How Substitute Teaching Changed Me
I come from a long line of educators. There is exactly one person in my extended family who is not a teacher: one of my grandpas drills wells for a living — yes, like water wells — and makes a pretty penny serving the agrarian area where my family lives. By the time I was old enough to be cognizant of career choices, the great-grandparents, of which one set included a farmer and the other included a dental hygienist, were all retired, meaning everyone who still went to work was in some aspect of education. As a child, I couldn’t fully comprehend what it meant to work a job outside of the education world — children whose parents were doctors, lawyers, restaurant workers, absolutely fascinated me. And while I didn’t know much about the realities of working outside the education industry, I knew for sure that I had no interest in working inside it.
My staunch assertion that I would not and could not possibly become a teacher or an administrator sparked some lively family chats. I’ve always been more artistic than realistic… I didn’t grow up as one of those lucky kids who just knows from the moment they can talk what their calling is. Most of my friends knew exactly what they wanted to do and mapped plans to get there at an early age. To some degree, I can say I’ve always wanted to be a writer. I’ve been working on various novels since I was 12, but I’ve been obsessed with writing since I could hold a pencil. Unfortunately, being a best-selling novelist isn’t the most realistic starter goal. While everyone else seemed to be setting smart, attainable goals, mine were lofty and poorly-planned, because one of the things college taught me was that I could fly by the seat of my pants, not complete readings, and still maintain a good GPA. I got used to not having a plan being the best plan, and while it saved me from reading a lot of dreary textbooks during my college career, it left me ill-prepared for real life.
Imagine my dismay when this lack of career planning left me about two options for putting myself through graduate school: continuing to clock in at 6am at the grocery where I routinely saw my ex, who also worked there, or take a job substitute teaching. I would love to say that the alternative made me jump at the offer of teaching, but I dragged my feet, even after a “clerical error” (that’s what they call it when someone files your paperwork completely wrong?) set me back five months.
Eventually, the day came that I could sub, so I ditched my terrible black and yellow Food4Less uniform, and I let them place me in a Transitional Kinder classroom. I dressed my best, packed myself a lunch, and set off on my 30-minute commute. Surely a day that started with me driving along the coastline couldn’t be all bad! Oh, how naïve I was.
I spent my lunch crying in the bathroom. I had walked into a situation where the lesson plans were hidden as if the teacher had planned a special game of I Spy for me, and when I finally found them, none of the instructions made sense (what in the world is Number Corner, and what should I be doing with this handful of blocks and coffee straws?). Becoming a substitute teacher came with no job training, no instruction manual, and no practical field guide for how to navigate each and every very different classroom that I worked in.
Over the next year and a half, I graded tests that I wasn’t around for, got pencils thrown at me, subbed for teachers who expected me to redecorate their classrooms and hang up student work during my lunch and breaks, had long-term jobs where I was never off duty, wrote curriculum for seven classes that I was in no way qualified to write curriculum for, and got talked down to once by the teacher who wrote the sub plans because I was taking my lunch at the wrong time(except I was taking my lunch at the exact right time as per the sub plans). I also got bitten several times, pinched, punched, drooled on, and screamed at. Countless times, I spent the entire commute back home crying. Even more times, I was so bone-tired after work that all I could do when I got home was watch TV and space out before class. And plenty of times, I cried when my alarm rang in the morning in anticipation of another terrible day.
I hated it. I hated working at so many different schools. I despised working in classrooms whose teachers would tell me “sorry, but this year is a really tough group… call the principal if you need help”, but I had to take whatever job came my way to pay my rent. I enjoyed subbing for the Special Education classes, but that came at the extent of severe dread any time I had to teach in a regular class. I was tired all the time. Learning a new schedule, new class rules, and new names nearly every day was coming at the expense of my sanity.
But when the pandemic came, I was devastated. In an unexpected turn, I called my partner the day the news came that we wouldn’t be going back to teach in person, and I cried. As I watched all my jobs get canceled periodically and the emails come in saying I was no longer needed to sub, cold pangs hit me in the chest. I missed it. I wondered if the kids were doing okay — my kids. I had managed to sub enough at certain schools that I knew most of them, even if the class I was working in was different. And I worried about them. Adjusting to a pandemic and school being canceled would be hard enough for anyone, but for my Special Ed students and my sensitive junior high schoolers, the price would be higher, and this upset me.
