Posted in Teaching

Adventures in Subbing, Part 2: The Advantages of Not Knowing Anything

I recently started substitute teaching, and it became obvious from my first day on the job that I don’t know ANYTHING.

Yesterday, in Part 1 of Adventures in Subbing, I wrote about the disadvantages of not knowing anything. If you missed the post, you should read it, especially the part where I convince myself that I helped a miscreant break into a middle school portable. But if you don’t have time for the whole thing, it boils down to this. The three main disadvantages of not knowing anything are:

  • Getting lost a lot
  • Not knowing the students’ names
  • Unexpected surprises (Like lockdowns and alarms going off. Really, you should just read it.)

But there are advantages to nothing knowing anything too, and they are:

  • Getting unlost a little at a time
  • Not knowing the students’ struggles
  • Unexpected surprises (Different ones.)

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The Advantages of Not Knowing Anything

Finding Your Way

You’ve gotta start somewhere, right? I may have known nothing at the beginning of each of my jobs, but at the end of the day, I knew many things. I knew where to park and that I should bring a book for all the times when I find myself waiting for someone to unlock a door. I knew how to get to the gym and that it’s extremely important to third graders what color fake mustache they get. And you don’t have to find your way alone. There are so many people to help you and not all of them are possible miscreants. At the high school, the library assistant was amazing, showing me the ropes and making sure I felt comfortable running things before she left. At the middle school, I only had to teach one class by myself. After that, the inclusion teacher ran the show while I just helped out. And during the third grade field day, there were several really sweet parent volunteers who knew the names of the students and pointed me in the right direction when I was leading the kids astray (literally). Learning new things is one of the fun parts of subbing. The next time I go to one of these three schools, I won’t be a newbie anymore.

Clean Slates for Everyone

Not knowing students’ names can be a problem, but not knowing their struggles can be a blessing. Once you learn something about a person, it’s difficult to unlearn it, so sometimes ignorance is bliss, especially when it provides a clean slate for a kid who needs it.

The day I subbed in sixth grade, I was told to meet my advisory class in the gym and walk them to the room. When I got to the gym, there were four girls sitting together at the top of the bleachers and one girl sitting by herself close to the bottom. I sat down next to the girl who was alone and introduced myself. Then I watched the pageantry that was this school’s morning routine. When something confused me, I asked the girl about it. Why is everyone wearing green? (It’s spirit day.) Who is that? (The assistant principal.) What time do we get to leave? (She’ll dismiss us when it’s over.) It turned out the girl I sat down next to had a stutter, but she patiently answered all my questions, sometimes giving me a look that suggested she thought I might not be so bright. After all, WHO wouldn’t know that Monday is spirit day? When we were dismissed to our classrooms, I asked that girl to lead the way (since I was already lost again). Later in the period, based on some interactions I observed, I got the impression that other people might sometimes look at her as if maybe she isn’t so bright, even though she was patient, kind, answered all my questions, and was an excellent helper. Because of her stutter, she may not be called on very often. But I didn’t know any of that when I met her, and I was glad I’d given her a chance to be an expert and a leader.

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Small Victories

When you don’t know the students and they don’t you know, neither of you has annoyed the other yet. You haven’t been battling for days or weeks or months trying to get that student to turn in homework or sit still or stop trying to stick pencils in the ceiling. When you’re at square one, sometimes things work that would never work on square seventeen.

The day I was subbing in third grade, we’d conquered Field Day, devoured snack time, and improvised our way through the last half hour when the video didn’t work. (I introduced the students to the Green Door brain teaser. If you don’t know this one, email me. It’s a great time killer.) It was time to clean up the room and, based on the state it was in, I didn’t have high hopes. But the kids surprised me. Within a few minutes, the room looked amazing. All the desks were cleared off with the chairs stacked neatly on top. All but one.

When it was time to leave, one little boy’s desk was still an absolute mess. When I commented on it, the other kids said, “He NEVER cleans up his desk!” The boy shrugged, like, Yep. It’s true. I prodded a bit more, saying how easy it would be to put things away, but there was no movement in that direction. So I tried for a compromise. I asked him to at least stack the chair on top. The other-kid-chorus sang again, “He NEVER stacks his chair on the desk!” I looked at him. “Really?” I said. “NEVER?” He shrugged again. I decided I was going to get my compromise. I said, “Well, there’s a first time for everything. Think how shocked and excited your teacher will be on Monday when she comes back and sees your chair on top of the desk.” The boy seemed confused and a little scared, and he had trouble wrestling the chair into place, but he did it. He stacked the chair on top of the mess on top of his desk. And then we dismissed.

I considered it a victory.

*     *     *

It won’t be like this forever. Most subs eventually settle down with a couple of preferred schools and work there exclusively. When they mention those campuses, they say “my school” because they really are part of the team. The longer you work in one place, even as a sub, the more you learn the inner workings of the school and become part of the culture. Soon I’ll have “my schools.” I’ll call teachers by name in the hallway. I’ll know which bathroom needs a key and who to ask for extra highlighters. I’ll also know who’s most likely to take a twenty minute bathroom break and which student never ever cleans up his desk. I won’t be new anymore. But for now I’m still in the adventure stage. I’m parking in the visitor lot, getting lost on the way to the cafeteria, and asking the “wrong” kid to pass out papers. And I love it.

