the school administration sends the kid back into the room in the same period, Gallagher crosses that school off the list where he’ll work. Even when he succeeds in getting the noisy, fighting, disruptive kids out of the room, that’s no guarantee that learning will happen. There are kids falling asleep, eating, doing their makeup, socializing, texting, or just locked up in a private world, paying no attention whatever to the teacher. When they do engage with an assignment, Gallagher often discovers desperately low levels of knowledge.
Gallagher’s tone in describing these legions of trying classroom encounters is wry, sardonic, often bitingly funny. He could probably make it in stand-up comedy. Some of his narratives are as good as anything in Mark Twain. Of course his humor is at the expense of some of the kids, and of some of the teachers and administrators, but he doesn’t spare himself. The San Francisco Examiner made a big mistake when it turned down Gallagher’s offer to write a column.
Apart from the Preface and a brief appendix, where Gallagher pencils in the lessons he has drawn from a decade and a half as a sub, the book consists of anecdotes in daily journal style: date, school, assignment, interesting experiences. That’s its strength; it’s never dull, it sparkles with novelty and wit, at least two thirds of the way through. The anecdotal wealth is also its weakness. One could read the book — as many readers of the Examiner might have done, had it run there — as ammunition for the chorus of public school haters. Writers who think that schools are doing a bad job and/or that kids — especially black kids — are stupid and dangerous, will find grist here for that mill. It’s clear from the Preface that this is not Gallagher’s slant at all.
As he says in the Preface, we don’t fundamentally have an educational crisis, we have a social crisis, or rather a series of them all wrapped up together, most particularly but not uniquely in the plight of Black America. The attentive reader will see here kids with PTSD from bullets flying in their neighborhoods, homeless kids falling on the floor to sleep in class, kids who steal food because they haven’t eaten, kids who can’t see the board because they have no glasses, and lots of kids who have no idea how to relate cooperatively with adults because no adult has ever treated them with anything but threats and hostility.
Respect for teachers in school normally transfers from respect for parents at home. When there is no stable home, when the parents are absent, unemployed, in jail, addicted, ill, or abusive, teachers will be the targets of the kids’ payback. Order in the classroom comes from orderly home and job experiences, the kids’ own or their parents’. When there are no jobs and the readiest road to cash is drugs, prostitution, and violence, that’s the ethos the kids will bring into the classroom. Even a good-hearted liberal/radical like Gallagher has no alternative, in this kind of setting, but to come on hard and mean. As he says, being a substitute teacher means “that I yell at children professionally.”
Gallagher has done a lot of deep thinking about his unique experiences, and is clearly capable of unpacking his compact statements about the impact of the social crisis on education. Sure, there’s no lack of Big Picture analyses, but I don’t think we’ve had one informed by this extensive experiential basis, or by a writer with Gallagher’s unique combination of Jesuit and secular education (he reads and writes classical Greek!) Sub isn’t that book. Sub is, however, a sparkling, funny, and deeply felt diary from a talented practitioner of a vastly undervalued profession.
Martin Nicolaus

%d bloggers like this: