ABC COUNTDOWN TO RETIREMENT: S is for…

June 3, 2015

S is for substitute teaching.

This is an option that I am considering for earning a little extra cash and staving off boredom next fall. I’d only do it a couple of times a week. I’ve worked as a substitute before; in fact, it was via “subbing” that I got my first full-time teaching job.
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My master’s thesis was a paper entitled Substitutes Are Teachers Too. It turned out quite interesting, because I had to supplement my own experiences with research, and I also interviewed other substitutes, as well as regular teachers regarding their opinions of substitutes, in order to get a variety of points of view.
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Here’s a fact that I learned, and put at the beginning of my paper: Did you know that the average student in the United States spends the equivalent of one school year of his/her K-12 education with a substitute teacher?
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This fact makes sense, when you think about it, yet stated this way, it becomes clear that substitute teachers are important in students’ lives, even though they may only be there one day at a time.
Substitute-Teacher-Poster
In fact, subs are in short supply in general. There are at least two factors that contribute to this. Teachers are absent more often these days – it’s not just on days they are sick or have personal business to attend to; they are often required or strongly encouraged to attend seminars, workshops and conferences that take place during regular school days. It is essential that they do this for professional development, which is part of their evaluation and they also earn “certified professional development units” (CPDUs) which count toward the renewal of their teaching license.
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Also, the law in Illinois has very recently changed. It used to be that anyone with a bachelor’s degree in any subject qualified to work as a substitute teacher. Apparently, you now have to have a bachelor’s degree in education. This is a good thing, probably, since I have encountered some very inefficient substitutes who have no idea how to run or control a classroom. Ask them and they might say they majored in engineering 40 years ago, now are retired, and wanted something to do part time.
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Students do like to take advantage of substitutes. That’s always been true – I remember when I was in school: when we heard we were going to have a substitute that day, we did all kinds of shenanigans. Sometimes the assignment was comical: for example, an overweight elderly woman spending the day teaching physical education to junior high boys!
black lagoonWhen I first worked as a substitute, I was given the option of putting down choices – the kinds of classes I preferred subbing for and the kinds of classes I absolutely would not sub for. I always put P.E. as one of the latter, although I have since had experience in it, which was not bad – it could even be fun.
gym classOne of my most recent assignments was at a very nice school in a good neighborhood in Chicago. I was apprehensive – I was to be the gym teacher for the day! This was one subject I did not want to teach. But there I was, nicely dressed (not suitable for a day running around with kids in the gym), and that was my assignment for the day.
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It turned out to be fun! All my students that day were in kindergarten, first and second grades, and the gym teacher had left specific instructions for fun games for them that day. All were done with music played on a small boombox. The students all enjoyed the class and the games, and wanted to play them over and over. It was a wonderful day!

Once I subbed for a computer lab teacher. She had hands attached to the computers - hand up meant
Once I subbed for a computer lab teacher. She had hands attached to the computers – hand up meant “I need help”, hand down meant no help needed.

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These days, the job of “sub caller” has been mostly eliminated. It is now an automated system that gives out the substitute jobs, and the substitute teacher has to check the system online very often to get the best assignments. Sub callers often knew who to call for particular jobs – they knew our preferences and skills. I soon became known as one of the few bilingual substitutes in the district I started working in, and teachers would call or email me in advance to find out if I was available on a day they were going to be absent.
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Now, however, the automated system is just a machine which neither knows nor cares what your preferences are, nor what area of the city is closest to where you live. That is the main reason I quit subbing in Chicago – the system would assign me to a school that was a two-hour commute away, or it would assign me to high schools, although I specifically had stated the year before (when there was a sub caller) that I did not wish to sub in high schools. My knowledge and experience is in elementary school.
Aesop
Even with an automated system, however, it is possible to be put on a preferred-sub list for a particular school or teacher. I have business cards printed up that I hand out which indicate that I am certified as a bilingual (Spanish) teacher. Once I get to be known, I never lack for jobs, since bilingual subs are rare and therefore coveted!! If a bilingual teacher can count on a bilingual sub to be there when she’s gone, she can write lesson plans accordingly. It’s less disruptive for the students if the sub can continue teaching the same thing the teacher would have taught.
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A substitute, however, no matter what her relationship with the teacher or school, never really knows what she is getting into when she walks in that classroom door. I have had wonderful experiences but also very bad ones. A lot depends on how thorough the regular teacher was in preparing sub plans. Here are two examples of particularly bad substitute experiences I’ve had, but also what I did to make the best of them:
.sub cartoon1
One of my earliest subbing experiences was in mid-December, the last week of school before break. The “arts” teacher (music, drama & art) had an emergency – her grandmother had died and she had just finished putting on a holiday show with all her students. She hadn’t had time to prepare lesson plans. When I got into her classroom, there was an activities book in the middle of her desk with a note that said “Just do anything from this book that you want to.”
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I was assigned to be there for two days. I would have student groups coming in from kindergarten through fifth grade, and I could be teaching music/drama or art.
I flipped through the book to find activities I felt comfortable doing. One thing I selected that really bombed was to play telephone with one group of kids in about second or third grade. They ended up being silly, gross, and loud. OK, I’m not doing that again, I thought.
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For art, it was a little easier – I came up with the idea to teach the kids how to make 6-pointed snowflakes. This would give them a chance to be creative as well as reinforce how to follow instructions. Although many of them didn’t listen very well, it turned out okay, because when a snowflake came out wrong, I furnished the child with another piece of paper, retaught the steps, and let them try again. They could make as many as they wanted or had time for. This activity kept them engaged and happy. The good thing was that this activity worked for most grade levels.
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The music/drama classes were more difficult, because they were more movement-based. Unless I could find a really engaging activity, things easily got out of hand. I hit upon a couple of games that worked: “Pretend you are…” (an animal beginning with the letter A, for example). The student would then have to imitate with their body the animal they chose and the others would guess what animal they were.
sub cartoon-music
One of the worst sub jobs I ever had was a 4th grade class whose teacher had fallen and broken her hip, so she was going to be out for quite a while. When I went to the office, I was warned that this class was “tough.” I smiled and said, “No problem. I can handle it!” I figured if I did well, I’d be asked back the next day and having multiple days in the same class was generally desirable.
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There were no lesson plans – just a piece of paper with a few things hastily scribbled on it.

I wish I'd found something like this on Ms. Weber's desk...no such luck!
I wish I’d found something like this on Ms. Weber’s desk…no such luck!

This apparently was the result of a phone conversation between one of the other teachers and Ms. Weber, the regular teacher of this class who’d been out for several days already. I had trouble finding out when the students had a special – some kids told me 8:50, others 9:30, and another teacher I asked said 10:30, which the students vehemently denied. They couldn’t even agree on what special it was! One thing was certain though – the special teacher came to their classroom, so I didn’t have to take them anywhere. So I gave them an easy, fun project to do while waiting for that teacher to arrive.
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Unfortunately, this class didn’t give me a break. On top of it all, I had come down with a cold and forgot to bring medicine for my symptoms. So my voice became ragged, my eyes were red and watery and I couldn’t stop blowing my nose.
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These fourth graders really were not interested in learning. All they wanted to do was fool around. I tried to keep order and motivate them at first, but nothing I tried worked. I was at my wits’ end and fighting an urge to give up and go home to bed.
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At lunch, some teachers were talking about the 4th graders in Ms. Weber’s class. I spoke up and mentioned that I was their sub today. They immediately took pity on me and told me that the class was pretty much hopeless. I was the fourth sub they’d had in as many days, since none of the subs would come back the next day. They told me horror stories about what the kids had done to some of the subs. I found it difficult to believe that the subs would react as they did, even though I knew what these kids were like.
.'If the school can send in substitute teachers, how come we can't send in substitute students?'
The class had math right after lunch. They were reviewing three-digit subtraction across zeroes. I was glad because I had just taught this to one of my tutoring students the day before and I had a method that made it easier.
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I demonstrated on the board, while loud, rude noises were made behind me. Small objects flew across the room. Most of the students became louder and more boisterous. Obviously, they had no interest in learning this, no matter how I tried to get them to see that it was something they really needed to know. Of course, many of them told me they already knew how to do this type of problem.
.So I finally gave up. If they had no respect for me, I wasn’t going to bend over backward to get them to settle down and work.
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“OK,” I said. “If you don’t think you need help in doing this type of problem, I’ll just write the problems on the board, you can copy them down and solve them by yourselves.”
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I wrote eight subtraction problems on the board and told the students to get out a piece of notebook paper and write them down, then solve them. I told them I was going to make sure Ms. Weber would see them and give the students a grade on this assignment.

'I hate it when a substitute gets teachy.'

Then I walked around the room and monitored their progress. Some students stalled by saying they didn’t have paper, or they didn’t have a pencil, etc. I was able to provide them with these materials. One girl was coloring a picture from a coloring book, not even bothering to hide it when I came by her desk.
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“Is this the paper you’re going to do your math problems on?” I asked her.
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“Yeah,” she said without looking up and went on coloring.
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“Well, be sure to put your name on the paper so I can give it to your teacher to check.”
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Then a miracle happened: another girl came up to me and asked for help. I sat down next to her desk and showed her the method I’d gone over earlier, and then let her try it. Soon I was surrounded by eight or ten kids who were interested in learning how to solve this type of subtraction problem. I soon realized that this group had the unfortunate bad luck of being good students in a class full of slackers. They wanted to learn, they were motivated, but often they were overpowered by their rude and disrespectful classmates who took charge and kept learning of any consequence from occurring.
sub-thank you
I felt somewhat vindicated by the end of the day. Although the behavior of most of the students, no matter what the consequence, continued to be loud, rude and off-task, the students who had surrounded me during math warmed my heart. They were what made teaching worthwhile. I had taught them something that day, and that was important to them and to me. After I collected their papers, with all the problems written down carefully and a decent attempt made to solve them, and every one with their names on the top of their paper, I went around and collected the other 15 or so students’ papers. Most had written nothing, or their paper was ripped or crinkled up. The girl with the coloring book page handed that in with no math even attempted on it. Still I insisted they write their names at the top and collected whatever they had just as it was.
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I was never before so happy to dismiss a group of students as I was that day! I knew I wouldn’t accept an invitation to return the next day, so I would never see any of them again. Still, I hoped the good students would get something out of this year and have more success in fifth grade.

This sub might be ready for Ms. Weber's class!
This sub might be ready for Ms. Weber’s class!

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Typical
Typical “Sub folder” that teachers leave with info for the substitute.

Having been a substitute before I had a regular teaching job, I was very sensitive to the issue of writing good lesson plans. When I was preparing for a substitute, I generally stayed at school later than normal – sometimes as late as 6 or 7 pm! – to get everything ready. I would explain everything the sub was to do in detail and then I would go over what I’d written and make sure all materials the sub would need were in a pile on my desk and labeled with a post it note for each class. Subs often would write me notes on the plans and thank me for being so thorough!
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I did the same thing when I was a substitute. I generally stayed after school longer than necessary in order to do a good write-up for the regular

A rather detailed substitute information sheet
A rather detailed substitute information sheet

teacher, so she’d know everything that had happened that might be important to know. If I had no way of disciplining a student, I would let her know this too, and let her take whatever measures she’d see fit.
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I spent several days over a course of weeks in one Chicago second grade classroom. Even though the kids were somewhat rambunctious, I liked them and had become familiar with their routines and habits. One time they were especially naughty and I made them put their heads down on their desks for a certain number of minutes – 2 or 3 at the most, but if I caught someone talking or laughing, I’d start the timing over! This was an effective technique, but also frustrating. I had a long message for the teacher, Mr. Green, that day.
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The next time I was at that school, a couple of days later, Mr. Green approached me with a packet of letters of apology he had made his students write to me. I have kept these letters because I really enjoyed reading some of them and want to remember them.
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The next time I subbed for Mr. Green, most of the the kids treated me with a lot more respect!

sub cartoon
So, while mulling over whether or not to be a part-time substitute, I try to concentrate on the good experiences and to forget the bad, or at least view them as cautionary tales. The hardest thing is to come up with effective strategies on the fly. I now, however, have had more experience in many different situations, so my toolbox of classroom management tools is a lot more full. Sub-Toolbox3

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