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10 Tips for Substitute Teachers:

  1. Wear comfy shoes.
  2. Smile. 🙂
  3. Treat the students like people because they are.
  4. Get a buddy, a student whose name you know who you can ask questions or call on to help you figure things out.
  5. Always follow the teacher’s plan to the best of your ability.
  6. When the teacher’s plan doesn’t work due to missing materials, technology difficulties, unexpected fire drills, or students who SWEAR that’s not what they’re supposed to be doing today, be ready to improvise.
  7. Bring a book, your own lunch, and a bag of tricks. Tricks may include:
    • A story you can read to the kids in a pinch.
    • A game or activity that could fill time if something goes awry.
    • A talent or skill that might impress the students. (I briefly mesmerized a couple of third graders with my juggling during Field Day.)
  8. Ask for help when you need it. You have allies all around you. Don’t be afraid to reach out to another teacher for advice or support.
  9. Always leave a note for the teacher, but don’t throw the kids under the bus. Don’t list every little infraction and irritation. If there was a real behavior issue, something she needs to follow up on, write it down. But the fact that Student X didn’t clean up his desk? Chances are she assumes that already. Focus on the positive. List things that went well. If possible, try to make someone’s day rather than ruin it.
  10. Hang in there. Tomorrow is a new day.

One more thing:

I’ve heard people say that substitute teachers get “thrown to the wolves.” This is a fair comparison in some ways, except everyone thinks the wolves are the students, and in my experience, that’s not the case. Everywhere I’ve been, the kids were great. The worst thing that happened at the high school (after the weird post-lockdown scene) was when a boy burped loudly in front of me (his teacher made him apologize) and when a girl gave me a dirty look for telling her there was no food allowed in the library. The worst thing that happened at the middle school was the boy who argued with me about not wanting to put his iPod away and the girl who ate a small piece of her test. (That was weird, but had no lasting ill effects on my day.) And the worst thing that happened at the elementary school was the kid wielding the pogo stick like a sword and the boy who wouldn’t clean up his desk.

I realize some of you could probably fill the comments with examples of students who were horrible to you, but… I hope you don’t. I know tough schools and tough kids exist. But if you’re going to sub, don’t decide before you get there that the students are wolves. Walk into every job expecting the class to be full of kind, interesting people who just want to be treated with respect. Then give them a chance to prove you right.

Author:

Carie Juettner is a teacher and writer in Austin, Texas. Her poems and short stories have appeared in publications such as Daily Science Fiction, Nature Futures, The Texas Poetry Calendar, and HelloHorror. She is currently working on a novel for the middle grade audience. Well, CURRENTLY she is drinking a cup of coffee and petting a dog, but she promises to get back to the novel in just a few minutes.

7 thoughts on “Adventures in Subbing, Part 2: The Advantages of Not Knowing Anything

    1. Thanks! 🙂 So, only certain things can be taken through the Green Door. You can take a kitten, but not a cat. You can take a book, but not a story. You can take pepper, but not salt. Got a guess? If so, tell me something you think would be allowed through the green door. (Hint: There’s a clue in the name of the game too!)

  1. Reading your adventures makes me feel not so alone on this journey. I mainly sub at the high school level, so I miss a lot of the funny kid moments. The times that I subbed for middle school and elementary there were plenty of moments to internally laugh at. Not so much in high school. I always leave a note for the teacher and usually there are one to two names of the students who refused to do any work, put their phones away, or were just blatantly rude (like taking or making a phone call during class). I’m slowly learning what behavior is taboo and thus should be mentioned in my notes to the regular teacher. For instance, I used to include little things like this student didn’t do any work and just sat there, but I now realize I’m the sub, just the sub, and nothing but the sub. If a student isn’t participating or being productive but is quiet and not disrespectful, I’ll let it slide. On the other hand, If a student is cussing out a fellow classmate or stealing their materials in a less than jestful manner, as the students say, I’m going to put them on blast.
    Another thing I wanted to comment on was “settling”. There is a particular high school that I’ve subbed at for two weeks straight and have several week long gigs lined up for the next couple of months. I would consider this the school that I’m settling in. The staff is wonderful, the teachers actually care and are full of energy, and the students are for the most part willing to learn. I’m actually planning on getting my credential so I can become a teacher there. This is the only school that I don’t have that tinge of anxiety about accepting a job at five o’clock in the morning. And it is the best feeling.
    I look forward to reading part 3. 🙂

    1. “I’m the sub, just the sub, and nothing but the sub” made me laugh. 🙂 Congrats on finding such a great school to work at. I’m sure they’re happy to have you. Yes, and yes on the types of notes you leave for teachers. I’m surprised by the language students use in front of me at the middle schools– nothing like where I used to teach. It’s so pervasive that it seems like they talk like that even in front of their regular teachers, but that’s hard for me to grasp.

      1. I agree. It makes me wonder if their language is a result of parents not parenting properly or parents parenting too much. If their parents don’t value language, then I don’t see students easily adopting it. On the other hand, if parents are too strict at home, students may feel relieved when they get to school resulting in their “loose” language.

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