Posted in Teaching

Adventures In Subbing, Part 4: The End


Every year when I was teaching seventh grade, our school administrators gave us some sort of inspirational poster or story or memento to keep in our classroom for encouragement throughout the year. Sometimes it worked. Sometimes it backfired. I remember distinctly the year the nugget of inspiration came in the form of a very short story about a woman who woke up and only had three hairs on her head. She braided the three hairs and was happy. The next day she woke up and only had two hairs on her head. She parted them in the middle and was happy. The next day she woke up and only had one hair on her head. She wore it in a ponytail and was happy. The next day she woke up and had no hair left on her head. She said to herself, “I don’t have to fix my hair today!” And she was happy.

I’m pretty sure the point of the fable was to find the silver lining in everything and stay positive, but as the year wore on, I decided what it really meant was that teaching makes your hair fall out.

I share this memory as an explanation for why I subbed so much in May. Despite working more hours than usual at my library clerk job, completing a freelance project, and keeping up with my own writing, I still made time to substitute teach eight times at seven different middle schools. Why? Because I know what May is like for teachers. At this time of year, they’re lucky if they have any hair left at all and they need a break. I know that all of those half days, sick days, personal days, and I-just-can’t-today days are well-deserved. I’m happy to step in and help.

The end of my year of subbing was just as interesting as the beginning. I watched Inside Out three times, The Lost World twice, and Scared Shrekless once. (That one was awesome.) One day I arrived to my classroom to find a bag of raw chicken on my desk. (It turned out there was a reasonable explanation for it that had nothing to do with Satanic rituals or mean pranks.) One day when some seventh grade science students playing a card game suddenly erupted into loud yells, I went over to investigate, only to have a boy calmly explain, “Sorry. I got AIDS.” (The card game was called “Defend Yourself” and was from their unit on the immune system.) And during the last half hour of my very last sub job, an eighth grade girl asked me, “Can I go ride my unicycle in the courtyard for Ms. Smith?”

Sometimes I think I’ve been asked everything in my teaching career, but that was a new one.

I think the best way to demonstrate what subbing at the end of the school year looks like and close out my Adventures in Subbing series is with a photo documentary. Here is a look back at my last six weeks of subbing, in pictures.


Creepy mural on the wall of an art classroom


Semi-creepy box-creature in a social skills classroom


Sometimes subbing looks like this... during STAAR testing, I spent four hours monitoring the boys' bathroom (one boy at a time, no talking in line). I was able to read an entire issue of Writer's Digest during my shift. It was awesome.
Sometimes subbing looks like this… during STAAR testing, I spent four hours monitoring the boys’ bathroom (one boy at a time, no talking in line). I was able to read an entire issue of Writer’s Digest during my shift. It was awesome.


Scare tactics-- cheesy when I was a kid, still cheesy today.
Scare tactics– cheesy when I was a kid, still cheesy today.


One school where I worked had goats and sunflowers. :) I like that school.
One school where I worked had goats and sunflowers. 🙂 I like that school.


Angry note taped to the door of the faculty restroom. The person who wrote this has zero hairs left.
Angry note taped to the door of the faculty restroom. The person who wrote this has zero hairs left.


I subbed in the classroom with this friendly creature on May the 4th, otherwise known as Star Wars Day. Two teachers at the school were in Star Wars cosplay. Later, in my class, a group of boys gave their science activity a Star Wars theme. I asked them if they’d seen the teachers in costume. One boy said, “Yeah, I was psyched that I knew Ms. X was a Twi’lek.” Another boy said, “Yeah, but Ms. Y was dressed as Obi-Wan, but she had a Kylo Ren light saber and that pissed me off.” There’s just no pleasing seventh grade geeks.
I subbed in the classroom with this friendly creature on May the 4th, otherwise known as Star Wars Day. Two teachers at the school were in Star Wars cosplay. Later, in my class, a group of boys gave their science activity a Star Wars theme. I asked them if they’d seen the teachers in costume. One boy said, “Yeah, I was psyched that I knew Ms. X was a Twi’lek.” Another boy said, “Yeah, but Ms. Y was dressed as Obi-Wan, but she had a Kylo Ren light saber and that pissed me off.” There’s just no pleasing seventh grade geeks.


