On being the Sub

Let’s be honest, being a substitute teacher (heretofore known as “the sub”) can be a thankless job.  I was a January graduate and teaching jobs were difficult to come by.  As a result, I started subbing.  One of my first gigs was at a local suburban high school.  One of the reasons that job came to fruition was because my mother-in-law was one of the school secretaries.  Remember, it truly is about who you know.

To be honest, I loved subbing.  My son was small and if he was sick I could say no.  But, I was seldom out of work.  First of all, I’d sub in any discipline.  I was a phy ed sub, a French sub, an art sub.  I didn’t care.  Subbing gave me a chance to “interview” the district and talk to teachers.  I quickly learned what schools I wanted to work in and what schools I wanted to run from.  Second, I made sure the sub secretaries knew me.  Before I would leave for the day, I would ask if they knew of any more available dates and I would, calendar in hand, gladly take them.  I left a sub job having three or more jobs for the following weeks.  Finally, I would sub whole days or half days – whatever worked for them.  By making myself available, it showed the district I was serious and ready.

But, I also learned that being too willing and available backed me into a corner.   I remember this one experience very clearly:  a local suburban high school (not mother-in-laws) was looking for an English teacher.  I had subbed many, many times in this district and felt confident that I would, at the very least, get an interview.   I asked the Director of Student Learning (who was also sub supervisor) about the position.  He said (and I quote), “Peg, we’d never hire you as an English teacher.  You’re the best sub we have.”

Ouch, gut punch.  Say what?

Yep, I was too good.  Because I would sub any class, because I could manage a high school classroom on a Friday during 7th hour and because I was conscientious, they didn’t want me.  The “logic” made no sense.  Needless to say, I took my name off the sub list.

So next time you need a sub, keep in mind that they are people too, doing a very tough job.

Here are some tips that will not only help the sub, but help you:

1)       Have detailed, clear lesson plans.  Writing sub lesson plans are a pain in the tukus.  Teachers know that, and as a result, rush through them.  DON’T!!  It is imperative sub plans be written clearly and with thought or your sub will have a terrible, horrible, no-good very bad day, which could indeed come back to haunt you. It can take me up to two days to write lesson plans.  As an example, I make the rules very clear:  NO ONE LEAVES THE CLASSROOM.  While this may not be my rule when I’m in my own classroom, it is my rule when I have a sub.  It just makes things a whole lot easier.  

2)      Believe the sub.  Kids are kids and they  might “distort” the truth.  The sub has no reason to lie.

3)      Ask one or two of your kids to be Teacher’s Assistants.  If I know ahead of time that I’m going to be out, I always tell the class and I ask a couple of kids to be Teacher Assistants.  I also ask the TAs to take their own notes on class expectations and class behavior, (by the way, this is not tattling.  It’s called “classroom motivation”).  I always rotate this job.  My kids love the opportunity to be a TA when I’m gone.  It gives them a sense of duty and empowerment.  

4)      Make it clear to the sub you want detailed comments about each class and if necessary, specific kids.  I know of at least a couple of times where the sub has used it as a form of “encouragement.”   It works.

5)      Have emergency sub plans when you’re sick.  Please don’t call in and say the kids have a “study day.”  NOTHING will get done and you are really leaving the sub open for a world of hurt.  Here are some ideas:

  • Have cross-word puzzles available for your discipline (you can find them at the New York Times)
  • Ask students to compose a letter to you using 10 vocabulary words
  • Write an argument about why we should/should not have school uniforms
  • Have students read a timely article about the CNN Heroes (you can find their profiles at CNN).  Ask kids to write a letter to their hero or CNN about why that person/organization should win CNN Heroes.

6)      ANYTHING is better than NOTHING!

Remember, as you share with them the sub’s wonderful report, tell them the brownies are coming tomorrow.  Then, when you distribute the brownies the next day, make time to explain why they are getting them and how appreciative you are about the good report.  Trust me, the kids will think twice about giving the sub a hard time.  Also, don’t be surprised if they want that sub back again.  You now have a relationship started between your kids and a sub – always a good thing!