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Research & Thoughts

Care & Feeding of Substitute Teachers

There's nothing that scares me quite as much as being a substitute teacher. I'm not writing this to scare others off, but with the hopes that we are treated better so that we're not scared off. And yes, this also pertains to those lovely experiences I had as a volunteer reading to kids in the school system. There is no one more overworked than a teacher, and yet, there are paybacks, which keeps them coming back. Kids can and do reward you.  But for me, who had spent every lunch break in total tension while trying to shove down some food and get in a bathroom break, and a husband who resorted to eating bad cereal bars at lunch to sustain him and ended up losing his health permanently, some things are important enough to try and impart.


There are no real standards to becoming a substitute teacher, and no training offered.  All you need is a college degree.  I have a master's in history earned in 2006 and Joe earned his B.S. in botany  back in 1972.  But what made him apply and succeed far longer than me, at the risk of his health, is that he is less likely to get rattled, to worry, or to explode in anger. I stress easily, and now, at this age, stress hurts just about every part of me. He lost muscle tone, his artificial knees have given out, and he can no longer do much more than sit. I can only say, speaking to his experience, was that he wanted only to work part-time, a few days a week. But they wanted him every day, all day long, and he couldn't say no.


The problem with being a substitute teacher is that lack of control.


This will cover five days of substituting I had in my former life in Abrams, and that has informed me enough to give what I would call guidelines for providing the appropriate experience to the classroom for accepting a substitute.  Teachers, I believe, do the kids an injustice by expecting that everything will go the same for the Sub as it does for them.  


Experience No. 1:  a half-day at the 3rd grade. I met with the teacher before she left for the afternoon. She demonstrated what I'd be doing, including showing a movie (yeah!).  The biggest problem I would have, I noted, was figuring out how to also run her "Daily Five," which sounded confusing to me.  One role in this Daily 5 was to listen to kids, one at a time, as they spelled words and if they got them all right, they were allowed to color in the next part of the rainbow.


She had them all sitting at their appropriate desks, but none of them wore name tags, and I spent the whole afternoon wondering if I was going to lose one.


I SUGGEST: all kids make name tags to wear around their necks on Sub Day, with a number that correlates to their position on the attendance chart.  This would work for lower levels.  Upper levels should have name plates added to the place they sit in the classroom.  The hardest thing for this Sub was in knowing who was who.


As a result of not knowing who was who, I took attendance again after recess, which puzzled the heck out of them.  It turned out, too, that the only names I remembered were those of the bad kids, and that gave them an unfair advantage, reinforcing bad behavior.


What happened as a result of the confusing Daily 5 was that one kid did not get to color his rainbow because we ran out of time. He did struggle with the spelling so I told him to look at them again and we can try again.  But I had too many others to do and we ran out of time.  So I told him he could try again tomorrow.  


Before I realized what was happening, it was recess and the kids were pointing to another kid hiding under the desk. I knew that two kids with special needs were taken out for a bit and I thought it was one of them. It turned out to be the kid that didn't get to finish his words, but sadly I didn't recognize him and when an aide came in to help, he finally pointed to me as the culprit. He was very unhappy with me that I didn't let him color his rainbow.


I let the kids go out to recess and I worked with him on his spelling until he got them all right.  I don't know to this day if that was the right thing to do, but it was the only thing I could think of.  Since he didn't get to go out, I didn't either, and we were waiting for the kids to come in.  When the time passed for recess to end I went out and called the kids in.  When I did that, then all the other classes came in, too.  Again, did I do the right thing? I don't know.


 No feedback is ever given, it seems, to a Sub.


The teacher did not want me to write notes about how the afternoon went, but I did anyway.


This was actually the best of the five experiences.  They only got worse from here.  This day, at least, had been structured to a point that I could almost follow.


Experience No. 2.  This is a day I should have turned down.  A full day at the high school in Special Education for Reading and English. Well, I figured I could handle those subjects, anyway.  But five classes, one that was 2 hours long, meant that I was constantly being challenged, and by kids who felt school was boring and they weren't learning anything.


I SUGGEST: Do not put out the teacher's manual and expect the Sub to know what to do with it.  Instead have specific exercises that will give the kids new learning experiences.


