Substitute Teaching 101

Reading this made me realized that this was one aspect of my professional life I hadn’t spent much time on here. Substitute teaching is one of my main in-between-gigs jobs. Freelancing as I have been for over a year now, as well as for several years after college, there are times like this past month (6 Tech Weeks in a Row, with 2 of them happening at virtually the same time!) when I am too busy to take on much else, but there are also times when having an option for steady employment is a must. So I am on a substitute teaching list for grades K-12 in a local school district and for an arts magnet high school.

People always look at me a little oddly when I say this, but I actually really like substitute teaching, and mostly because, as jobs go, I find it pretty easy compared to a lot of other things I do. The pressures of planning are generally out the window, no one faults you if things go awry, there’s no work to bring home, and if you have a really lousy day with a particular school or grade level or group of kids you are under absolutely no obligation to see them ever again. Every subbing experience has it’s surprises, which provides me with just enough challenge to stay interested and improvising, but I find that I don’t get too worked up over a less than perfect day of subbing– it’s easier to let things roll off your back when that personal connection of returning regularly isn’t there. It also allows a great deal of flexibility (in my district at least) because I can sign up to sub as often or as little as I’d like and I never have to go through the hoops of a personal day for a doctor’s appointment.

The link to Betty’s Blog got my attention though because some of the perils she alludes to are definitely true. There are definitely times in the lunch room when I’ve walked in and been treated as invisible, or worse, intruding. There are definitely times when lesson plans left behind are less than helpful, when maps to classrooms are not provided, or students have treated me with something less than respect. There was this past September when I substitute taught at 4 different schools and each one had a fire drill when I was there, leaving me looking to paras and 7th graders to determine the emergency exits and procedures. I think a lot more could be done to support and appreciate substitute teachers. Teaching is isolating enough at times and standing in for a teacher may be just that much moreso. My favorite memories of substitute teaching are when I happened on a magic moment with a child (such as when I accidentally inspired a little boy named to Joey to write the “y” in his name for the first time), when I’ve gotten feedback from students that something I’ve done in class has clarified or extended the work they were already doing, and those times an administrator or other teacher has checked in, completely unsolicited, to see how they could assist or to express their thanks.

So, in a nod to Betty, here are 10 random things I have learned in my own substitute teaching:

1. Teachers can always be clearer in writing lesson plans. Not every substitute has been trained in the latest educational methods, and many times there are activities or procedures that have been built into a school or district’s culture that need further explanation for the uninitiated. This is a bigger issue, I find, with elementary school teachers than with teacher’s of older students. Or maybe jargon– or sometimes just cute names for simple activities– is more prevalent in primary grades?

2. If you bring an iced coffee into a classroom with a desk calendar and lots of papers on it, and set it down while trying to figure out the days plans in the under-10-minutes-till-the-students arrive, you have at least a 50% chance of spilling the coffee all over the teacher’s desk, thereby ruining something of theirs, losing 5 minutes to locating paper towels, and , sometimes most concerning, going without the caffeine you really needed to survive the morning. For this reason, all substitute teachers should invest in well-sealed coffee mugs.

3. Names matter. You will screw names up reading the attendance aloud and it will irritate the kids. Yes, even if they’re in high school– sometimes especially if they’re in high school. Make a point at the beginning of the class that you want to learn to say their names correctly and apologize the minute you mess up. If the name on the list says “Joseph,” ask if they want or don’t want to be called “Joe” or “Joey.” Some kids are like my sister was, going by a middle name and living in horror of the substitute calling them by their first name. It doesn’t matter that you may never see this group of kids again. It’s a small thing that gets noticed.

4. Circulate. This is the single biggest classroom management tool at your disposal. When students are working on something independently, walk around the room. You don’t have to say or do anything. Just show interest.

5. Cry for Help. No one will look down on you. If you have an issue with a students’ behavior or you’re struggling to figure out what time the kids are supposed to go to gym, call the office, the teacher next door, any adult. The silent presence of a random adult they recognize is a powerful force.

6. There are kids who look on having a substitute teacher as an opportunity to goof off, be a smart aleck, get attention, whatever. Don’t take it personally. Ignore what you can but let the students know that a complete report of their behavior is going back to their regular teacher.

7. Empathize. It is especially difficult for young children to deal with change. A substitute teacher comes in and screws up the way Reading Groups are “supposed” to be run, tells them that they have to sit at their desks for snack when their regular teacher says they can eat on the carpet, and can’t even tell that Johnny’s sitting in the wrong seat. This can all be very unnerving to a first grader, leading to a chorus of tattletales and whining. The conversation goes better when you let them know that you understand it can be challenging to have a substitute teacher. You’re still going to do what you’re going to do, but sometimes all a kid needs is acknowledgment that things are not going as they may have expected.

8. In elementary grades the standard test of a sub is “I have to go to the nurse.” In  upper grades it’s either “I have to go to my locker.” or “Can I have a drink of water?” The elementary school issue is the hardest call to make– if you say no and they throw up in class you’ll feel like a jerk, but sometimes you gotta go with your gut that they’re fine.  I’ve had classes where I’ve had 8-10 kids claim to be sick over the course of a day. Usually I tell students to “rest” at their desk for a little while to see if they feel better later. Usually this makes the young child bored really quickly and they magically feel better soon after. With the older kids I generally don’t let them get water until after whatever task we’re doing is over (and sometimes not even then), but if they claim the book they need for the work is in their locker I send them.

9. Take your echinacea, Vitamin C, hand sanitizer, whatever works– with you. Despite the number of perfectly healthy children claiming to need a trip to the nurse, most teachers get sick more their first couple years teaching so arm yourself.

10. Bring a book. Especially if you’re substituting above the third grade level, because more often than not some portion of the lesson plans will be a test, silent reading time, study hall, or worksheets. Sixth grade and above often have more extended “free” time (time the regular teacher fills with meetings and planning) where it is likely you will run out of things to do. You may have this at younger grades too– such as when the class is in Art– but often the younger the class the more you’ll be scrambling to keep ahead of them with the next lesson plan.

Question for the World: Have you had adventures in substitute teaching? Best or worst experiences? What makes for a good substitute teaching experience and how could substitute teaching be made better?

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One Response to “Substitute Teaching 101”

  1. Candinews Says:

    This is great info for any teacher


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