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Reflections from a Newbie Sub

With my stint as a substitute teacher at an end, I got to look back at the path I traveled in unfamiliar shoes and think about what I learned. My respect for anyone who stands in front of a class has grown, as has my understanding of today's students. Included: Reflections from a first-time substitute.

In August, I began the process of transforming into a substitute teacher so I could learn what it is really like to stand in front of a classroom for six hours.

I certainly don't think that my nine days of subbing give me the right to call myself a teacher. Although, now that I've walked in a sub's shoes, I have a much greater appreciation for what they and all teachers do.

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.

The wide range of abilities, personalities, and sensibilities in today's classrooms makes me wonder how teachers manage to remember everyone's needs and quirks without an Excel chart. Now I understand why most teachers start the day with a grande cup of coffee welded to their palms.


I would have to say the low point of my career as a substitute came on my first day -- it would be worse if it occurred on my seventh day, I suppose, because that would mean I really hadn't learned much -- when a little girl in a very rambunctious second grade class asked me if I wanted her to get her teacher from last year to help out. Eliciting pity from a second-grader, I thought, was about as low on the pedagogical food chain as you could get.

Many moments made me smile as well: A second-grade boy who welcomed me with an embrace and "I'm so glad you're not a dinosaur." In case you were wondering, yes, he was a handful, and I actually lost him on the way to lunch. An intrepid paraprofessional helped me get through that day without threatening to sell anyone on eBay.

And there was the fourth grade girl who casually mentioned that she woke up the day after Halloween and ate a lot of candy. "I'm pretty much back to my self now," she added.

Oh, and I chuckle when I think of the kindergarten teacher who, without missing a sentence in the story she was reading, said, "I didn't hear the flush," when a small person exited the bathroom.


I'm certainly not qualified to pass on any teaching tips, but I made a mental list of things for classroom teachers and administrators that I, at least, think would make substitutes' lives easier:

  • Prepare students for spending the day with a substitute teacher, especially the youngest ones, for whom routine rules. Stress that the substitute may look different, talk different, and do things differently than you do, but he or she is the teacher, and you have bestowed upon the sub all your teacher-powers for the day, including clairvoyance and eyes in the back of the head. Remind them that all classroom rules apply.
  • Leave lots of work for the class. If you're not sure you've left enough for the kids to do, leave lots more. If you think you have left enough, leave more. Nothing makes the heart of a new sub sink faster than reading that language arts is supposed to last until 10:30 and seeing students parading up to the desk with all the work completed by 9:55.
  • Put enough details in your lesson plans so a chinchilla could teach the class. When you teach the same things every day, obviously, your brain goes on auto pilot. But instructions that say "Do the weather, calendar, and money" can mean very little to a sub. And asking the class for clarification can get you more answers than there are days on the calendar.
  • Provide the name of a nearby classroom teacher who can be a lifeline and step in for a moment before isolated skirmishes become all-out revolts.
  • For administrators, pay subs more. Districts won't get quality, caring people without making the investment.

The year went quickly and I can't believe I am back full-time in my editor shoes already. While I wouldn't call sub shoes the perfect fit for me yet, now I know I would be willing to try them on again.