Happy last week of school, teachers! We appreciate you! May there be a large margarita in your future.

Posted in Teaching

Adventures in Subbing, Part 3: The Whole Truth


In 2015, I added another hat to my hat rack. In addition to my Writer hat and my Poet hat and my Library Clerk hat, I started wearing a Substitute Teacher hat, which stills fits a little lopsided.

In October, I wrote two blog posts about my new role: Adventures in Subbing, Part 1: The Disadvantages of Not Knowing Anything and Adventures in Subbing, Part 2: The Advantages of Not Knowing Anything. Both posts focused on the humorous and positive aspects of the job. Yes, I shared some of my “troubles,” but those troubles mainly amounted to minor inconveniences like not knowing where to park or vague suspicions that I might be talking to a criminal (which was all in my head). I ended the second post with a rant about how the kids are mostly wonderful and you should approach every job with a positive attitude, showing respect for everyone you encounter.

I still believe all that.

BUT… now that I have more than three sub jobs under my belt, I’ve experienced a few situations which were less than ideal in a non-funny way. I don’t really want to write about them, partly because I try to keep things upbeat here on the blog (and in life in general) and partly because I don’t want to throw any particular school, teacher, or student under the bus (even if I might have wanted to a little bit at the time). I would rather just learn what I can from those experiences and move on.

The problem is, if I pretend like those bad days didn’t happen, then I’m doing a disservice to all substitute teachers who’ve gone through similar things. If I post nothing but sunshine and rainbows and ignore the ugly side of the job, then I’m lying. To myself, to my readers, and to anyone else who’s ever had a class of eighth graders completely and totally ignore them for an hour and a half.

The truth is that subbing is a hard job, and sometimes people make it even harder than it needs to be. So, in an effort to present both sides of the coin, I am admitting that subbing is not all roses and free day-old donuts.

The Whole Truth(s)

  • Sometimes your “lesson plan” will consist of a stack of uninformative packets with a sticky note on top that says, “Return at the end of class.”
  • If the school where you’re working does not have a strict policy on cell phone use, good luck.
  • Just because you accepted a job to be an aide in a seventh grade Language Arts class doesn’t mean you’ll actually be an aide in a seventh grade Language Arts class. You are a warm body on campus and the office will place you where they need you most.
  • You may, at some point, find yourself “teaching” a subject you are not qualified to teach, in which case you will feel stupid every time a student asks a question. (Example: I (an English teacher) was placed in a sixth grade math class with another sub, who was an art teacher. Sixth grade math has changed a LOT since we were in sixth grade, and we weren’t that good at it even then. We ended up having to get another math teacher to come teach us what we were supposed to be teaching the kids.)
  • While it is possible to become invested in a child’s situation after knowing her/him for only one hour, it is not always possible to make a lasting impact on that child’s situation, and that’s hard to accept.
  • No matter how old/wise/patient/rational you are, being ignored and disrespected hurts.
  • Often, there will be ZERO instructions in the lesson plan for what to do if a student misbehaves.
  • Sometimes there is not even a phone list in the room so that, in order to call the front office to ask someone to come deal with an unruly student, you actually have to look the school’s number up on your phone.
  • Sometimes a known trouble-maker will do something mean to a student with Aspergers, causing that student to scream and run out of the room, an incident which could have been prevented if you’d had any information about any of your students’ needs. But you don’t. So you spend the rest of the day trying to make sure the student is okay and, even though he is, you still leave at 4pm with a heavy, heavy heart.

Despite the negative experiences I’ve had at some schools, I still say there’s more good to be found in subbing than bad. I still say you should treat ALL students with respect. I still say you should walk into every classroom with a smile, if you want to have a chance of getting one in return. But there are going to be days when all the smiles and respect and good-planning in the world don’t work. And on those days, I wish you a safe drive home and a hug from someone you love when you get there. Or a glass of wine. Or three.

[Note: This post is old. I wrote it weeks ago and only decided to share it now. All of the sub jobs I’ve had so far in 2016 have been (mostly) lovely.]

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.)


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.


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.


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.