Four Characteristics of Substitute Teaching (We Just Make It Look Easy)

Substitute teaching is hard.

And fun.

And agitating.

And rewarding.

I’ve had one to two classroom jobs each week since I started subbing, but I was recently asked to be a temporarily permanent substitute teacher for the seventh and eighth grade science classes, carrying the courses until the end of school. With my science background, the principal thought I would be a great fit. I was supposed to go down to the school Monday to pick up a textbook and some lesson plans, but a wasp sting, a swollen right hand and subsequent drowsiness from the Benadryl that saves me from severe reactions prevented that. I went down Tuesday instead to pick up the books and looked through them that night. I didn’t care for them much, so decided to just go with the flow and ask the students what they’re interested in.

One of the topics repeated several times in our discussions on Wednesday was natural disasters. On Thursday morning, I learned a volcano had erupted in Chile, so I pulled up some pictures to start the class, and then we watched an Eyewitness DVD on volcanoes (I grew up with these videos and still enjoy the theme song). I didn’t even mind watching it six times because it was so interesting.

Yesterday, I wanted to talk about tornadoes since we’re in Tornado Alley, and it’s that time of year. I didn’t know how I would fill the entire period, but I woke up early and started searching for a book. What with my background, which would serve me better in filling up a whole English period, I had decided to play to my strengths. I found my special illustrated and signed copy still packed away in one of my boxes and brought it in to school. In all six class periods, to open up our discussion on tornadoes, I read part of the first chapter. It was the first time in the three days I’d been subbing when the students were silent and attentive.

Story is powerful. I’d always known that, but yesterday, I truly saw it when I read my students The Wizard of Oz.

I had finally found a way to really connect with the students, something that can’t happen when stepping in the classroom for only one day and then moving on.

Substitute teaching is hard…

…because of the discipline aspect. I’m a stranger who steps into the classroom for one day, and the first reaction of the students is to test me to see how far they can go. I have to earn respect over and over again, for every class for which I substitute teach. One student told me Thursday that he wouldn’t give me any trouble any more since I wasn’t “just” a one-day substitute and would be there for the rest of the year. That statement explained a lot of the difficulty I had with students when I was just a one-day substitute teacher.

Substitute teaching is fun…

…because there are some activities that I can really get into. I enjoy reading to the students and use different voices for portraying the characters. I love telling stories, especially to the elementary students, because their imaginations are still active and they love hearing about The Trunchbull, Miss Honey and Matilda. When I was in the third grade class last week, I used a deep guttural voice for The Trunchbull and the sweetest voice I could conjure for Miss Honey. I’ve also presented a lesson on the Holocaust to 4th graders and read a book about Betty Skelton, a daredevil who broke barriers for women in aviation, to second graders. The story inspired a girl in the class to learn more about Betty and to say, “Girls are better than boys!”

I redirected her thoughts a bit to see the good in both girls and boys.

Substitute teaching is agitating…

…because sometimes, the students just don’t care what I say. I once asked high schoolers to turn in their papers before they walked out, and only a handful did. The rest just looked at me like I was crazy and left. I hadn’t earned that respect yet.

And it just plain wears me out. Today, Saturday, I feel like a lot was taken out of me these past three days and I just need to curl up and read a book. (I’m working through Allegiant, the last book of the Divergent series.) Yet, here I am, writing and listening to the rain and my Gregorian Chant station on Pandora (have yet to figure out why I’m on this particular station) because I’ve got a lot to catch up on and some cleaning to do and and and….

Yet, with all that…

Substitute teaching is rewarding…

…when a fourth grade student comes up to me after the Holocaust presentation and says, “Can I go to the library? I want to check out The Diary of Anne Frank“; when a third grade student understands what context clues are after I’ve tried several different ways to explain what they are; when the high school band plays with more feeling after they had played well technically and I expressed that more soul was needed.

Those moments are what keep me going and what made me actually miss substituting after I took a break to do a book design project.

With this newest assignment, which I’ve been calling “temporarily permanent,” it is nice to know that I will have a consistent, rather than sporadic, income, and that I will be able to know the students better. The hard and agitating moments will still be there, but hopefully, they will fade to the background and the fun and rewarding days will be present more often.

I’m looking for more stories with science topics to read (and we’ll possibly work through some science fiction material). Do you have any suggestions? If so, feel free to share in the comments section below.

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