Search form

Transforming Into a Teacher


It's one thing to write about teachers, it's another thing to be one. Several years ago Education World news editor Ellen Delisio plans to write about her experiences as a substitute teacher. But first she had to apply for the job and do some "student teaching." Included: Information on preparing to become a sub.

The plans for In A Sub's Shoes began in the spring, when new Education World features were discussed. The proposal was straightforward enough: My home phone would ring one morning a month, and I would be off to substitute in whichever elementary or middle school I was assigned, to teach whatever subject(s) I was assigned. A sort of education/journalistic version of Fear Factor. And I would write about my experiences from the perspective of a virtually untrained teacher.

Not only would educators get to read about the challenges facing substitute and permanent teachers, but also how a novice fared against their daily routine.

I started my preparation to become a substitute teacher in July, by meeting with the Middletown Public Schools' new superintendent, Dr. Michael Frechette.

Middletown Public Schools
At a Glance

* Number of schools: 11
-- Elementary schools (8)
-- Middle schools (2)
-- High school (1)
* Number of Title I schools: 6
* Total enrollment: 5,300
* Ethnic breakdown:
-- White: 59 percent
-- African-American: 29 percent
-- Hispanic: 7 percent
-- Asian-American: 4 percent
-- Other: 1 percent
* Free and reduced lunch: 35 percent
* Special education: 13 percent
* Limited English Proficiency: 1.6 percent

(Source: Middletown Public Schools)

Even though I do not have a degree in education and I'm not certified to teach, I am able to do this series because Connecticut, like many states, allows people to substitute teach as long as they have a bachelor's degree. That requirement can be waived if a district demonstrates there is a dire shortage of qualified subs. If the waiver is granted, districts have the flexibility to hire candidates who are at least 18 years old, have a high school diploma, and have had previous experience with school age children.

(A chart of almost all states' requirements for substitute teachers was compiled by the Substitute Teaching Institute at Utah State University.)

Frankly, I wasn't sure how open Dr. Frechette would be to having a reporter writing about subbing in his schools for a potential Web audience of millions to read. Especially since he'd only been in office about three weeks.

But in the previous district in which Dr. Frechette worked, a local newspaper reporter had shadowed a beginning teacher for a year and he was pleased with how the series worked out. So after some consideration, he gave permission for my proposal.


Even to be a reporter working as a substitute, I had to go through the entire application process and be formally "hired." This meant filling out an application, supplying names of two references, submitting college transcripts, and being fingerprinted to make sure I had no criminal record and didn't raise any virtual eyebrows with the state police or FBI. (I don't and I didn't.)

I completed tax withholding forms for the district's business office, to ensure I received my $65 a day for subbing. I was handed a guidebook that included information about the district and tips for substitute teaching.

A woman in the district office assured me that many of their substitutes came into classrooms with no teaching experience, and did fine. "Don't worry," she said. "The students are harmless. Well, most of them are harmless."


That was reassuring, but I was a little nervous. I had Education World's Sub Station to turn to for tips, as well as two colleagues who are former teachers, who supplied me with some strategies. But the closest I'd come to being an educator was teaching an afterschool journalism course at an elementary school more than five years ago, and that only was for two hours at a time with a small group of kids who viewed themselves as aspiring writers. Oh, and I taught my niece and nephew how to talk like Inspector Clousseau of Pink Panther movie fame. I was a little disappointed that Middletown did not offer training for substitutes, as some districts do.

In my former life as a daily newspaper reporter, I'd written whole stories in 30 minutes while surrounded by other reporters screaming on the phone and editors asking me every 60 seconds if I was done yet, called in stories from roadside pay phones while trucks roared by, conversed on the phone with my share of wackos who I prayed I'd never meet in person, and knocked on doors in some neighborhoods desperately in need of urban renewal.

But being alone in a room full of children who might view a substitute as a green light for mayhem seemed pretty daunting to me.

To gain some perspective and quell the jitters, at the suggestion of a colleague, I arranged to spend a morning observing an experienced teacher at work. Jodell Young, a first grade teacher at Middletown's Wesley School, welcomed me into her class a week into the school year. She was vibrant, confident, enthusiastic, and full of helpful hints.


Young's room makes an instant impression on visitors, because it is decorated like a rain forest, with artificial vines draped from the ceiling, and toy monkeys, snakes, frogs, and other (artificial) critters and insects hanging around. A fish tank bubbled on the sink.

Watching Young reinforced for me the importance of subs being prepared and relying on the classroom structure. She greeted her students at the door as they came in and reminded them of the morning routine.

Her 17 students have a wide range of ability levels -- some can read, some can't recognize all the letters of the alphabet. She is trying to meet the needs of all of them.

Young also had plenty of material for any subs. She had prepared what she called "a book" of information for substitutes to use. Early in her career, she worked as a substitute and walked into an art class and found no lesson plans. "I wouldn't want to do that to anyone," she said.

Plus, Young already had been instilling the importance of good manners to students, no matter who is in the room. "I tell them they are responsible for good character, good behavior, and stress respect for everyone," she said.

Young also lets subs know that students can earn "pennies" every day if their behavior meets the standards. Five pennies earn a small reward, and then they can start over. "It's important to follow through," Young added. "Once they realize you can follow through, they will get it."

She advised, as did my work colleagues, not to come into a classroom empty-handed -- to always carry a book or two or some extra activities in the event of downtime.

I left the first-grade rainforest feeling more confident, and back in my office assembled my "bag of tricks": a briefcase with books, activity sheets, markers, teaching tips, and directions to the district's schools.

I think I'm ready.

Education World In The Classroom

Education World news editor Ellen R. Delisio is spending one day a month as a substitute teacher in one of the Middletown (Connecticut) Public Schools' elementary or middle schools. She is learning and writing about the daily challenges substitute -- and permanent -- teachers face.


(Editor's Note: All students' names have been changed)