The daily musings of a substitute teacher in East Central Illinois.

Stupid Questions

Today I was an 8th grade reading teacher at Edison Middle School. These were the same students I taught about three weeks ago, and the teaching experience was about the same: some of the students were awesome, some were total jerks, and the majority were just trying to get through the day.

However, one brief encounter with a teacher who I have never before met, and whose name I did not learn, inspired this post. You see, there is a common saying that reminds us that the “only stupid questions are the ones that aren’t asked.” I, myself, have shared this many times. I use it as the justification for why I ask questions in my own classes to which I know the answer, but I figure someone else might be too afraid to ask.

Unfortunately, I am starting to think that there are some folks out there who are determined to prove this adage wrong. Which, of course, brings to mind another popular saying: “Never underestimate the power of stupid people.”

Exhibit A:
“Is that a wig?”

I have heard this question from young students many times, and I don’t particularly mind. But when an adult asks? Seriously? Does this actually look like a wig???

No, this is not a wig!

This is how I was dressed for work today--well, except my tie wasn't loosened.

My default response to this question is to chuckle and say, “No, I really do have amazing naturally curly hair!” Internally, I am thinking, “Seriously? What on earth makes you think this is a wig? And, more importantly, why on earth do you think I would be wearing a wig?” To be fair to the woman who asked today, she did say something about thinking I was dressed up as some US president or something. I am not sure which US president, nor can I figure out why she thinks any of them would be dressed as I was today, but there you have it.

Exhibit B:
“Are you a substitute?”

I hear this quite often from students. I am not sure why they ask. They ask it when they enter the room, ascertain that their regular teacher is gone, and see my name written on the board. If the regular teacher is gone, and there is a different adult present who looks like he is going to be the teacher for the day, isn’t it kind of obvious?

The only legitimate response I have heard from a student yet when I brought up how silly this question is was the young man who argued that I could have been an observer or a student teacher. Fair enough. But, again, the regular teacher is gone when this question is asked. Speaking of teachers, though…

Exhibit C:
“Why aren’t you a real teacher?”

I blame society for this. Completely and in all honesty. Many, many years ago, the only requirement to work as a substitute teacher was to have a high school diploma (or GED) and have a warm body. Today, especially in Illinois, substitute teachers must have (at least) a bachelor’s degree and be certified to teach. My response to every student who asks me this is the same:

I am a certified teacher employed by [insert school district name] to substitute when a regular classroom instructor is unable to be in room. I am not just some random stranger who came in off the street. Nor am I a 16-year-old pretending to be the teacher a la Leonardo DiCaprio. I am a real teacher.

I am tempted to make business cards with this printed on the back.

Finally, I give you Exhibit D:
“Can I just call you Mr. [insert any word or name that is neither my last name nor the first letter of my last name] ?”

My name is Alex T. Valencic , but I always introduce myself to students as Mr. Valencic. When I first began teaching, my students asked if it would be okay to call me Mr. V, instead, which I was totally okay with. I am used to people having trouble with my last name. When I spent two years in California as a missionary for my church, I was known as Elder Valencic or, to those who knew me well, Elder V. So having students (and later teachers) call me Mr. V has never been a problem. But there are students who think it should be acceptable to call me names like “Mr. Curly Hair”, “Mr. Teacher Guy”, “Mr. [insert their regular teacher’s name]”, “Mr. Fro”, and even “Mr. Shaggy”–and these are the better-mannered students. There are many who drop the title altogether and think they can call me “Shaggy”, “Teacher Dude”, “Guy”, “Bro”, “Einstein”, or Alex (yes, there are a few students who figure out my first name and think it is funny to use it rather than use a title of respect).

Clearly, it is not acceptable for students to call their teachers by any names that are not actually the teachers’ names. At least, not to their faces. If they want to have some silly nickname that they use for me behind my back, I don’t care–students have been doing that since the dawn of education, I am sure. I am also not even particularly annoyed by older students who have known me for some time and use my first name, because they are not doing it out of disrespect. But I am annoyed by those who think it is acceptable to be disrespectful.

So, I am interested in knowing what kind of stupid questions you hear at work! Feel free to share your stupid questions, along with your profession and your responses, in the comments!

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