The Ins and Outs of Being a Substitute Teacher

On this Monday morning, the door to the classroom is open. The teacher I’m replacing is at her desk gathering some last minute items for the field trip she’s chaperoning today. She doesn’t make eye contact when she says, “Are you my sub?” and hands me the sheet of paper with the lesson plans typed on it.

As I’m scanning it, she mentions that I might get asked to cover some other classes since she has two periods when she only has “teacher’s assistants” in the room. I’d like to ask about this, but I don’t. Instead I’m thinking, “This is going to be a long day.”

What Adds Hours

I’ve worked in education long enough to know that plenty of substitute teachers bring a thick novel and hope they’ll get uninterrupted reading time during their day. I’m not one of those.

Sure, I have my tablet, and there are always books to be read on one of my digital reader apps. Most of the time, I plan to use the planning period (at least) to work on whatever project I’m writing that day. Or I might whip out a blog post or two (like this one).

But for the most part, a day where students aren’t going to be engaging with me tends to be a L-O-N-G one. Here are some things I might see in sub plans that tell me this eight hours is going to feel like sixteen:

  • A movie (that will be played for three or four different classes)
  • Ongoing work on a project (like the essay in the sophomore language arts class today)
  • Silent reading of a text and a corresponding worksheet
  • Traveling to the computer lab to work on something
  • An online assignment (because many of the students will head off to a fun place in cyberspace and will conveniently ignore me when I try to redirect them)

This last one is what the seniors in honors language arts are doing on the day I’m penning this. They’re honors students, so they might be more on-task than the average class, but they’re seniors too. And it is the week before spring break.


Things You Wouldn’t Think You’d Do

Babysitting students while they supposedly work on an ongoing assignment is expected. Teachers don’t know what sort of substitute will be filling in for them (unless they request a specific one), and maybe the substitute won’t know the first thing out the subject matter.
Thus, I tried not to feel offended during this conversation today:

Me: “So should I expect some students will want me to check off this sheet before they begin writing?”
Teacher: “I wouldn’t worry about that.” Pause. “Unless you feel comfortable identifying themes.”
Me: Stunned into silence.

Hello? I have an English literature degree. And I’m familiar with Bradbury’s classic FAHRENHEIT 451. Are you serious right now?
But worse than that expectation that I wouldn’t “get” what sophomores are doing is the drill that will be held during second period. The vice-principal came in first thing to hand me the “procedures.”
I’ve already been on a fire drill at this school. But today there will be a LOCK DOWN drill. This is preparatory for a “live shooter” or “other threat” on campus.
So, when the announcement comes on, I’ll get to pull the blinds, switch of the lights and huddle under my desk with a class full of teenagers. All of them will have their phones out, and I’m supposed to keep them off those.

Because in the event of an actual lock down, those lights would be an open invitation to the threat that the room was filled with innocents. Not really a message we want to give out.

As the VP explains things to me (and I’m not a novice to this, so he really didn’t have to), he ends the conversation with, “It’s unfortunate that we even have to practice this.”

Unfortunate might be an understatement. This is the world we live in where people won’t even let kids learn in peace at school.

And then they decide to have a fire drill on the back side of sitting on the floor in the dark for six minutes. I’m sure you can guess how engaged those sophomores were when we came back to class 20 minutes later.


What Adds Interest

I didn’t want to end this post with a negative tone, so let’s talk about things that add interest to my day of substitute teaching. There are a few. It’s not always glorified babysitting (with a WAY better paycheck than I ever earned back in the day).

I’m a writer. I love reading. You can imagine what sort of things I’d find interesting when in the same room with teenagers. Things like:

  • Reading and discussing an article
  • Reading and discussing a short story with a specific purpose (like writing a paragraph on some literary device or element afterward)
  • Reading and discussing poetry
  • Watching a video that will spark a conversation that segues into an assignment
  • Brainstorming ideas for stories (a rare joy these days)
  • Class discussion when students actually participate

There are probably other things that have made the hours slide by in a middle or high school classroom. In the end, it boils down to student engagement and teacher-student interaction.

What things have you done at work lately that were unexpected? What makes the day drag on and on for you?

What do you think? Add to the discussion here.

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