Again, not knowing who was who was a disadvantage. But here the added complication was the number of kids who had Iphones and tablets to play on.  There was a sign in the classroom that said they were not allowed to use them in class and that they would be confiscated.  But I was pretty sure, when I tried, that I was going to have to get physical to get them away.  


I SUGGEST: that every teacher, Sub and Regular, say to the kids that if they don't put them away, they will be marked absent.  Detention would be something else to suggest, but I did not know what authority I had.  I just knew a Sub trying to take a student's property away is never the right solution.  In the attempt it could get broken, lost or stolen.


Here taking attendance was a trial because the kids wanted to pretend they were someone else, just to mess with me. I told them they were only doing themselves a disservice and that ended that problem. I also, because I couldn't understand the work assignment and they did not cooperate by putting on the video as instructed, told them I wanted to listen to each of them read aloud to me.  I was told to let them read, but they really weren't doing that as much as just chatting or played with their toys.


I SUGGEST: that NO classroom be equipped with lounge chairs, but all students expected to sit at a desk or table, with their name tag on or taped in place.  The teacher can set this up the day before.


I could not get them to read aloud to me. I was at wit's end, and then I saw a book of fables.  I grabbed that, and read one of the stories aloud to them. I didn't ask for their attention first. I just started reading it. Little by little the noise in the room died. I'm a dramatic reader, and they were listening.  After that when I asked them to read aloud to me, they did so.  This was my only positive experience that entire day.


At other points I would talk to them about their future, about what they didn't like in class, and so on, with only minor success in responses.  Then came the moment when the students wanted the window open. Now it was a fairly pleasant day, but it was November, and there were no screens on the window.  I said okay, until I wanted it shut. When I did, the kid manning the window refused.  I went over to shut it, and he fought me, at one point getting my finger caught.  I swore.  But then I got it shut.


A few minutes later someone poked his head in to look for someone, and I asked him about the window.  He said sure, if they want it open, but that I decided when it was too cold and should be shut.  A few minutes after he left, the fellow who had fought with me left as well. I stood in the hall and watched him, and he saw me and ducked into the bathroom. He never came back.


Another gal asked to be excused because she didn't feel well.  I told her she had to have the nurse call me when she got there.  She never did.


Another gal said she didn't feel like doing anything, and one of her friends said I was to leave her alone because she had issues.  All appropriate notes were written up for the teacher.


I SUGGEST: No Sub without prior teaching experience should be called in to take over any special education class.  There are Subs who have been teachers.  Either get one of them, or have one of the regular teachers take over, and get a Sub for their regular classroom.  Few, if any, Subs are going to have the appropriate training for this kind of class.


Late in the afternoon I had given up trying to teach and started a game of Hangman. They gradually lost interest in that as well, but I sensed that one gal, at least, was happy to see I stayed the whole day. Her word for Hangman was "respectful."  It took all I had to stick out the whole day.


Experience No. 3.  This was another half day, this time for Kindergarten in the morning.  Surely these kids would all behave, not having had time to be warped by the system. Here I began to lose faith that I had the resources needed to get the kids to pay attention without yelling. This one had a specific structure but when I was in control, they did not want to behave.  


I SUGGEST: find a way to give people who have never taught before the right kind of persona that makes kids want to pay attention.  Make a video and give new subs some kind of training program.


Here I discovered how the bad kids were bad because it got them attention. There were several who would not stop horsing around, and there was one who couldn't stand noise. There were good kids whose names I didn't learn because I was too busy trying to make the others behave.  Again, the use of name tags would help prevent me from paying more attention to the bad kids than the good.  After this assignment, I decided that bad behavior was to be ignored, and only good rewarded.  Without knowing kids' names, this is not that easy to do, not for someone who does not have a good memory for faces.


I SUGGEST: there should be specific bathroom and water drinking times for the whole class.  It was a continuous problem in all classes with kids all saying they needed the restroom and who was I to argue with that?  But they were given NO time to use the bathroom between classes, which meant a continual disruption during class.  This needs to be addressed on a more consistent basis.


I was able to complete the required assignments with them, but one child pinched his finger in the door and another fell off the chair in the lunchroom, giving me the idea that kids need much closer watching than I was able to accomplish.


