How I Survived My First Year of Substitute Teaching

Thanks to Nicole Honeywill for making this photo available freely on @unsplash 🎁

This past fall, when I first signed up for substitute teaching at my local school district, I looked at it as a way to get my foot in the door until something permanent came along. I was concerned, I had done subbing in the past, when I was younger, and I did not feel that I always had been most effective. I had been a bit of a pushover and suspected I had been taken advantage of more than once. I remembered rowdy classrooms that had been difficult to manage, defiant children and I was a little intimidated. On the other hand, I also took comfort in knowing that I was older and more experienced with children and teenagers than I had been all of those years ago. I was a mom now and my husband and had worked for about twelve years with struggling teens in our own home. “Surely,” I told myself that chilly fall day that I entered the school for my first subbing job, “I could hold it together until a more permanent job came along?”

It is now months later since that fall day; I have completed my first year of substitute teaching and will admit that while it had its moments, for the most part, the good outweighed the bad and I gained more than just a paycheck from the experience. I found work that I enjoyed, that came with a flexible schedule and I almost always had as many hours as I wanted to work. I learned that I liked working at the schools, getting to know the students as well as the staff and was happy to find that I still had enough time and energy when I went home at the end of the day for my family, home and writing.

Now don’t get me wrong. Subbing was not always sunshine and roses. There were times that I felt things were not fair. Kids could be just downright bratty and even the adults could behave poorly as well. I sometimes found myself looking at the clock and literally counting down the minutes until the bell rang because I was not sure if I was going to survive the next hour much less until the end of the day. There was one time when my classroom was so bad, it took every ounce of willpower I had not to walk out. Luckily though, those days were few and for the most part, I ended most of my days with an accomplished feeling.

Mostly though I learned, over this past school year, about myself, children, teenagers and the community I live in. And I find, as we settle into summer vacation, that not only am I missing my days of subbing, I actually am looking forward to the fall when school starts back up again, especially now that I have a bit of experience and a few of the following tricks of the trade to help make my life easier as a substitute teacher.

I have recently read a few articles where a substitute teacher went into a classroom and took it upon themselves to correct students behavior or way of thinking. These issues ranged from how the students did or did not salute the flag to kids using punctuation and grammar incorrectly. The result almost always ended in some sort of confrontation between the adult and the student(s) and became an unnecessary distraction in the room that day for the entire class, as well as a lot of disappointment by the substitute teacher themselves.

Substitute teaching is not about spreading your ideology or making your mark on the youth of today. Your job as a sub is to step in and assist the teacher whose class you are covering while he/she is out for the day. As a substitute teacher, you do not know the background or circumstances of most of your students and in order to keep the classroom moving steadily ahead, a substitute needs to overlook minor issues that do not need immediate attention. If the student is not harming anyone, including themselves, or they are not causing a distraction, I learned to let the offending behavior slide. If it upset me enough, I would leave a note for when the teacher returned or speak to the building administration that day.

Learn early on the age group that you are best suited to work with. For me, personally anything below the second grade I avoid. To be perfectly honest, kindergarteners kind of frightened me. One moment they are all sweet and loving, they want to meet you and hold your hand. And then the bell rings, the classroom door shuts and those sweet and angelic faces turn on you. I also tend to avoid high schoolers. They are older, often bigger than I am and I find I am not comfortable with some of their behavior.

On the other hand, I have found that I like working with 4th to the 7th graders. This age group is no longer little kids and they can take care of their personal needs and usually voice their communications. They also are not full blown teenagers who completely disregard the rules as well. They have thoughts, opinions and a sense of humor of their own and they like to share them. For me, it is an adventurous and passionate age but still manageable. But that is my preference, I have met substitute teachers who also avoid the middle school grades and find a lot of enjoyment working with the younger or the older kids.

Teachers have very different styles and just like I learned that there were some age groups of kids that I preferred to sub, I also saw that I had preferences for some teachers and while others I would not accept jobs for.

