Mrs. White Gives The Skinny On Subs.
Being a substitute teacher requires temerity, and as Laura Moss White conveys through her book, “Mrs. White’s Sub Snips,” a good sense of humor. With 15 years of substitute teaching experience, White, who is currently an adapted physical education specialist, was chock-full of fodder to put out into the world. Her aim was to create an engaging and comical book through illustrations based on her subbing stories with disarming honesty. As Caitlin Skaalrud illustrated and White provided material, a dynamic duo merged together.
Often the underdogs of the educational system, subs may feel invisible and alone in a field where they may not always receive the due appreciation. In addition to eliciting bellyaching laughs, White’s book may also provide solace and solidarity for the brave soldiers, I mean subs, who continue to march onward. And for teachers, and other faculty in the school systems, it could be a helpful way to get a peek into a sub’s perspective and possibly reflect on how to create a better environment for all, White says.
White is now weaving together a contrasting work—a collection of poetic musings, titled “Spiritually in Origin,” encompassing nature and spirituality. Readers can find the writing in a similar vein as Ralph Waldo Emerson’s prose about transcendence and finding beauty in the sublime outdoors.
I don’t remember ever being in school and envying a sub. It seems like a thick skin would be necessary to be one. Would you say you have a thick skin, and how did you learn to have thick skin?
I don’t think I have a thick skin personally. That’s why I probably remember all these things. So many people get outright attacked. You know you take it as a personal assault, because the kids outright attack you and insult you to get you to react. If you go into the profession, you can decide I just want to do elementary, the little guys. Because if you’re sensitive, it’s better to have when the kids are open to you and embrace you.
As a sub for 15 years, you’ve taught general, elementary, and secondary education. Which was the hardest?
Definitely the secondary, just because the kids are trying to challenge you all the time and giving you a hard time. It’s easier in teaching. It’s a two-sided thing, because in secondary the teacher will leave a plan for the kids to just do in book work or show a movie, so you’re basically not really doing anything. So, it’s kind of boring, but on the other hand, you have a lot more problems. You’re dealing with a lot of behavioral issues, and they’re just trying to be rebellious.
What was the biggest lesson you learned from being a sub?
Kind of an interesting question, because it makes me think of the big picture, and it makes me think I don’t want to be stuck in an environment that’s not good. A good thing about subbing is you get to go to many different schools and classrooms, and you can see which is an environment you’d like to work in and other places you wouldn’t want to work at. It makes you think where you work and who you work with really impacts your work experience, and that’s something I really learned.
What do you think needs to change at a systemic level at schools to help subs thrive? Or what can teachers do to help subs succeed?
I think it has to do with an in-house type of mindset or belief where the staff is instructed to treat all educators, all employers on the site, as all helpful team members, and remember we all have to work together. Because, if you’re at a worksite where they’re really fearful or competitive or there’s a lot of career jealousy amongst the staff or things like that, they always feel threatened. I guess it’s a question of training and professional development.
Author and screenwriter Nora Ephron once famously said, “Everything is copy.” For me, it makes the embarrassing, frustrating, and even bad things in life feel more bearable knowing one day they could be written into relatable material for others to feel less alone. It appears you might have been doing the same thing by writing down your subbing experiences. Does sharing your stories feel cathartic for you?
Yes, definitely. Being a sub a lot of the times you feel alone, and a lot of the times you are an outsider. You’re going into a school site, and a lot of times they’re very closed off to having any strangers or anybody they don’t know come in. You’re alone. Also, 12 of those years that I subbed were in a small district, and I didn’t have any union support. I didn’t have any benefits. I didn’t have anything, and it was tough.
When did you realize as you were writing down your experiences that you wanted them published?
I’ve wanted to publish this like over ten years ago. I originally wrote down all these memories. And it just came to me. I really wanted to share what I went through, and I wanted to make them into cartoons, because I wanted to make it funny. I definitely did it to have everybody understand what I went through and to share that.
Did you go off of any favorite comics? Did any inspire you?
While I was writing them down, I figured how much I really love cartoons, and I respect cartoonists, because they have all this intelligence to create the humor through their illustrations. For example, the designs, I actually asked Caitlin [Skaalrud], who is the illustrator of the book, to follow in the same light as “Off the Mark” by Mark Parisi, and then also the “Daily Lesson in Humor” by Johnny Hawkins. Now, this guy, he’s great. He did a calendar, and he has a black and white cartoon every day about education and teaching. It’s hilarious. So my daughter got me that just recently, and I absolutely love the illustrations. Those were my two favorites. But, I also love “Bizzaro,” “Family Circle,” “Ziggy,” and “Mother Goose and Grimm.” I think they’re all clever.
How did your dynamic work with illustrator Caitlin Skaalrud? Did she come up with an illustration for your stories or did you have a cartoon in your head that you had her draw?
I went on Upwork, an online venue to hire freelance talent. I was trying to find someone to illustrate my cartoons, and I couldn’t find anyone for years. And I thought, I’m going to try. It was last summer, and two illustrators wanted to help me. Caitlin Skaalrud was the perfect person. She wrote me that her mom was a teacher. I grew up with all of that. I’ve taught. I’m very aware of what goes on in the classroom.” I sent her the drawings from “Off the Mark” and “Daily Lesson in Humor.” I wanted her to have a feel for the type of cartoon I wanted to have. I didn’t want them to be offensive or really weird. I just wanted them to be kind of fun, relatable cartoon characters.
Did it help that she had that experience with teaching? Did it help you guys connect better?
Yeah, definitely. I would write down a little short description of each particular scenario, and then I would tell her what I wanted it to say. She would do these rough sketches and send them to me, and they were absolutely fantastic. If there was anything I needed to change, I would just tell her to change it, but she was just right on.
The fact that it’s a coloring book is interesting. Not only are you presenting a book that helps other subs feel less alone, but they can also therapeutically color away as they are reading. Was that intentional?
No, actually, I was just going for the traditional black and white cartoon. But when it was published, I thought, this is perfect. I can make it a coloring book. It came out that way.
You mentioned you were working on a manuscript called “Spiritually in Origin,” and I was wondering where you’re at with that. And what kind of poetic truths does it contain?
I’m still in the process of working on it. These are things that just kind of come to me. That’s why I put down “Spiritually In Origin.” I’m acknowledging the fact that this might be coming from a higher source. You know what I mean? It’s these beautiful descriptions of trees, and the ocean, flowers, nighttime, things like that. I just write them down. It’s a very special project I’m working on. It’s something I’m going slow on.
Do these truths just come to you and you jot them down or is it usually after being inspired by something?
Sometimes they just come to me, and other times it’s like when I’m trying to write, I will just start, and it will begin to flow. A lot of nice ones about nighttime and the gentle veil of night. It’s in a very loving manner. There’s a protective aspect about it.
I recently read one of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s works where he combines transcendence and being in nature, and I thought it was beautiful connecting spirituality and nature. Is your work along the same vein?
Yes, you understand what I’m talking about. You got it. That’s a good way to put it.
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