Adventures as a Substitute Teacher

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So I’ve been substitute teaching here in the valley since September and I feel like I have experienced enough to write about it now. I’ll start by saying that it is the craziest but best job I’ve ever had. I searched for a full-time teaching position in the spring and summer and when nothing turned up, subbing was my go-to. At first, I was a little disappointed that I didn’t land a full-time teaching position with my own classroom right out of grad school, but it ended up being the best path for me for this year. Everything happens for a reason and I have to remind myself that I am only 23 and I still have a whole lot of life to experience and find my dream job. I give to much credit to my friends from grad school that went straight into a full-blown teaching job right after graduation. I admire you all so much.

I’ll give you the bad parts of the gig first. I’d rather finish with the great moments and leave you smiling, (hopefully) you know? I’m sure all of us can think back and remember having substitute teachers in our classrooms… how were they treated? Were they respected? Chances are, the answers to these questions for most of you are probably, “badly” and “no.” After subbing for a bit now, I have come to the conclusion that it’s all about how you present yourself. If you go into a classroom without confidence, authority, and classroom management skills, they can smell that like a shark smells blood and they will eat you alive. But can you blame them? You’re just a sub. You’re only there for one day and you don’t know the rules. They feel like they can get away with anything because they’re most likely never going to see you again anyway. It’s rough sometimes. But I remember who I am and never back down from everything I’ve learned in school. But sometimes, days go a little like this:

 

 

Okay, so maybe I’ve never walked out of a class before, but there are times where I walk into a classroom with every intention of getting work done and standing my ground, but it doesn’t quite work out that way. There are usually two reactions students have when they walk into a classroom and see that they have me as a sub: “YESSSSSSS! SUB!” and “Wait… YOU’RE our sub?” The first reaction is a red flag for me because it usually means they will act like they have a “free day” and they can text, talk to their friends, and not get any work done. The second reaction means I can use my age to my advantage. Before I started subbing, I thought that being visibly very young would be detrimental to gaining respect. In reality, it has worked in my favor. Surprisingly, students automatically want to be on my good side and impress me because for some reason, they think I’m cool which also turns into a level of respect and admiration towards me. In turn, they try and act as mature and well-behaved as possible in order to become my “favorite” or even my “friend.” Granted, this only occurs at the middle and high school level, but we will get to the elementary kids later, which is an entirely different story. I may never understand the logic behind this, but I am not complaining. So the first thing I do when I’m in a classroom is feel out the students’ reactions to seeing me. This can usually be a good indicator of the kind of day I’ll be facing. A third and a little less common reaction to seeing me in the room is “Aw man, we have a sub? Where’s Mr./Mrs. ___________?” This can either be a good or bad thing. It can mean that they love their teacher so much that they are sad when he/she isn’t there, which warms by heart and shows me this person much be a great and respected teacher. On the other hand, how am I supposed to lead up to that? It’s like competing in a race right after Usain Bolt’s race. Although it’s nice to hear when kids love their teacher so much that they are sad when there’s a sub, it’s still hard to compete with that and get work done effectively. But by far, the hardest part of subbing is trying to deal with students’ attempts to get away with stuff. Most of the time, teachers don’t really leave their class rules with me. And I don’t know if students know that or not, but they damn sure try and test it out. I can’t even count how many times I’ve seen a student with headphones in, I ask him/her to take them out, and they reply, “But our teacher lets us listen to music!” When I first started subbing, I wouldn’t know what to say because who am I to tell a student they can’t do something that their teacher allows them to do? But then I quickly realized that 60% of the time, they are lying. And none of the other students want to disagree and tell me the truth in fear of being called a “teachers pet” or “tattler.” So after countless times of this same conversation plus similar ones involving bathroom breaks, drinks of water, cell phones, and assigned seating with the same response of, “But our teacher lets us!” I’ve developed an end-all response to all of it. I start every class with this: “My name is Miss Gray and I may do things a little bit differently than your teacher. He/she isn’t here today and there is no way for me to know the rules indefinitely, so for today, it’s going be my rules and I would appreciate your cooperation. If I tell you something that is not your usual classroom rules, I’m sorry but you will go back to your normal routine tomorrow.” And with that, I haven’t had a single problem or argument since. It has also cut down on students trying to get away with things they know they shouldn’t be doing in the first place. I’m relieved to have found a solution to the problem that once defeated me and knocked me on my ass.

Hello-substitute-teacher...

