life lessons from a substitute teacher

I always knew I wanted to be a teacher, from the time I was very young.  I’ve always enjoyed expressing my creativity, getting organized and being bossy💁🏽.  As I’ve been working on my Master’s degree in education, I have been fortunate enough to gain priceless experience through substitute teaching at a wonderful middle school for three years.  As my time there draws to a close and I embark upon the next step in my career, I reflected upon all that I have learned in my time as “that cool substitute who has style.”  

Take control immediately

Substitutes have a big target on their back right as they walk through the door.  When the real teacher isn’t there, it’s time to switch seats, pretend you never get homework and ask for a movie.  My first opportunity subbing was a long term position for science, one of my worst subjects.  Sure it would have been easy to show Bill Nye videos, but I worked to learn the curriculum, and strategies to teach (and relearn) the concepts.  It’s better to fake it til you actually make it than let it be known you have no idea what’s going on.  Students react to a strong presence, and starting off strong leads to respect throughout the year.

Always have a backup plan

Those emergency plans only take up so much time, and you’re bound to be put in a situation where you have a few spare minutes and no activities to do.  My go-to in spare time is to ask who watches the news.  Typically the number is low, so we discuss why we don’t watch the news (it’s boring, depressing, old people telling us what’s wrong with the world, it’s not about us, etc). Then we watch The Week in Rap from educational hip hop site Flocabulary, and literally jaws drop.  They’re blown away by the catchy, informative raps that sum up current events, including stories about technology, the environment and education, and always ask to see another one.  The site includes videos for all grade levels and subjects, and is worth the two week trial that will make you want a subscription.  I also try to keep a running list of games that are good for any subject:

  • Categories:  Create a stack of random categories (football teams, stores at the mall, farm animals, etc.  You can also make it subject specific, like vocab words).  Have students sit or stand in a circle and pass a stress ball or small object.  The goal is to name something in the category and pass it as quickly as possible to the next person.  If you take longer than 5 seconds to answer, you’re “out.”
  • Alphabet Trail:  Ask students to write letters A-Z on a sheet of paper, and then give them a category (again, this can be random or subject related).  Students work to have an answer for each letter.  The first student says their answer for “A”, and the following student must give their answer for the last letter of the word (If the first student says “Apple,” the next student has to give their word starting with “E.”)  Continue until all students have gone.
  • Guess Who?:  Write several famous figures on index cards (singers, actors, writers, characters from books, teachers, etc.)  Choose a student to be “it” and tape the card to their forehead.  Other students give clues as to who the person on the card is.  I usually guide the first three clues to include gender, occupation and dead/alive, and encourage the clue-givers to make it difficult for the guesser.

Be kind to everyone you meet

I learned long ago that the cafeteria, janitorial and office staff rule the school.  I have been so blessed and spoiled by the amazing administrative assistants at the school I work at; they are always friendly and organized, and keep an enormous operation running smoothly.  The custodians are the most friendly people who work tirelessly to keep the building sparkling clean.  When the room I was working in sprung a ceiling leak on the first day of a long term assignment, they were there fixing it that night.  The cafeteria staff are warm and inviting, and always tell you when they have chicken salad on the menu.  To feed and control masses of rowdy children they must have special talents!  All of the people who work at a school help make it run smoothly, so always smile and say hello.

Form alliances

I truly enjoy going to work every day because of the friendships I have made.  I have people to laugh with, vent to, ask advice from and support me.  I prefer to be by myself most of the time, but I realize there’s a lot teachers can learn from each other.  It’s comforting to have someone you know will listen to you, even if it’s for something small.  I have learned so many strategies and other invaluable pieces of information from just watching other teachers, and I hope to take that experience with me.

Pick your battles

Kids are annoying.  Not YOUR kid of course, he/she is perfect.  But other kids?  Annoying, obnoxious, moody, I could go on and on and on.  And at first in my quest for control I addressed every single behavior that I felt was unacceptable.  When that was (obviously) nearly impossible, I learned to ignore anything that wasn’t extremely disruptive to the flow of class.  One time a student was clearly acting up while everyone else was working, and I just ignored it.  He got closer and louder and I stared at him.  “Don’t you see me???” he demanded.  “Yep.  And I’m ignoring you,” I responded.  He looked puzzled, then stopped what he was doing and went back to work.  Kids are weird.  I can’t explain it, and I’m really scared to have one, but at least I already know you cannot win at everything. Some things you just have to let go, if not for anything else, for your sanity.

Go above and beyond

Before teaching, I waitressed and I think everyone else should too.  Waitressing teaches you multi tasking, customer service, time management and the importance of a strong work ethic.  I’ve been at schools where they are shocked that I come to the office during a free period and offer to cover a class.  I always try to get to school early to prepare for what I’m teaching and address any technological issues, and stay late to leave a detailed report of what was covered.  I know how I would want someone to leave my classroom, so I strive to practice that now.

Learn from your students 

I genuinely enjoy working with the kids at school.  People clutch their hearts and gasp when I tell them I teach middle and high school, but honestly I have the same reaction when someone says they teach elementary school.  The students I interact with are actually very funny, smart and cool, when they’re not glued to their iPhones or having a hormonal breakdown.  Giving them a say in what they’re learning, spending time doing meaningful productive work and trying to relate to them in small ways can really change the way you teach, and the way they learn.

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