The most astonishing part of that day came when I was walking them back from lunch.  Several of them started racing each other and though I yelled, that didn't stop them.  What did was seeing their teacher waiting for them in the classroom.  The line froze solid and they appeared scared to death.  She told them ALL to walk back and learn to walk to class, again, punishing the good with the bad.  


I SUGGEST:  the teacher has to find a way to pass authority to the Sub.  It is the teacher's responsibility to get the kids to mind at all times.  


Experience No. 4.  My first assignment from a phone call at 6:30 in the morning.  The rest had all been pre-scheduled. This was teaching art the place of a Sub who'd called in sick. I was told it wouldn't be hard because they were all in the middle of projects.  I would have three classes at the grade school and then three more at the high school.


I'm a historian, not an artist but I loved my art class in high school and could maybe draw from that experience, especially helpful for kids who also weren't good at art.  Those who were shouldn't be a problem. I got to the art classroom and looked for the list of assignments.  There was only very meager indication of what they were to do for the day, with one of those 'how to draw' kits that I could use to "fill the time." So the first thing I did was look all over the room to see where their projects were stored. Couldn't find them.  Then when the first class attendance had been taken, I asked if they knew where their projects were.  No one did.  That left only the "how to draw" as my option to fill the time.


I chose for the kindergarten classes the toucan, and for the first grade class the velociraptor.  Well, it was included in the packet, and it's not like I was teaching them how to draw blood.  I had to demonstrate what they were to draw by first drawing each step on the board, and asking them to do what I do.  They all participated and the differences in the drawings were remarkable.  


I started each class by telling them that I was no artist, but that didn't matter.  What we drew came from inside us, and that meant that no one could make fun of our drawings.  As a result all kids happily completed their drawings.  By the third class, which was the first grade, they were adding detail to their drawings.  And all wanted to take them home, but I said no, the teacher better see them first, or she'll think we didn't do anything.


I was exhausted and very thirsty by the end of these classes, having talked nearly consistently, but no one acted up.  No one.  Not one bad student in any of these classes.  Why?  Because it was completely structured, and they understood what was expected of them.  I was able to find something that completely filled the 45 minutes.


The high school classes were a little different. The first was four kids in special education. One talked too much, another hated noise, one was in a wheelchair with an aide who did all his work for him and the last was a gal who gave up trying to talk to me and put on her headphones.  I SUGGEST:  Giving all Subs hearing tests to make sure they hear their students at a certain comprehensive level in order to have this job. This was one of my biggest challenges.  I have a hard time understanding mumbling. I was not aware at this time that I, too, was hearing disabled.


But they all had projects, knew where they were, how to get them out and get working on them.  I gave them some encouragement along the way, suggested they give themselves a goal for that day, and even suggested that the handicapped fellow be allowed to make his own markings on the outside of the clay pot.  The one who hated noise reacted very well to conversations about politics and history.  But he refused to cooperate when I tried to give him an extra credit assignment—yes, the same art teacher recommended these same "how to draw" sheets, but they had to try and do them on their own.


But after they put their work away for the day I got paper out and showed them how to follow the steps, and they seemed to enjoy that.  


I SUGGEST:  that in some instances it might be better to give a class an extra study hall rather than bring in a substitute.  I would much prefer monitoring a study hall than teaching a class of uncooperative high schoolers.

The last two classes were structurally the same; they were working on paintings that were to be done the next day.


The first class all worked quietly, except for the one boy in class who was painting close to my desk and chatted while he worked.  He didn't get very far, even though I kept encouraging him to focus.  The rest all worked well and helped each other, and all I had to do was on occasion take a walk around to see how they were doing. That was a very long hour, but I should have enjoyed getting the chance to rest.


The last class of the day was unfocused, un-artistic and just wanted to screw around. One gal refused to take her paints out because she was in a bad mood. I told her art was supposed to help with that and to give it a try.  "Nope."  One gal became incensed by the noise level as she tried to work and I continually reminded everyone that they were disturbing others, but it didn't matter. They got their hands on water spray bottles and sprayed each other, among other distractions -- a typical boy versus girl kind of thing and though I would take the water bottles away, they would get them back again.  


A number of them seemed to think their art wasn't good enough.  I tried to tell them that it didn't matter how good it was compared to others, what mattered was that it was a good as they could do.  But nothing worked.  The few that got done early and had nothing to do but screw around would not do the extra credit exercise, either.


