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.

Posted in Writing

Driven to Distraction: How to Avoid Losing Focus When Writing

The internet gets a bad rap. People are always talking about what a time suck it is and how “these days” we have such difficulty staying away from distractions. While I agree that it’s easy to get lost in social media, educational blog posts, and cute pictures of puppies, the interwebs are not solely responsible for the downfall of humanity. People have always struggled with focus.

Don’t believe me?

I recently read a short story by Bram Stoker called “The Judge’s House.” It was written in 1891. This is how it starts:

“When the time for his examination drew near Malcolm Malcolmson made up his mind to go somewhere to read by himself. He feared the attractions of the seaside, and also he feared completely rural isolation, for of old he knew its harms, and so he determined to find some unpretentious little town where there would be nothing to distract him. He refrained from asking suggestions from any of his friends, for he argued that each would recommend some place of which he had knowledge, and where he had already acquaintances. As Malcolmson wished to avoid friends he had no wish to encumber himself with the attention of friends’ friends, and so he determined to look out for a place for himself. He packed a portmanteau with some clothes and all the books he required, and then took ticket for the first name on the local time-table which he did not know.”

See? Over a hundred years ago, this character took a train, alone, to a town he didn’t know, then rented an old abandoned house which local villagers claimed was haunted, all in a desperate attempt to escape distraction while he studied. Of course, this decision worked out very poorly for Malcolmson in the end, so I suggest using these less severe methods for keeping yourself on task.

Screen Shot 2015-06-23 at 6.05.33 PM

1. SelfControl

No, not actual self control. Everybody knows that doesn’t work and I have an empty bag of Milanos in my trash can to prove it. I’m talking about the app. SelfControl is a free app for Mac that allows users to block distracting websites for a certain amount of time. You control the websites and the length. So if you’re doing research and need some internet access, that’s fine. You can still block Facebook, Twitter, Goodreads, or any other urls that frequently try to grab your attention. I find it very useful and usually set it for an hour or hour and a half block.


2. The Green Folder

Sometimes shutting off the internet isn’t enough because the distractions aren’t in the computer– they’re in your own brain. (The call is coming from inside the house!) Sometimes you’re working on a project and you’re really in the zone and it’s going great and you’re getting so much done and all of a sudden your brain is like, “Wait! Oh my god, I just had the BEST idea! What if…” and then she proceeds to tell you the basic plot of a novel that would absolutely 100% be a bestseller. When this happens, it’s temping to stop what you’re doing and just type up a few words of it, maybe a rough outline, so you don’t forget. Don’t do that! It’s a trap! If you go down that rabbit hole, the next thing you know it’s two o’clock in the morning and you’re stuck in the middle of a chapter of THE WRONG NOVEL. No. Don’t do it. Then again, simply ignoring her isn’t a good idea either because, damn it, Brain’s really onto something this time. So here’s what you do instead:

  • Get a folder. (An actual, physical folder, not one on your computer. Mine is green, but the color is optional.)
  • Keep the folder on or near your work space.
  • When Brain comes up with a BRILLIANT idea, jot it down on a sticky note and put it in the folder. (Or write on the inside of the folder itself as I have done.)
  • Keep the folder CLOSED. Now all of Brain’s ideas are safe and sound but out of sight.


I think it’s important that this is a physical folder in the real world and not one on your computer. Computer files are too easy to access when you’re looking for somewhere to stray while typing and it’s a lot more satisfying to close a real paper folder than to click the red x of a digital one.

Of course, the folder shouldn’t stay closed forever. After all, there’s some good stuff in there. Set a timer on it the same way you do with the SelfControl app. My green folder is closed for the month of June while I work on my novel revisions. It’s accumulating everything from poem ideas to possible blog posts to flyers about future writing contests to… I don’t even know what anymore. On July 1st, I get to open it and see what’s inside. It’ll be like my birthday!

3. Get Away

Malcolmson actually had a pretty good idea in “The Judge’s House.” Sometimes turning off the internet and sticking distractions in a folder still isn’t enough to keep you in the chair and writing. Those are the days when a change of setting can do you good. Some people write in coffee shops—that usually works for me for a couple of hours—but if, like Malcolmson, you need a quiet space for a lengthy period of time, the hustle and bustle of your favorite coffee shop may not work.

