Key and Peele: The Genius of “Substitute Teacher”

by Nancy McGinley Myers

Do you wanna go to war, Buh-Lakey?  Because we could go to war.  I’m for real.  I’m fo’ real.  So you better check yo’self.

-Mr. Garvey

“Substitute Teacher” is one of Key & Peele’s most popular sketches.  Its great popularity is due to the hilarious portrayal of a substitute teacher by Mr. Keegan-Michael Key.  His portrayal of Mr. Garvey, a tough inner city school teacher, is as nuanced as it is extreme.  But if you look a little closer at this sketch, peel back the layers one-by-one, you will find aspects of white privilege, the mistrust between teachers and students, judgments based on dialect, and a look inside one of the root causes of the achievement gap.

Key & Peele said that the premise of the sketch was simply, “a guy from the inner city who was subbing in an all-white classroom.” They knew the culture clash of a tough inner city teacher and a more privileged school with mostly white students would be funny.  But, did they know what a work of art it really was?

This short sketch begins with a view of a science classroom, complete with students wearing safety glasses and animal specimens in jars.  The scene that unfolds is a typical, though slightly exaggerated, scene that could be taken from any urban school in the USA.  The substitute teacher, Mr. Garvey, enters the room with an inherent distrust of his students.  He goes into the classroom with control in mind.  The first thing he says to his students is:

“Alright, listen up y’all.  I’m y’all’s substitute teacher, Mr. Garvey.  I taught school for 20 years in the inner city, so don’t even think about messing with me. Y’all feel me? “

The students respond respectfully and for one fleeting moment Mr. Garvey believes everything is going to be alright.  But, he’s not going to trust the kids.  He knows they are up to no good.  He has a mental modelof his students as disrespectful, insubordinate, and churlish.

The audience sees the genius of this sketch from the very opening scene – the race of the students and teachers has been flipped on end.  Depending on the source, 85% – 90% of the teachers in the United States are white.  White teachers leading classes of predominantly students of color is common in the USA.  A teacher of color leading a class of predominantly white students is practically unheard of.  A version of Mr. Garvey’s opening speech is delivered to students of color by white teachers on a daily basis.  Flipping the race of the teacher and students exposes just how awkward, presumptive, and unfair it is for teachers to treat students in this way.  Our mental models are being challenged.

After Mr. Garvey’s intimidating introduction, he embarks on a simple task – taking attendance.  He calls out a name, “Jayqwellin” but none of the students raises a hand.  Mr. Garvey tries again and after a time, a girl raises her hand.  She says, “Aaah, do you mean Jacqueline?”  She is respectful and kind.  But, Mr. Garvey doesn’t think so.  He drops his clipboard on the desk and says, “OK.  So that’s how it’s gonna be.  Y’all wanna play?  OK, then.  I’ve got my eye on you, Jayqwellin.”  He points at her, pauses with direct eye contact, and otherwise attempts to intimidate her.  He continues taking roll.  He mispronounces each name and when students don’t immediately answer, he becomes more and more furious.

White students, who have white teachers, can almost always assume their names will be pronounced correctly.  The students in this sketch are operating from their experience of school as a white student (white privilege).  Teachers have never had trouble pronouncing Jacqueline, Blake, Denise, or Aaron before.  Mr. Garvey even teases them about their names, assuming they are disrespecting him by correcting his pronunciation, saying “If one of y’all says some silly ass name, this whole class is gonna feel my wrath.”

Denise actually stands up to Mr. Garvey.  For a time, she tries to tell him that her name is pronounced “Duh-NIECE”.  But, he insists, telling her to say it right, say it correctly, that her name is “D-nice”.  Eventually, she concedes.  This may seem hilarious to you but it was common practice for teachers to anglicize the names of their students until very recently.  My own grandmother goes by an anglicized name instead of the name she was called at home.  Though less common now, it still happens.  As an example, I had a student, who in 2006 was told by his 3rd grade teacher that his name was too hard to pronounce and he would be Josh now.  This young boy never again introduced himself at school using the name his parents gave him.  He internalized how very “wrong” his name was when this teacher refused to even try to say it.  (Incidentally, it’s a very common and easy to pronounce name in Spanish-speaking families.)

Students of color and recent immigrants are so accustomed to their white teachers mispronouncing their names that they know to respond even if the teacher has completely mangled their name.  Many times, they don’t even try to tell the teacher how it’s really pronounced.  In my own ESL classes, when I have tried to practice saying names correctly, the students have told me, “I don’t mind how you say my name.  It’s an African name.  I don’t expect you to be able to say it.”  The privileged white students in Mr. Garvey’s classroom didn’t know what to do!  They thought it was perfectly reasonable to tell Mr. Garvey how their name should be pronounced.

