Started out an “About My Day” and ended up “How to be a Substitute Teacher”… Huh.

Today was a bit dodgy, but ended up with me in a reasonably clean kitchen, watching “Sherlock” and writing my new blog, so not too bad overall : )

I woke up too late to cook, so I ordered the most food-like breakfast Macdonalds makes, on the way to first crossing-guard shift this morning (a bacon egg and cheese bagel with no sauce on it, a hashbrown, and a coke). I sprinkled salt all over my hashbrown and immediately devoured it (I love salt.) but apart from a few sips of coke during my shift, that was all I managed to have for breakfast. My sandwich came home with me, sat on my desk in it’s white paper bag for a few hours, and later moved to the floor. I ate it after my second shift, perhaps 3:00, for lunch.

Cranberry juice when I got home (don’t ask), and a hard boiled egg (with salt on it) to keep me from sugar-crashing, and then off to my job. Such a long commute. I turned my computer chair around to face my computer, and started on the last day of website updates before the thing went live. It’s a  telecommuting job. Project manager, Client caller, Office organizer, and all around Girl Friday.

I just had a dear friend ask me for some advice on starting out as a substitute teacher (a job I had for several years), and this is what I told her:

Oh gosh, there’s a gazillion things I could tell you!

First, every situation will be a bit different, but the more “tools” you have in your “toolbox”, the better you’ll be able to roll with the punches. This will be a lot of stuff, but it’s really only a taste of all the info you’ll want. Gotta start somewhere, though!

I use one term a lot so I want to define it. “Be happy”. I don’t mean “smile and be all bubbly for the kids”. F’ the kids. I’m talking about you taking good care of yourself, and finding and doing what makes you feel the best, internally.

Yes I had to take the course, jump through the hoops, get fingerprinted, etc. It’s worth it. It’s over quick, and you never have to do it again. Good luck filling out which schools, grades, etc. you’re interested in. You won’t know until you try them. But you can adjust your settings later, so feel free to cast a wide net now.

Yes, there is a broad range of both quality and impact of substitute teachers. There are people who slog through, never taking the reins and letting the kids heap abuse on them like that’s their job. Then you have babysitters who have decided their job is to make sure none of the kids die, and that’s it. That’s fine, but then there are the Teachers, and they are like gold. The teachers who get substitutes who ARE teachers will call you back and ask you to sub for them when they go on vacation, get married, need maternity leave, get sick. The schools that you like and go back to over and over will get used to you, give you permissions most substitutes NEVER get. It will just happen naturally that you’ll be allowed to go where the faculty goes, do what the faculty does. You never have to grade a paper, keep a job you didn’t like, or stay in one place if it doesn’t suit you. On the other hand, you can take long term assignments that suit you to the ground, and have a real impact on the kids, forming bonds that you’ll remember forever (and so will they!)

1) Your primary and first objective is to control the classroom, which means taking a leadership role. It seems obvious, but if you are organized, and can answer most of the questions students will certainly have when they see a new face, and give them the kind of instructions they’re used to getting from the person standing up at the front of that classroom, they will automatically put control in your hands (up to a certain age. High school kids are different. You have to balance giving them some freedom and control while staying in the driver seat. I could never get the balance right, so I stick to littler kids.)

2) The next thing is to be as prepared and organized as it is possible to be, and I don’t mean bringing your own kit. I almost NEVER walked into a classroom where the teacher hadn’t made SOME kind of preparation for their absence. Usually there is a lesson plan for you to follow, or a note pointing you to a folder tucked in a drawer with “What to do if I’m gone” which will have busywork worksheets for the kids. (Or worst case, go to the school library, ask the librarian for a video, and make it movie day.) In any case, the trick is to (as quickly as possible) read everything you’re doing and get confident as you can with the material, so when you give it to the kids, you don’t make mistakes and act un-confident (which undermines their confidence in you). If you look and seem like you know what you’re doing, they will just assume you do. Fake confidence is just as good as real confidence in this case. None of these kids know you, and they’re all programmed to see the adult at the front as the teacher.

