Confessions of a First-Time Sub
I did not particularly want to become a substitute teacher; rather, it became the least of what I considered several unattractive options after I was unable to land a full-time job three months into the phase of my life that brought me to Greenwood, Indiana, from South Bend. We all remember the substitutes from our school days — generally some older, often retired, person who needed a few extra bucks and had the day free to provide what was a mass babysitting service. Occasionally they were retired teachers, but more often they were not-career teachers, I think, had had enough of dealing with students (“cherubs,” as one of my junior high teachers sardonically called us) that they did not need to relive the nightmare during their golden years.
And if you remember how you felt when you saw that substitute in your classroom — think school of sharks in a pool of chum — you can understand why I wasn’t too keen on becoming day bait.
But with the full-time job prospects remaining dim, I opted — with much “encouragement” from my wife — to apply with a firm that screens, hires, and schedules substitutes for my local school district as well as many of the charter schools in the area. Getting hired was not difficult for me; having two college degrees plus experience teaching at the post-secondary level paid off (for a change). When I went to the training session I was intrigued by the eight others who were there, primarily young-to-middle-age professionals, most with college degrees, who were either unable to find full-time employment or were seeking supplemental income for their households.
The training was perfunctory; mostly they reviewed the basic rules (liability issues, naturally), set up background checks, and performed a quick assessment of our temperaments. Once we completed the afternoon, we were assigned IDs for the computer system (it’s all computers, of course) and sent out into the “sub” world.
I will admit I do like the internet-based scheduling method. I can set the parameters regarding the assignments (schools, grades, etc.) that I am interested (or, more importantly, not interested) in and block out days I am not available. I can watch the website for jobs that appeal to me, then claim them online, so I always know a day in advance if I will be working and where (no 5 a.m. phone calls, thank you very much). I imagine the school administrators like the system for the same reasons.
Regarding the schools, I have been to five of them so far, and in each case the administrators and other teachers have been welcoming and helpful. I think they know what a difficult position we are in and want to make sure we come back when needed.
As for the students…well, they haven’t changed much in the 30-plus years since I was in high school. There are those who are respectful and those who aren’t; those who care and those who don’t; and those who understand the value of what they are learning and those who don’t seem to care to, or pretend like they don’t. I have found this to be true from 2nd grade through high school seniors, and the patterns hold across the years and types of schools.
As a sub, I find that the biggest challenge is simply holding down the fort, keeping the students from getting too out of control. Kids are at least as sophisticated as we thought we were, still looking for ways to avoid doing what they are supposed to. Now, though, there are the added distractions of electronic gadgetry: where we thought our Texas Instruments calculators were cool, they now have smartphones and iPods to increase the distraction quotient. The best I can do, it seems, is keep them from rioting in the 40 minutes or so I have them in my presence. Luckily, the teachers I have subbed for have left detailed lesson plans; the only caveat is that they don’t leave enough work for the students. Most of them get done in less than the time allotted, leaving them ample opportunities for mischief. Although the majority of students either focus on other classwork or chat reasonably quietly, there are always a few who regress to their pre-K days and test my patience.
In addition to the pay, which isn’t great, but there are far more arduous ways to make money, one of the benefits I have discovered is reacquainting myself with material I hadn’t looked at in decades. Today, for instance, I subbed for a high school history teacher and relearned information about the Civil War and the politics of the 1920s.
If nothing else, subbing has given me a whole new appreciation for the teaching profession and those in it-past and present-and has led me to at least this observation: I have yet to meet an overpaid teacher.