The other huge negative to subbing… two words. Elementary school. As most of you know, I went to school for middle and high school education. And I have realized this year more than ever that I made the best decision. Elementary school is a whole new realm. Sure, they’re cute and genuine (for the most part) and love to learn. But they are just not for me. I have SO much respect for my friends who teach elementary school because it definitely takes a very special person to be able to handle it. When I started subbing, I decided I would accept elementary jobs simply for the experience. Because how bad could it be, right? The result… I don’t ever want to set foot in another elementary school class again (with the exception of one kindergarten class that I adore. The teacher is my good friend and I know the kids and the way she runs her amazing classroom so it’s no problem at all.) I am not the type of person to talk with a high-pitched voice and sing songs and read stories and spend 25 minutes trying to get kids to line up. It’s just not me. And every elementary school class does things differently such as little chants to get the class’s attention, and if you don’t know this routine, you’re screwed. The room becomes pure chaos and the students don’t care what you have to say. It’s crazy. While teaching elementary school, I was punched in the stomach, spit on, called “the b-word” and put up with countless tears, tantrums and “TEACHER!!!!! HE HIT ME!!!!!-s” …no thank you. I started to become a teacher I didn’t want to be. I yelled, I was stressed and flustered, and I was rude. Then I made a conscious decision to not sub in elementary schools any more. I tried, and I can’t force myself to do something I am not suited for or meant to do. I wish I could shake the hand of every elementary school teacher and say “Thank you. Bless your soul.”

Okay, I gotta get to some of the positive stuff because I don’t want to depress anyone or re-live the bad parts. As I mentioned, subbing is the best job I’ve ever had. I am always one who loves challenges, and I (sometimes mistakenly) think I can handle anything. Although it is not as rewarding as full-time teaching and I don’t build the relationships with students like I would like to, there are still the moments that make it all worth it. On the more shallow end of things, subbing is nice because it means no planning, little-to-no grading, no pressure of standardized tests, and if a particular class is rough, I just have to tell myself “Just get through today and it’s over.” It’s definitely draining, but not as draining as full-time teaching which is definitely a much-needed break after student teaching and graduating from a one-year grad school program after 17 years of school on top of that. I know that I don’t get to build close relationships with students because I’m always bouncing around from classroom to classroom, but I still feel like I’m making an impact. One time in particular, and a time I will never forget, I was in a high school class that had a reputation for being crazy and out of control. The ladies at the front office said “Good luck” with that look in their eyes as they handed me the keys. Teachers looked at me as I walked towards the class with that same, sympathetic look on their faces. I knew I was in for a crazy day. In what was supposed to be the craziest class, I introduced myself with a smile on my face and told them the plan for the day. When they started to work, the educational assistant that was in the room with me passed me a note that said “Congratulations. I have NEVER seen them this quiet or well-behaved.” I was shocked. After the educational assistant left, I decided to talk to the class and get to the root of their unexpected good behavior. I asked them why they were so quiet and great for me and one student raised her hand and said “Because you treat us like… we’re… human, I guess.” and I saw a few nods from the other kids. My eyes instantly swelled up with tears and I explained to them that that’s how every teacher should make them feel and that’s my entire goal as a teacher. I was so thankful that they saw that in me and respected me after about two minutes of knowing me. After that moment, I knew I was doing something right and I knew that even as a sub, I can make a difference and be an ally for students who need it. I’ve even had students come to me with their problems during lunch, after school; crying about their break-up, about their home life and about their frustrations with life in general. It’s amazing how students can see a trustworthy, open, non-judgmental person in me without even knowing me. I am convinced that students can sense fake-ness (for the lack of a better word) and they cling to anyone who will listen and be there for them, even if it’s just for a day. It warms my heart and makes it all worth it.

Sometimes, students want to know EVERYTHING about me. (How old are you? Are you married? Do you have a boyfriend? Where are you from? Where do you live? Do you have kids? What’s your favorite food?) Sometimes, I am just a ghost in their classroom and they couldn’t care less that I’m even there. I literally never know what each day will bring but that’s one of the things I love most about subbing: the challenge. And part of this challenge is teaching in all different classrooms. I’ve taught calculus, physics, P.E., health, earth and physical science, world history, U.S. history, art, computers, basically any subject you can think of. It’s hard to try and act like I know what I’m talking about, but also fun at the same time.

I’ve gone home from subbing crying and I’ve gone home with a huge smile on my face. Students say things to me that have me on the ground in laughter and things that make me want to pull my hair out. It’s the biggest rollercoaster of a job, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Subbing is definitely better preparing me for my very own classroom and in the meantime, I am able to pick up books from garage sales and book exchanges in order to build a classroom library. I am able to save up money that I will put into my own classroom because let’s face it, teachers use their own money for just about everything they need. I am getting my foot in the door in dozens of different schools and hundreds of different classrooms and figuring out what aspects of teaching and classroom management I like and dislike. I personally think subbing is a great start to my career and I am learning more than I can ever imagine. Although I was disappointed and skeptical at first, I know that this year will make me a better teacher in the end and that right there makes it all worth it.

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