3) Your secondary objective is to be happy. You’ll be happy and confident in a school, grade, and subject that work with your brain. So first thing is to try a bunch of things and see which ones are fun and which ones suck big hairy balls. I taught at schools I’d never go back to in a million years, and fell in love with the school right across the street from my apartment (which was hella convenient!)
I found that sixth grade was fun to teach, and everything else didn’t feel quite right (or felt awful).
I never cared what subject I taught, but if it was gym, I’d better be ready for the testosterone to be shooting through the roof, and if it was biology, I’d have to water the plants, and maybe feed the frog 🙂
Once you get used to a place, you’ll be happier. I found that choosing a school (or schools) and sticking with it got me lots of benefits. Everyone knew me, treated me like one of the teachers. Gave me the password to the computer, the run of the copy room, showed me how to use the library checkout system, even gave me a library card! A long stint in a classroom (I took care of an English teacher’s kids for six months- she had cancer.) can be a great thing. You’ll find that you need a mat to stand on, so you’ll bring one and put it down. You’ll find there’s always a lack of pencils, so you’ll bring a jar of pencils, and devise a system to keep the kids from wandering off with them. You’ll notice that the kids have a hard time settling down and getting to work when the bell rings, so you’ll make rules that make sense, and get the kids used to following them. Plus, most teachers that aren’t BRAND spanking new have a lot of lesson plans all lined up. You just follow the road, keeping a step ahead of the kids so you can explain and answer questions. You make it work for the kids, and for you. Gotta keep that balance.
So remember-
1) Control the classroom
2) Be happy and confident
If you can manage these two objectives, you’ll be like solid gold to the school system, and they will ask you back again and again.
A couple of tips
-Make friends with the front office ladies. They are the power behind the throne. They know everything, are the gate-keepers to everyone, and can make your life Loads easier, or LOTS harder. Seriously. If you’ve known them for more than a month, bring them coffee mugs with chocolates in, or cute gifts, or potted plants. Whatever it takes.
-Kids become little quiet, drooling zombies when there’s a movie on in the room, and all movies are longer than one class-period. Just choose one that won’t have the parents hollering, and it’s like dark, evil magic!
-There’s never enough time to eat at the kids’ lunchtime. Especially if you try to go through the line in the cafeteria with the kids. Pack a lunch, eat in your classroom. You’ll be happier. Snacks are good too. Just a few minutes between classes can do wonders if there’s a piece of cheese behind your desk and a bottle of gatorade or something. Talking all day is thirsty work, and the teacher is allowed to break a few rules that the kids have to abide by. They are used to this.
-Figure out how children get punished in your school. It’s important, because all children push barriers and it’s good to have several sizes of stick, and several sizes of carrot. The ATOM BOMB of punishments, and my favorite, is to call mom (or dad).
At the school I chose, there was a lot of parent involvement, and if I was having a sticky problem with a child, I’d go into the rolodex that the teacher made at the beginning of the year (they almost always do) and called home and explained the problem. I’ve heard horror stories of parents taking their kids’ side and yelling at the teacher, but this Never happened to me. I would just call mom and say “Little Johnny is having a bit of trouble at school.” and before I could get two words out, I’m being grilled “What is he doing? He said WHAT? Oh when he gets home he is going to GET it!” (I was always as nice as I could be about the child. Nobody wants to hear their child denigrated. But I was always precisely honest about his or her behavior. Parents like to be able to point to examples when they’re shouting at their kid 😉
And little Johnny comes back the next day white as a sheet, polite as a choirboy, and generally (quietly) pulls me aside and says “could you please never call my mom again? I’ll be good, I promise.” Heh. My favorite. But there is also detention and referrals (where they have to sit and get yelled at by the vice principal, who’s job it is to be scary) and too many referrals can result in a suspension, which means they’re at least out of your hair. Those are all variously big sticks, obviously.
-Oh, and the first year of teaching, you will get ALL the colds. Every flu virus will make you it’s bitch. Just be aware, this happens to every teacher for about a year. There’s nothing wrong with you, you’re just collecting the whole set of antibodies. Next year you won’t have the same trouble.
What is subbing like?
It’s scary, stepping into who knows what to deal with who knows who every day. It was a challenge for me to make myself take that leap every morning. It was much easier not to take a sub job that day and stay home.
It’s an amazing feeling, though, to get through the first day that you get through with no major issues. You feel like Superman. It’s a very hard job to do well, and when you DO find that you’ve done well, it’s a Really good feeling.
I remember sitting in a restaurant with my hubby, spending my hard earned money on a couple of steaks, and having two little girls run up to me “Miss B, Miss B! Remember us from school?” and having them hug me and waving at their parents. It was a Really good feeling.
And it’s kinda fun to feel like the captain of this brightly colored ship. Getting to run things your way and make decisions to make your life, and the lives of these kids, easier and better.
Some days are bad. If I just couldn’t keep the kids under control and someone stabbed someone else in the leg with a pencil, or a kid walked out of my classroom and I had to call the front office and tell them I lost one, or when it’s just too stressful and you want to melt into a puddle of tears. Those are the bad days.
It was always too stressful for me, actually. But that was because I was Always on high alert. I maybe took my job a little too seriously. But I cared about those kids, and really wanted them to be well, and have a clear space to learn and grow.
I always took a shower when I got home. Chalk dust, mold, and stress sweat washed away and I could relax after what was really not a terribly long day, with a long planning period break (most days) in the middle somewhere.
I think if you can stay happy, you’ll be an amazing substitute teacher. I have no doubt you’re organized enough, and willing to shout a class down, and I know you care enough. The thing you’ll need to find out is (and I can’t stress this enough) how to get and stay happy. You’ll figure out what you like and what you need. It’ll just take a bit. Give it that bit, and you’ll know something new about yourself, and a lot of new things about teaching. And there will maybe even be some kids out there who’s lives are better because of it.
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November 20, 2012 · 2:22 am

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