A Word on Substitute Teaching

I once read a Facebook comment on the wall of an acquaintance who teaches P.E. and was planning for an absence.  Her coworker essentially told her to “Just give them a movie. They’re just a sub.”  I was flabbergasted. And thoroughly offended.  So, let me set the record straight.

Substitutes are an indispensable support beam in the education world. Schools and classrooms literally could not function without them.  The system is too rigid.  Teachers cannot just cancel class when they are sick.  Unfortunately, it has been my experience that substitutes are not just teased and tricked by students, but also often misunderstood and disrespected by regular classroom teachers.

Did you know that in many states substitutes have the same license and the same education background as a full-time teacher?  Thus, substitute teachers are fully capable of classroom management and interpreting lesson plans.  

Why I Sub

In Round One, it was because that was the fate dictated to me by 2008.  I got my license in 2009.  Nobody could afford to hire anybody.  Except P.E. teachers evidently.  I found, however, that I was well-suited to the task.  I am extremely adaptable and able to fly by the seat of my pants.  As much as I longed for steady community, employment, and acceptance, I actually enjoyed hopping in and out of different classrooms.  I am now in Round Two.  I have a baby daughter and subbing provides me a fabulous balance of professional, grown-up time, and quality time being her mommy at home.  This time I sub by choice, and I love it.  And I bet I’m not the only one.

3 Things I Love about Subbing

The flexible schedule

I can set my available days.  Before my daughter, I could sub five days a week if called or I could choose to only work two and go to Bend or the beach for the day.  Of course, I must be careful not to decline too often, but overall, autonomy over my schedule is delightful.

Freedom from lesson plans, grading, parents, and administration

I go to school, do a good job teaching all day, and go home with just my purse.  No piles of ungraded essays hanging over my head.  No lessons to plan (I actually miss this part a bit, if I’m honest).  Just an eight-hour day.  This is particularly refreshing after three years of full-time teaching.  I never stress about backlash from parents, and I rarely see the boss. It’s awesome.

Opportunity to experience many different learning environments and teaching styles

This is probably my favorite part.  I’ve peeked into dozens of 3-12 grade classrooms in the years I’ve spent subbing.  I’ve read snippets of great literature (and gone home to finish them later on my own).  I’ve encountered brilliant lesson materials (which I’ve adapted and used in long-term gigs and my full-time position).  I’ve experienced private schools, public schools, and charter schools.   I’ve learned how to manage a P.E. class and a drama class.  I’ve seen La Bamba in English with Spanish subtitles and in Spanish with English subtitles.  On different days at different schools.  In one 3-day stint in an ESL high school classroom, I came in on day three and greeted the students in Spanish automatically.  I do not speak Spanish.  I’ve seen how different staffs interact, how schools and school days are structured, and how schools tackle integration, differentiation, and absenteeism. I’ve seen so many excellent methods and so many awful ones.  It’s been a fascinating ride.

3 Things I Hate about Subbing

The way teenagers are treated by adults

Particularly librarians.  Why librarians?  I have no idea, but so often I have seen librarians snapping at students just for using the library as it was intended to be used: for study and research.  I thought it was a librarian’s job to cultivate that, not snuff it.

This issue of adult interaction with teens extends to attendance. There were some schools, particularly the ones with primarily non-white students, where I thought the students were being treated like borderline prisoners.  Teachers and staff are supposed to be facilitating and encouraging learning, not managing a factory.  When a student is  tardy, it just makes no sense to send them back down to the office to wait in line to pick up a tardy slip and be five more minutes late to class.  No wonder teenagers skip. It’s way less complicated.

Regarding bathroom breaks, just require students to leave their phones on their desks and let them go.  If they don’t come back, make a note of it.  It’s their problem if they miss important information.  Stop stressing.  And make parents sign a waiver at the beginning of the year that states the school is not responsible for dumb decisions a kid might make on while on the premises.  The bathroom trip issue is especially silly for seniors.  They can vote and buy cigarettes, but they have to ask permission to go to the bathroom?  No wonder they have a hard time functioning in the real world.  Just teach them respectful times to excuse themselves.

The Snobbery

Like I mentioned above, substitutes are often looked down upon by administration and other classroom teachers.  This is just rude, if not illogical.  I have interacted with some wonderful, welcoming teams of teachers who were willing to show me the ropes and chat at lunch.  And then I have experienced lunchtimes like a teenage girl who would literally rather just eat in the bathroom.  A regular classroom teacher is no more talented or intelligent than a substitute.  If you are a classroom teacher, say hello and introduce yourself at the lunch table, even if you’re burned out.  Chances are, the sub doesn’t need extended conversation, just a greeting.  If you are an administrator, educate your teams about the importance and trustworthiness of subs.  Teach them that subs have a hard job and simple hello goes a long way.

Another way to show respect to subs is to leave quality lesson plans.  Create emergency plans to pull out in case of illness or bereavement, but classroom teachers should trust their subs. We can facilitate more than a movie. Administrators can encourage this by reviewing emergency plans periodically and teaching teachers how to communicate clearly to subs in their absence.

Staff morale

Finally, I have been appalled at the way some staffs interact with each other.  Rude sarcasm, overt ignoring, condescending bossiness.  Evidently the teenagers are a bad influence on the teachers.  More often, I have simply observed a complete lack of interaction except at weekly staff meetings.  At so many schools (especially public), teachers eat in their rooms because there is no teacher lounge.  Administrators, remember that your teachers are humans.  They need a little love and maintenance periodically. Schools function best when teachers operate as a team, folks.

I believe that all new teachers should spend a full school year subbing before they can be hired to a regular position.  A full-time teacher can become a bit myopic, seeing the world of education through a very slim lens.  A substitute gets a much broader picture. There are so many ways to tackle the challenges of education.  I feel fortunate to have experienced this windows down perspective.


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