Support – “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means…”

Since moving to the US, I’ve been working as a supply teacher; in the US, it’s referred to as a ‘substitute teacher’ or simply a ‘sub’. Basically, I’m there if the regular teacher isn’t, taking the class, teaching the lessons, and making sure the work gets done.

I don’t mind the work; it can be challenging but also quite rewarding. In the best instances, I can be a pleasant break in continuity, which gives me the opportunity to speak into kids’ lives in ways more creatively and pointedly than a regular teacher might. I’ve had several kids over the years- in school or sometimes when I meet them after they’ve graduated- tell me that I was their favourite ‘sub’. That’s an amazing feeling.

Plus, the schools are always immensely appreciative of me; there’s rarely been a time when my appearance in front of a frazzled school office administrator wasn’t met with a relieved smile. After all, I’m solving a problem, sometimes at the last minute, and it’s nice to have a job where your employer is always pleased to see you.

Perhaps for that reason, schools are usually very accommodating of ‘subs’ and very often go out of their way to make the work environment as good as it can be. There’s never been a situation when I’ve had a problem- an unruly teenager, a faulty piece of equipment, needing a procedure explained- when the school administration didn’t go to some length to help me out.

I just need to invoke one, big, magic word:

‘support’.

Phone the office, or go down in person and say ‘I need support’, and it’s like I flip a switch on a well-oiled machine. Instantly, the matter is addressed.

I don’t ask for support very often; I’m good at what I do and don’t often need it. But it’s a very handy tool to have, and knowing that it always works is marvelous.

The one time I really, truly needed support was when I was about to spend the day as an ‘intervention specialist’, which is a teacher who works with kids individually or in small groups on particular subjects where special help or individual attention is needed.

I arrived to work a half-hour early; I do better when I’ve had a bit of time to wrap my head round what I need to do for the day. As I’d never done an ‘intervention specialist’ job before, this was particularly important.

I walked into the room and found the classroom notes left for me by the regular teacher.  Seeing as the job required working with lots of different kids on individualized projects, there were a lot more notes than usual. In fact, they ran to five pages, in very small print, and were spectacularly technical:

‘1st period: Colton and Jessica are working on their I.S. (top basket). Drayson, Kaylee, and Tim are doing  XL on the computer (passwords in the blue notebook). Read “I Know My History” with Ethan, Mya, Robbie, Sarah, and James (James will need a lot of help). Make sure Bobby works on his EXL work (bottom basket). If it’s too much for him, let him do “creative notes” (on the far table). The others can work quietly.’

‘2nd period’…

It went on and on and on and on like that, for five pages, for seven periods, every period no less complicated or technical as the one before.

There were no explanations of the various terms or abbreviations;

the locations of vital baskets and books in her filing system- which to someone unfamiliar with it resembled a cross between a Byzantine market and an episode of ‘Extreme Hoarders’- was indecipherable.

I looked at the shelves on the four bookcases in her part of the room, crammed top-to-bottom with books, baskets, and notebooks… I looked at her table, which had several other baskets on them… I looked at the clock; Drayson, Kaylee, Tim, Ethan, Mya, Robbie, Sarah, and James (and the amorphous ‘others’) would arrive in about 15 minutes…

I was absolutely, thoroughly at sea.

I did try to ask for help from one of the other women in the room, but how exactly to you say, ‘Ummm… how do I do any of this?’ without looking incompetent?

There was nothing for it; I walked down to the office administrator, looked deep into her eyes and said, ‘I need support’.

She shot from her chair and went to work.

Within three minutes, it was decided by her, the school principal, and me that the best course of action was to move me from that classroom to a 4th grade class that also needed a ‘sub’. Rarely have I felt a greater sense of relief than at that moment. I know 4th grade; I could handle it with no problems.

The best support that could have been given to me was to get me out of a situation for which I had very little expertise, and which would have been a nightmare for me and the students.

I’m telling this story to make a point about the word ‘support’.

I see the word ‘support’ used a lot in America’s socio-political discourse, but often with very little thought given to what exactly ‘support’ entails:

In the face of disastrous wars or foreign occupations, I’ll hear, ‘Well, you have to support our troops…’

In the face of a long history of repressive and corrupt policing policies in many American cities, I’ll hear, ‘Well, you have to support the police…’

In the face of a cruel, counterproductive, and unjust occupation of the West Bank, I’ll hear, ‘Well, we have to support Israel…’

In the face of arrogant, incompetent domestic or foreign policies, I’ll hear- very often from religious people- ‘Well, the Word of God says that we have to support the government…’

When I hear the word ‘support’ used in this way, I always feel like quoting the character Inigo Montoya from the film ‘The Princess Bride’: ‘You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means’…

What I learned in my half hour as an ‘intervention specialist’ is that sometimes the best way to ‘support’ someone is to get them out of the situation, fast.

In any given political situation, wherever we are, a deeper reflection of what ‘support’ would entail is never a bad thing. At the very least, ‘support’ should never be used as a mechanism to shut down debate and discussion around important issues.

Perhaps the best support we can give to troops might be getting them out of a wasteful, useless situation;

Perhaps the best support we can give to Israel is to demand that they stop their war on Palestinian autonomy, end the illegal occupation, and constructively build the peace;

Perhaps the best way to ‘support’ the police is by acknowledging the dangerous, dark, and difficult history of policing in the US (and in Ireland and the UK for that matter) and fostering a culture of transparency, respect, training, and civic engagement;

And perhaps the best support we can give to President Trump might be removing him from office…

…fast.

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  • Muiris

    I’ll support you (and this post) any day

  • Ben De Hellenbacque

    Brilliant piece. Thanks for posting.
    “Support” (of the oft misused variety) rarely incorporates objective pragmatism as you have outlined.
    More often it involves a tribal blindness or at least myopia: supporting a football team, nationalism (as found anywhere on this planet’s surface), binary Northern Irish political allegiances (prisons of your own making).
    It’s interesting that ‘support’ often inhibits and obstructs the ways forward as well as the ways out when it should be much more of what you have (luckily) experienced.
    Thanks again for reminding us that positive outcomes can happily result when co-operation and shared success are the over-riding principles..

  • Skibo

    While I had little interest in this post at the start, i found it intoxicating and can confirm while I kind of proof read alot of posts on here, I read every word of this.
    One of people’s biggest problems is to recognise when they do need support and be prepared to ask for it.
    To ask for help is not a sign of failure.