Tuesday, May 9, 2017

My Experience as a Substitute Teacher

I graduated with my undergraduate degree in English and English Secondary Education this past December and since then, I've been quite busy.  In January, I started substitute teaching through an agency that allows me to sub for paraprofessionals and full-time teachers all over my home state.  In February, I added another school district that I can sub for and what's nice is it's the same district that I grew up in and that I student taught in.  I'm in my fourth month of substitute teaching and... it's been quite the experience.  I mean this in a positive, negative, and curious way.  It's weird to come home and try and tell my friends and family who are not teachers themselves about what my job is like.  I guess I just want to try and talk about it here.

The Good

Some of my favorite moments are when I've subbed for my mentor teachers.  There are a few teachers that I call my mentors-- the 5th grade teacher I've volunteered for going on five years now is a very important person to me because she has put so much trust in me as far as partially teaching her students.  My student teaching co-teacher is a mentor of mine because she never hesitated to be honest with me and she pushed me (in a positive way) to be the teacher that I am today.  I've been able to sub for both of these amazing women and be with "my" kids.  That's been so wonderful because I'm with kids that trust me and we have this understanding between each other.  That's such a privilege in this line of work.

I have had the privilege to sub at a number of really great schools.  Ultimately my goal is to find a full-time teaching position, so this is really great.  It's like getting a preview of the place where I might work but without the school knowing that I'm scrutinizing them so that I get an unedited version of what the school I'm visiting is like.  I can see what the staff are like and how they act towards someone temporarily in their domain, what the principal is like, and even what the kids are like.  I can assess and see what I can handle and which schools are a good fit for me.  After having a number of really terrible work environments (one of which I'm not legally allowed to talk about which frustrated me at the time and to a lesser degree continues to frustrate me), this is incredibly important to me.  If this were any other line of work, I wouldn't have this opportunity.

I've gained a lot of classroom management experience.  This means managing behavior and generally making a class run smoothly, for those who aren't aware.  During student teaching, I started out the year at the same time as my students.  This presents a lot of advantages because they learn to trust me at the same time they learn to trust their regular classroom teacher.  Handling behavior tends to work best if you have a positive relationship with your students.  So now, with subbing, I'm challenged to handle behavior with hundreds of students I don't know and don't have a personal relationship with.  It only makes me a better teacher.

One of my favorite parts of substitute teaching is that I get to hear all sorts of hilarious things that students say and the very sweet things I see them do.  On the best of days, students are incredibly helpful and they help me rally together a number of the students so that we can get through the day.  I so appreciate those students.  And then I get to be part of really fun moments too.  I recently subbed in a Spanish classroom.  They had one worksheet to do in an hour of class (not enough work), but then we made up the rest of the time by putting on Mexican songs for everyone to hear.  There were so many happy students in that period.  They were working on their worksheet (for the most part) and singing along with the music piping through the room.  It was a blast.

The Bad

I have had some truly horrific days of substitute teaching.  Sometimes it's all day and other times it's certain class periods that I just can't wait to end.  A lot of my family has heard me talk about these instances but I still feel the need to talk about them more because I find them just appalling.

I have dealt with really loud and disrespectful students.  So disrespectful that almost no learning could happen.  I tried to do some restorative practices to get the class to show everyone that they need to work as a team.  If we're not doing that, nothing can get done.  But they didn't seem to give a damn.  This was also the day I was called sexist because a student was convinced that I favored girls over boys which just isn't true.  But he convinced himself he was right.  I will never go back to this school.

I have broken up fights before.  I thought that I would be doing this a lot in middle and high school age groups, but that really hasn't been the case.  It's been the elementary kids that have literally been demons in the classroom.  I had a second grade class that dealt with problems by throwing verbal abuse at each other and choking each other.  Yes, you read that right.  Choking each other.  At this school, I only had a half-day job, but in the first hour I was there, I broke up at least four instances of choking.  During the day, I can't tell you how many times I called up to the office demanding that a student be removed from the classroom.  I will never go back to this school.

I have vowed to never lead teach an elementary-level classroom and I have made very few exceptions.  I lead-taught a kindergarten classroom once, but there was also a paraprofessional in the room to help me.  That was a really good situation.  I have also been a paraprofessional in elementary classes and that is okay too since I'm not taking on an entire class, just a small group of students at the very most.

Technology has also proven to be a problem, particularly at the high school level and sometimes the middle school level.  When the kids are older, one of the school districts I sub in has one-to-one iPads, meaning that every student gets their own iPad to take home and use in school.  They're neat, but they're also a pain in the ass when a student is trying to convince you that they can totally do their work and watch full episodes of Criminal Minds at the same time.  Then you try and point out to them that they're really only watching Criminal Minds well because you haven't seen them write a single thing in their Google Doc.  I have learned to pick fights.  The technology use in one of my districts especially resembles a number of qualities of addiction, which scares me.

To put a positive spin on this, I have learned more about what I want as a teacher and I have learned to handle difficult situations the more I've been able to practice.  It hasn't been the easiest almost four months, but I do feel that I'm becoming a better teacher for it.

The Curious

Substitute Teaching has brought up more questions than I ever thought it would.  It has called into question my own practices and what I do well (and what I don't do well).  It has made me question what my values are when it comes to running a classroom.  These things will only help me improve as a teacher as I learn to stick to my metaphorical guns and make quicker decisions.

Subbing also makes me question humanity though.  It's a really weird thing to think that you're going into a classroom of semi-innocent first and second graders but they're actually monsters.  You're going into a classroom full of scary high schoolers, but they turn out to be the kindest souls that just want to be independent.  It really teaches you that you can't judge someone's character based on what you know about their age group or what you can see on their exterior.  Subbing has challenged me to value everyone's humanity, where people come from, and the tools they carry with them wherever they go.  I have learned to give people a chance, but also to show them that resets are necessary in order to become the people we want to be.  And that's a process-- it takes time.

I certainly didn't think that I would learn such profound lessons from being a substitute teacher, but I suppose that's the benefit of spending time, however brief, with several hundred kids every week.

So that's where I am now with my new job.  I wanted to make sure that I document this time in my life because I think it'll really help shape me into the teacher I ultimately want to become.  I want to remember where I was and how I grew during this period in my life.

Thanks for reading!

--Jude