Teachers and how they conduct their classroom can really make it or break it for a substitute. When I first show up for a job and I am looking at the lesson plan left for me by a teacher, I can usually tell how successful or not my day will be even before the students walks into the room. I prefer to sub for teachers that leave more work than what the class and I can possibly get through. Anytime, I see the words, “the kids will just read their classroom novel,” or “they are working on a project and know what they are doing,” I know I would struggle with that class that day for even the best of the students will look up, see me standing before their room and think, “Hey, we got the day off!

Teachers who implement high expectations and who have already clearly defined their goals for their class were the easiest teachers for me to cover. On the other hand, teachers whose personal style included disorganization and chaos, while often popular with their students because they shared the love of their subject above no other, was still difficult for me, the temporary fixture of their room, and I sometimes struggled keeping the kids under control.

I know from my own experiences in classrooms and workshops that adult audiences are rarely silent. Adults will write quick notes to their neighbor. They will check a text message from their family at home. It does not mean that the adult is not on task or listening, it just means that adults are given a freedom that often we do not extend to children.

Even though I know this, I found, especially when I started to sub, that I was expecting silence from my much younger audience. During those first few weeks especially, I had to remind myself that the student’s conversation, as long as it remained respectful and on task, was OK. This required less control on my part and sometimes that is hard to give up but I found this freedom made my students, and usually me, much happier.

I would read out loud to my class. As a society, we are conditioned to be quiet when someone is reading out loud. Early on in the year, I learned that if I had an especially noisy class that I was struggling to keep in line, I would stop the class and read the assignment or sometimes a passage from a book that the teacher kept in the room and the kids would quiet down. It was a sanity saver on more than one occasion and it was a trick that worked on both younger and older students as well.

The one drawback on reading out loud? Once in awhile on especially long days or if I had recently been sick, my voice would give out and I would have to find students willing to help me read. There was a time or two that I would go home and have to tell my own kids, “Sorry guys, I lost my voice today.”

Thanks to João Silas for making this photo available freely on @unsplash 🎁

You know, some of our students have really tough lives and as a substitute, you will not lose anything by being kind and taking a moment to get to know the kid. Ask about their day. Try to remember their names and acknowledge them if you see them outside of the building or on the weekends. Some of the kids will ignore you and some of them won’t even remember you. That’s OK because those kids don’t need you. But for the kids who do not get the attention at home or the ones that are carrying adult problems on their young shoulders, a simple gesture might be the only kindness that they receive that day.

Accept the kids for who they are that day and do not carry grudges. That little angel who was so helpful the first time I met him in a classroom might be cool and aloof the next time I went in. The troublemaker girl that I sent to the office one time, might be my best friend the next time that I see her. Kids have good days, bad days and everything in between. They are growing, are often in the middle of puberty and sometimes it seems that I am dealing with a completely different person from the time before.

Keep your sense of humor. They are kids after all and the can do dumb and irritating things. They make rash decisions and they do not always think things through before they react. That is where the adult in me has to step in and remind myself that, usually (and I stress usually), these things are not done with malice and by keeping my sense of humor, I am able to adjust my attitude about the situation.

Remember, even in the most difficult of situations, that you can learn and still grow as a substitute teacher or sometimes even as a person. That time when I was so angry with my class that I was tempted to walk out? That night, after I went home and calmed down, I thought the entire situation over and instead of focusing on the kids, I considered my actions. I realized, I had not been prepared. I had entered the class without studying the teacher’s lesson plan as well as I should have and I lost control of the class. The next day, when I returned to that same class, you can bet that I did not make that mistake again. I went in better prepared and we ended that hour with a much better experience than the day before.

Overall subbing has been a good experience for me. I have learned a lot about kids and even more about myself. I have met a lot of teachers and other staff members. I have gotten to know a lot of kids, some with amazing futures ahead of them. I have also gotten to know kids who struggle and who may not have amazing futures but who still are pretty amazing kids, if you just take the time to look. I have done all of this while maintaining a flexible job that helps me to provide for my family while allowing me to focus on my real career — writing.

Attempting to make sense of my world, one word at a time.

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