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  • Writer's pictureJill Hartmann

Substitute teaching - sense of humor required

After I was laid off from my job, after nearly 25 years, I took some time to travel and explore. Part of my exploration was to "try on" a few new careers to see how they fit. During my time off, I became a certified leadership coach and also a substitute teacher. Yes, you heard that right, a substitute teacher!

Did you know they'll let just about anyone sub? All I needed was a bachelor's degree and a quick background check and I got approved to sub in 25 schools in my county from Kindergarten to High School. The training they provided only prepared us to find and secure sub jobs. Luckily, I stumbled across a training opportunity being led by a former teacher and principal. During the training, I furiously took notes on topics around classroom management, active shooter drills and general tips to command respect from students. I was trying to absorb her 30 years of experience in three hours. Keep reading to find out how that worked out for me.

After I was "fully trained," I signed up to sub for second grade. I showed up an hour before the listed start time and there were no cars in the parking lot. When someone came to open the door, I followed them and they promptly told me to come back in an hour. After a quick trip to Dunkin for a coffee, I returned and was welcomed by a friendly office team who gave me a map of the building and sent me to my classroom.

Upon arriving to the classroom, I reviewed the teacher's thorough notes and plans for the day. I wrote my name on the board, organized the piles of worksheets on her slightly disheveled desk and the children began to arrive.

They were pensive, even shy upon arrival. It seemed they knew the routine. They put away their coats and backpacks and retrieved work from their cubby's. I started the day strong and confident like I was taught at my training. I did a quick introduction, told them I had plans for the day from their teacher and told them second graders were my favorite.

But then ... the first chink in my armor. It was time for gym class and I didn't know how to get there. I had to ask for help. Literally everyone wanted to help me - from this point until the end of the day! On one hand, I was grateful for the directions, but on the other hand, aggressive help from 26 kids was a bit overwhelming (and loud). Luckily the gym teacher was looking for us, so he met us in the hallway. He gave me an understanding "oh, a sub" look and I watched a master class on how to get kids sweaty and keep them quiet at the same time.

One of my students, who did not speak English, was hit with a rogue ball at gym and started to cry. So I took her for a walk and tried some of my Spanish with her. I pointed to posters and said, "Como se dice?" Which means "How do you say?" I was able to make her laugh, so I felt good about that.

Also in gym class, a student with a disability tried to make a break for it. He ran to the door and tried to get outside. His teacher and the gym teacher had to chase after him, while I stood in disbelief. Hopefully my reaction time will get better with experience. After he was safely captured, I couldn't help but hope the teacher was a sub, too, and in the same boat as me.

After gym, I was supposed to give them a restroom break. This sounds easier than it was. I started to get the feeling I was being taken advantage of when several girls stayed in the bathroom way too long. I didn't know if I should leave the others in the hall to check on them, but finally decided to send in Nancy. I learned quickly that Nancy would be my savior. While the other kids tried to trick me, Nancy showed me the way. (Note: Names have been changed.)

We returned to the classroom where we did some math worksheets. Now, imagine a classroom with 26 kids. One finished in 30 seconds flat. He asked me to print him some more worksheets. I don't even see a computer or printer or let alone know how to boot it up and find worksheets! A handful have now completed their work and are bored and starting to talk and get out of their seats. A dozen kids have their hands up. Some have moved to the table where they are used to getting help. Nancy is telling me I need to sit at the help table. I'm starting to sweat. The noise level is rising, so I go shut the door so we don't bother the other classrooms. I look at the clock and try to figure out what we need to be doing next. Several kids are asking to go to the restroom. I start asking kids if they are getting hot. I realized that in the chaos, someone had turned up the thermostat. So now I'm opening windows while kids are desperate for help with their worksheet. Math worksheet didn't go well. Another chink.

The school-wide bookfair was happening in the library and my instructions were to send two kids at a time down with their money. One of the boys came back in tears and told me he didn't have enough money to get what he wanted. I was so close to giving him money, but I didn't think it would be fair to the rest of the kids. And they were all watching me. All the time. 52 eyeballs. Waiting for me to make a mistake. I started to wonder what the kids would do if I cried. Chink.

Then, it was time for me to read to the kids from the carpet. Thankfully, this was the absolute best! Just like me as a kid, they loved it. I tried to read slowly and ignore the girl doing the splits. At least she was being quiet. I decided to read another chapter, even though all 26 of them told me I was only to read one chapter. I needed some more time to regroup.

Alas, time for another bathroom break. This time, a teacher next door noticed that my kids were not lined up in the right order. She gave them a stern look and said, "Get in order!" They immediately scrambled into order as I gave the teacher a weary smile and a quiet thank you. Miraculously, while waiting in the hallway for the bathroom this time, the kids were quiet. Just as I was starting to feel good about my sub skills, I noticed the school principal standing in the hallway. She was a fierce warrior. She had the power to glance at the kids and they stood up straight. She complimented them and they smiled with pride.

Back in the classroom, my phone was ringing. No, not my iPhone, but the classroom phone. After 26 kids told me to answer it, I did. I thought the office was calling to complain about the noise, but they were calling to tell me we had a fire drill later in the day. I'm so glad they told me in advance, so I wouldn't be caught off guard.

Next up was recess. I was lucky to get a warm, sunny day in November. But, to my surprise, I was on recess duty. Not just for my kiddos, but for what seemed like 500 kids! The other teachers gave me a battery powered whistle, a pat on the back and they disappeared. l quickly scanned the area to make sure there was a fence. Thank goodness there was! I only had to use my whistle once during a football game that was starting to get aggressive. I'd call recess a win, since only one kid went to the nurse for a minor scratch.

At this point, I was able to go back to take a quick potty break and go to my classroom while the kids had lunch. I gobbled down a sandwich and started to prepare for the afternoon. By this time, I had observed other teachers and learned a few tricks. I learned to clap in a pattern and the kids clapped back. Nancy showed me a wand from the teacher's desk that I could tap and it made a chiming noise and the kids came to attention. I was pumping myself up for a great afternoon, fire drill and all.

This time, for the reading worksheets, I put Zippy at the help desk. He finished first again and then helped the other kids while I walked around the classroom. The kids also did some stations where they rotated through different activities. The fire drill was easy - we just followed another classroom. My kids were well behaved because the other teachers were near, putting a spell on my kids like only experienced teachers can do.

I was told in my training that kids of all ages love stickers. So I brought plenty of them. Towards the end of the day, the kids enjoyed sorting and selecting stickers. I figured a little fun with the sub was a nice break from their routine. One pack of stickers was positive sayings and one sticker said, "Be a badass." No worries, though, Nancy spotted it first and asked me if she should throw it away. Um, yes please, Nancy. I'll be voting for her for president one day!

The classroom phone rang again and I was given instructions about some of the kids and their after school plans. I relayed the messages, but they already knew their plans. I was impressed with how mature and responsible these second graders could be.

As the day was winding down, some of the kids started to hug me and give me sweet thank you notes. Just as I was getting into a rhythm, the day was over. I wrote a long note to the teacher to let her know what we accomplished and who were my best helpers. I looked at the disheveled desk a little differently now. I understood. I was too exhausted to straighten it up. I turned off the lights and went home for a nap.

A week later, I got my paycheck for $85.69. That's just a little more than minimum wage for a very hard day of work.

I hope you found humor in my subbing story and I hope the respect I have for teachers is clear. I'm planning to try 5th grade next, then maybe high school. Wish me luck!

P.S. Teachers (and subs) should be paid more!

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