While Mr. Garvey takes roll, the general level of anxiety and fear increases in the room.  Blake is unable to respond when Mr. Garvey teases him about his name, Denise practically goes into the fetal position before attempting to teach Mr. Garvey how to pronounce her name.  The students fidget.  They physically withdraw when Mr. Garvey breaks a clipboard over his knee.  They are confused and frightened.

Eventually, we get to Ay-Ay-Ron.  Aaron tries not to respond, though he knows the substitute teacher has said his name.  His response is a breathy, “Here!” and adds, “Oh man…” under his breath.  He leans forward on his desk and busies himself writing something.  Mr. Garvey challenges him, “Why didn’t you answer me the first time I said it?”  (Mr. Garvey, at this point, has broken his clipboard over his knee, sworn on numerous occasions, and generally terrified the students.  Aaron is close to a break down.)  He pushes Ay-Ay-Ron about why he didn’t answer.  Aaron responds, “Because it’s pronounced Aaron” (Air-uhn).  Mr. Garvey’s level of rage has reached its peak and he shoves a bunch of scientific equipment off the teacher’s desk and yells, “Son of a bitch!”  Let it be known that in a white world, the students were being very respectful and acting appropriately.  But, Mr. Garvey’s mental model isn’t open to that possibility.  His mental model of these students supports his furious and controlling response.  The students are confounded and terrified by it.  They do not know what they are doing wrong.

The culminating event is when Mr. Garvey has finally had enough of these disrespectful students and sends Ay-Ay-Ron to Mr. O-shag-HENN-essy’s office.  At first, Aaron doesn’t even know who that is.  He quickly figures out that he is being sent to Principal O’Shaughnessy and Aaron is dismissed from class and told to tell the principal exactly what he did.  I don’t think Aaron has any idea what he did to merit this dismissal!  Teachers often say that their students “pretend’ to not know what they did.  But, often times, the teacher has escalated the problem into something huge.  The student legitimately does not know what she or he did.  This is especially true when the background/race/ethnicity/social class is different between teacher and student.  Culture clash happens all the time in the classroom.

I have, on numerous occasions, both in my own classroom and in observing others, realized that the teacher is the one escalating the situation.  The teacher, not the student, is responding inappropriately.  The teacher is seeing disrespect where there was none, just as Mr. Garvey thinks these students are playing with him, teasing him, and challenging his authority when they try to correct his pronunciation of their names.

When Aaron is removed from the room, just three minutes into the class, we get our peek inside one of the major factors in the achievement gap. Students of color are way over disciplined. Even preschool studentsare being expelled.  Students who are suspended or expelled from school are more likely to drop out.  Even if the student doesn’t drop out of school altogether, students of color are being denied their education because they are removed from class and suspended at alarming rates compared to their white peers.

Let’s return to Key & Peele’s sketch.  Aaron  has fled the room and Mr. Garvey has returned to taking roll. Timothy’s (Tim-OH-thee) name is called and Jordan Peele leans forward. The only African American student in the class, he recognizes his name immediately and says, “PRE-sent”.  Mr. Garvey, relieved, responds, “Thank you!” He has finally found an intelligent, respectful student!

Mr. Garvey and Timothy share a common dialect.  The way a person speaks English is one way we judge one another.  Dialect reveals if a person is in the “in group” or the “out group”.  We constantly make judgments based on the pronunciation, grammar, and vocabulary of other speakers of English. We use dialect to determine another person’s intelligence, work ethic, and level of respectfulness toward ourselves.  We use dialect to discriminate.

How would this class have unfolded had Mr. Garvey and his students shared the same dialect, a common background, and a similar culture?  Do you think Aaron would have been removed from class?  Do you think the students would have been confused about why the teacher was so angry?

What if the United States employed more teachers of color?  What if our white teachers had more diversity training?  Would the mental models be changed?  Would the teacher read the culture right?  Would the students stay in class? Many districts have affirmative action plans to hire and retain teachers of color.  The districts see a student body in crisis and they are working to change it.

I would like to share just one last story with you.  My first teaching job was in a very small, private K-12 school.  All the teachers were white, as were the majority of students.  My third year there, the school hired an African American teacher. What a difference it made for my students of color!  Seeing another person of color in a position of authority, a caring and intellectual adult who was fulfilling a job that had previously only been filled by white teachers, raised the level of pride in the student body.  The students themselves seemed to walk taller.  They were more engaged in the school community and their classes.  I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t seen it for myself.  I am white and I wanted my kindness to be enough.  But, being a caring and supportive white teacher just isn’t the same as being a caring and supportive teacher of color.  Children need both and our school was completely out of balance.

Having teachers of color on staff isn’t only valuable to the students of color.  It is an advantage for the school.  It is an advantage for all the students, no matter what color their skin is.

This post was originally published on April 12, 2014 at nancymcginleymyers.com.

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