Luckily, if you live in Austin, Texas, like I do, you don’t have to go to a haunted house to find the perfect place to work because we have The Writing Barn, a unique space operated by Bethany Hegedus, author of Between Us Baxters, Truth with a Capital T, and the Bluebonnet Award Nominated picture book, Grandfather Gandhi.

From The Writing Barn website:

Situated on 7.5 wooded acres in Austin, Texas, The Writing Barn is surrounded by mature trees, home to birds and deer. It’s a peaceful out-of-town environment without ever leaving Austin.

With floor to ceiling bookshelves, rows of instructional craft books, free wi-fi, and no television, The Writing Barn is the perfect spot for an overnight writing retreat, to host a writing class, or throw a book launch party.


In addition to workshops and classes, the Barn also hosts “Write Away” days where, for just $15, guests can spend the day at the site, enjoying hours of distraction-free* work time among other writers. These days are so great for getting back into the groove if you’ve been away from a project or focusing to get through a troublesome revision or just enjoying the peace and serenity of the surroundings while typing. In fact, I just took part in a “Write Away” day today and I left the Barn with 4,000 revised words of my novel, half of this blog post drafted, and six new friends.

* Okay, it’s not completely distraction free, but baby deer are allowed to interrupt me anytime.

That’s all I’ve got today. Limit the internet with SelfControl, stick your Brain’s brilliant (but ill-timed) ideas in a folder, and find a writing retreat in your area (but good luck finding one as lovely as The Writing Barn). And if you do decide to go off on your own for awhile, remember—safety first. Tell someone where you’re going, take your cell phone with you, and heed the warnings of the local villagers if they say the house you rented is haunted. Because, after all, you’d eventually like to be able to get away from your get-away.

Posted in Life, Writing

Tip #8: Share Carefully

A couple of weeks ago, I posted seven Tips for Taking the Stress Out of New Year’s Resolutions, and today I want to add one bonus piece of advice.

At this point, you’ve celebrated your accomplishments from last year and have made a list of balanced, attainable goals/resolutions/intentions/wishes for 2015. (Right? If not, there’s still time. After all, Tip #3 is Ignore the Calendar.)

Now what?


Tip #8 = Share Carefully

In life, there’s a fine line between sharing too much and sharing too little and I’m usually on the TMI side of it. I’ve learned the hard way that sharing my resolutions with everybody is a bad idea. After all, it’s possible that you won’t accomplish all of your goals this year, especially if you end up accomplishing new things that you didn’t even set out to do. It happens, and being flexible is okay. But it’s hard to remember that when people keep asking you about x and you’ve already moved on to y. It can lead to some awkward conversations. So remember that it’s okay to keep some things to yourself.

Then again, if you don’t share your resolutions with anybody, it becomes pretty easy to pretend they don’t exist, and that’s not good either. You need to have someone in your life who asks how things are going once in a while and helps keep you accountable.

My advice is share, but share carefully. The exact formula is up to you, but I like to share all my resolutions with one person (my husband gets to be the lucky recipient of the full list) and I choose a few select goals to share with the world. (Click here to see the ones I shared last year. I get three checks and a check-minus for that list. Not too shabby.)

Here are the resolutions I want everybody to know about for 2015:

* I will complete my first poetry manuscript and submit it to a contest.
* I will read at least 50 books. Some of the titles on my must-read list are:

The Shining by Stephen King
The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
Song of Myself by Walt Whitman
Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson
Masterpieces of Terror and the Supernatural, edited by Marvin Kaye
(I’ve been picking my way through this anthology for a couple of years now. It’s time to finish it.)

* I will participate in the World Horror Convention in Atlanta in May. (Note: This does not say I will “go” to the convention. I’m already going. I’ve got tickets and plane reservations and a hotel room and a posse of two writer friends to travel with. It’s a done deal. My resolution is to participate. When you fly across the country to hang out with other lovers of horror, that’s no time to be shy. I plan to be present every second of the weekend and soak up as much inspiration as possible.)
* I will continue to monitor my use of have to, need to, and want to. (<– This is the best resolution I’ve ever made, and I make it again every year. Read about how it started here.)

Feel free to check in now and then and ask me how things are going. And if you have a resolution you want to share with the world, post it in the comments below!

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NOTE: This blog turns one year old this weekend! To celebrate, I updated the About page and added a FAQ tab. Head over there to find out if you’ve been pronouncing my last name correctly in your head. Chances are, you haven’t. 🙂