How to substitute teach (and survive)

When people find out that I substitute teach, they usually respond like this: Why would you want to do that?

Unless those people are teachers themselves. Then they respond: You do?! Have you ever subbed _____ grade? (They’re desperate.)

The answer is Yes, I have. I have subbed them all. I have favorite grades and favorite schools and favorite subjects. And I have a never-sub-there-again list.

Most adults remember with chagrin their own school day antics, enjoyed at the expense of substitute teachers. They remember switching seats with classmates, answering roll-call to the wrong names, and talking the teacher out of homework assignments, quizzes, due dates, and rules about anything and everything (dress code, eating in class, hall passes, bathroom breaks, headaches, stomach aches, going outside, etc.) I remember one day in 9th grade algebra when we turned every desk around to face the back of the room before our teacher came in. Oh wait, that was our regular teacher, not the sub. (Yes, we were that bad.)

And still I became a teacher.IMG_0006

First, I became a classroom teacher, then a substitute teacher, then a homeschool mom, then a private tutor. I don’t know why, but I have a fascination for entering the arena called a classroom. I believe teaching–especially substitute teaching–to be one of the best preparations for many professions in life (sales, leadership, public speaking) because every day, you must enter an anti-you environment and garner success out of sheer determination and poorly-detailed plans. It’s like being a Red Sox hitter and stepping up to the plate in Yankee Stadium: playing is just survival, but hitting a home run is success.

To substitute effectively, you need 3 primary skills: a keen memory, a perceptive mind, and a sense of humor. Parenting experience can help (depending on what kind of parent you are), but former teaching experience serves better. (After all, these kids don’t love you and you don’t feed them.) We regular subs can give newcomers to the profession a few pointers:

1. If you act like a real teacher, they will believe you are a real teacher. If you act nervous or compliant, they will eat you alive. (Notice the Wicked Queen costume above. First graders followed me around all day and held up my train!)

2. Smile at your students, but don’t be fooled by their smiles. Kids–especially teenagers–who are trying to pull a fast one often smile while they weave their artful tales. While you’re listening, look for the Daisy Do-Good in the room, who will be vigorously nodding in affirmation or shaking her head in disgust. Trust her, if you can’t trust your intuition.

3. Assume no one is sick or unable to hold his bladder for the duration of your class. Students are always looking for a reason to leave class, especially when they assume there’s nothing to miss. Guaranteed, their regular teachers don’t let them leave whenever they want. You may have a legitimate case. (I recently had a responsible student begin the morning perky, ask to go to the office by snack time, return to class without a fever, and by 1:00 was full-on with the flu. His falling asleep at lunch tipped me off.)

4. Watch for phones, iPods, and gaming. Kids really aren’t allowed to have electronics out. Yes, they will tell you that they need it for a calculator or their reading material. Again, intuition is your friend.

5. When you have a question or you need to verify a statement, don’t trust the “cool kids;” ask a quiet, nerdy kid whose work is out and organized; he will give it to you straight. No, we don’t have class outside or Yes, we have to do our own work. (Stereotypes exist for a reason.) Once I found a student from another class hiding in the closet in my classroom. The faces of the Daisy Do-Goods told me something was amiss, so I checked. Yes, that was a bit embarrassing.

6. A regular teacher’s long-term relationships with her students gives her the right to demand respect because over time, she has earned it by caring about her students. Substitute teachers don’t have that luxury. You have to demand cooperation only on the basis that you are writing up a report for their regular teacher on how each of them performs in class. (That’s why you take role and look at their faces. You have developed a gift for remembering who does what.) Sometimes it helps to give students your teaching resume. Students generally respond more respectfully and responsibly when they know that their class is being managed by a real teacher. (If you are a parent or a newbie, pretend you are a real teacher and be firm.) This is not to say that you can’t, in the first few minutes, develop enough rapport with your class to garner their respect and interest for the next 50 minutes or 6 hours. This is always my attempt. but the first recommendation is gold.

I have a caveat here about how to develop rapport. When you take the required county’s class for substitute teaching requirements, one of the cautionary rules is to never share anything personal about yourself with your students. I suppose the aim is to maintain a sense of professionalism and reserve. I have found the opposite to be true, with the exception to hostile environs (where I never sub–some things can’t be done well). I have found that students want to connect with their teachers, even their substitutes. Finding common ground in the first few minutes is critical to their desire to work and listen to you. Please feel free to comment on this. Maybe I’m the only one who feels this way.

7. Try to meet the administrator and neighboring teachers. Smile and shake hands firmly. Ask intelligent questions and praise their school environment. You might need their help during the day. They know you’re the sub. You don’t have to pretend like you know everything.

8. Always find out the procedure for discipline. You might not think someone under your tutelage would disrupt your lesson, hurt another student, make out with another student, break the dress code, cheat on a quiz, or sleep on his desk–but it’s been known to happen.

9. If you sub for elementary school, you have some additional information to acquire, like what songs do they sing and for what occasion? what’s the routine with the weather chart and reading time? are they allowed to use markers? can they use drawing paper or scissors or tape? where are the room assignments? what happens when someone tattles? what should you do about crying? which kids have allergies? what if someone vomits or wets his pants? These and many more important topics should be addressed. Believe me, there is a right way to handle each. The kids with the tidy desks will tell you how it’s done.IMG_0031

10. Leave detailed notes for the regular teacher and thank her. Share anything cute or funny that happens during the day, including the interaction and response to the lesson(s) you taught. Make sure you tell the teacher what material you did and did not cover (it doesn’t help you to pretend you got through all the work, when you didn’t. Trust me, the kids will tell the teacher what you did and did not do, as well as how much they liked you.) If you like subbing, the path to a regular subbing job or permanent teaching job is to connect with the teachers already at the school. You want to become invaluable to them.

Good luck! Subbing is not for the faint-of-heart, but it is rewarding. And you get to leave at 3 pm with no papers to grade, no emails from frustrated parents, and no lessons to prepare during the evening. Subbing is almost like a regular job. Plus the feel of an arena.

“The mediocre teacher tells. The good teacher explains. The superior teacher demonstrates. The great teacher inspires.” ― William Arthur Ward

What are your experiences? Please leave a comment.

2 thoughts on “How to substitute teach (and survive)

  1. Roseanne

    I’ve never been a substitute teacher, but as a classroom teacher I was always very kind to my subs. That meant having things easily organized and ready to go. I almost never had the subs use technology or anything else that could trip them up. I also set the expectation with my kids on day 1 that anytime I had a sub their behavior went toward their “citizenship” grade (10% of their overall classroom grade). Misbehaving for a sub impacted them in a quick way.

    Subbing is so hard… this is a great post!

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