It turned out that for all of the terrible moments of teaching and for all my vitriolic feelings about the commute and the extra long days, I came out of the experience with something as well.
Substitute teaching taught me to greet the morning with a smile. Since I was little, mornings have been difficult for me. I remember my mom coming into my room every morning, opening the blinds, and saying “good morning, sunshine!” in a tone so cheery my ears almost could not register it. I also remember that my usual response, even as a kindergartener, would be to whine and moan about it. It takes me a while to adjust to being awake and acting human. But so many of my students relied on the teacher to be that daily dose of positivity. As difficult as it was, I became that. I learned the difference that knowing a student’s name or remembering something they like can have, not just in making my day easier, but in completely changing their attitude.
It taught me that sometimes, people act out because they need a little extra love. One of the most troublesome students I had told me every day I saw him just how much he liked me. This was after having reprimanded him countless times, having long talks about behaviour, and consulting with the principal. It turns out, he just needed someone to listen. I won’t say that he was a changed kid from there on out. He was still difficult. But giving him that understanding and respect made our interactions a little easier, and he did behave better when I was around.
Teaching taught me how lucky I am that I can take my access to food so completely for granted. In just a short year and a half, I encountered more hungry students than I wish to remember. Most days, I brought a backpack with healthy snacks — protein bars, some fresh fruits and vegetables. The rule was that anyone who was hungry was welcome to something from my backpack. I gave away my own lunch more than once. I always knew that I would go home after work and be able to eat a meal, even if it was just a cheap bowl of bulk-bin rice and beans. Many of my students did not have that luxury, and yet there they were every day, learning, persisting, trying to thrive. My students were some of the strongest people I knew.
I learned that some of the most rewarding days were the most difficult ones. I made breakthroughs, helped students reach goals, assisted with behaviour. I worked hard and played harder, got dragged into games of soccer, basketball, sight-word Jenga. Sometimes, I even ran around the track with my students, and if you know me, you know this was effort because I hate running. All of this taught me that kids trust people who put their money where their mouth is. Most of the time, if the kids were complaining about not wanting to do something (hello, running the track sucks…), having me do it with them at least gave them the fortitude to continue. Of course, this made the days infinitely harder, but you really do get out of it what you put in, and I wanted those kids to feel comfortable around me.
I realized that children are tiny experts. If you listen to them, you may just learn. They have intense interests and niche knowledge and in some cases, straight-up encyclopedic accounts of their favourite things. After a while, I stopped bothering to fact-check all the little tidbits about rare animals and tv shows and video games because after fact-checking for months, I realized that these kids knew their stuff.
I found that some of the most insightful thoughts come from the least expected places. Children are startlingly perceptive, and often they are wise beyond their years. After telling an anecdote about a friend, one of my kindergarten students thought about it, then looked me in the eye and said “We learn something new from our very best friend every day.” It was touching, and though perhaps the bulk of my learning does not come from my very best friend, I do learn something every day, and the sentiment behind the thought was there. Another kindergarten gem was when my student, in the middle of running away from me and an instructional assistant to avoid his schoolwork, told us “Learning is passé”. I don’t know where he heard it. I know for a fact that he had no idea what it meant. But that moment of having to turn my laughter into a very fake-sounding cough was absolutely worth it. And of course, I can’t forget my “woke” junior high kids, from which this quote was born: “Is that a HydroFlask?” “No, it’s a symbol of capitalism.”
Of course, for every moment like this, there were a dozen moments of booger-picking, tantrums, outright rudeness, and complete disregard for anything I had to say. No day can be perfect. Substitute teaching was, hands-down, one of the most difficult jobs I have ever had. It gave me a new respect for the work that my family members do in the classroom every day. And while this is not one of those moments where my stance, upon heavy reflection, is a complete 180 from the sentiments I originally expressed, and I have found a new passion and decided that in fact, teaching is the job for me, it is at least a moment where I can admit that I value my experience with substitute teaching much more than I realized.
I won’t ever become a teacher, and with any luck, I won’t have to substitute teach again, but I am deeply grateful for the memories and lessons that I collected in my year-and-a-half as a substitute teacher.