Toward the end of the day I had them all put their materials away and then lectured them about the attitude between wanting a class and taking it for an easy grade, which they found wasn't so easy, and while they were all settling down, somewhat, the principle broke in and started yelling at them. And as he did the kids started pointing fingers, and four were sent to the office.  I then received an apology.  "Oh, they're always like this."


I SUGGEST: if they're always like this, an aide or someone else should be assigned with the Sub to help keep order.

Of course I knew that I could have picked up the phone and had the bad kids kicked out. But I wanted to try and reach them, rather than giving up.  I think this attitude of mine is one of the reasons that kids try to get away with more when I'm around.  It's possible that in time I would learn it doesn't pay to try and reach them, but to eject them immediately so we could get back to work. And maybe they would only be in the office for an hour and would come back all subdued.


A Sub like me has no teacher training.  We cannot be given the same kinds of instructions that a teacher herself would be given to run the classroom for the day.  And yet that is exactly what happened to me on the last day.


Experience No. 5.  I was determined to make this a good day. I was asked weeks ahead of time to cover the full day for a 2nd grade on the day before Thanksgiving break.  So I contacted the teacher and asked to sit in on the last hour the day before.  Here's where I believe the biggest mistake was made.  She introduced me to the class, but refused to say that I was subbing the next day, nor did she give them, in front of me, their assignments for the day or repercussions if they didn't behave.  


After they left, I asked her about this.  She felt it wouldn't be a good idea for kids to know ahead of time that a Sub would be there, because it might encourage worse behavior.  At the time, because I could hardly argue with someone with experience, I didn't.  She showed me the schedule of assignments and though I didn't let on, I had a sinking feeling. She expected me to be every bit the teacher for the day that she was.  


I SUGGEST:  Never expect the Sub to do everything you do.  She asked where I taught before, and I said I never did.  I suppose by that time it was too late for her to change what the plans were for the next day.


When the kids came back the next day, they were only slightly surprised to see me, and the acting up began nearly immediately.  I was told to watch for this one fellow who would on occasion need a time out, but he wasn't nearly as bad as another, who kept egging him on.  Getting them to sit up and pay attention was an exercise in futility.  And I had to follow all the class assignments, beginning to end, as though I knew all there was to know about teaching. I had to raise my voice to keep the class going because of the noise and disruption, not just by those two, although I might have gotten better order if I'd had them removed.  Again, I wanted to try everything I could to reach them first.  I wasn't given any idea of how long to wait before ejecting anyone.


Again, we had bathroom break problems, and kids complaining about stomach aches and getting hurt and needing to see the nurse.  By the end of the day I had three ice packs to return.  I had kids arguing that it was their turn to use the bathroom, when it never proceeded in the orderly fashion the teacher had devised.  The handouts were often missing or there were not enough to go around.  Some of the assignments I couldn't find anywhere.  I couldn't understand how to use the teacher's manual.



1.  The teacher had the opportunity to hand the class off to me before they left the day before.   I expected her to say the following:  "and this is Mrs. Mo, who will be your teacher tomorrow.  I expect that you will treat her exactly the same way you treat me.  I will have a series of things she will give you to complete tomorrow, and if you get done ahead of others you will read quietly or she will send you to the office.  Is that understood?  (At which point she should wait until they all nod.)

2. The teacher will not give me materials to present that I would have no familiarity with.  Since I was assigned this day two weeks in advance, it was her responsibility to see what level I could work at, and not wait until the day before to find out I'm not a retired teacher.

3. Materials should be set up as follows:  A Reading assignment with comprehension sheet to fill out when they're done reading.  A workbook for each of the different areas; geography, spelling, math, etc., that they are all to work in for a designated amount of time and graded on how far they get.

4. A movie to watch in the afternoon when they are getting antsy for home.  Know your students; know that on the day before a vacation they're going to be a little more excited than usual.

5. A substitute often has to listen to kids tell them what they're doing wrong.  "Our teacher doesn't do it that way."  Kids have to be told that when a substitute is there, her way is the right way.

6. Children are NOT allowed to tattle on each other.  I cannot count how many times I heard that someone did something to someone else.  Finally I told them that they could not tattle on someone else without being held responsible for that behavior as well.  That worked for all of 20 minutes.

7. Don't expect a Sub to be able to understand all 17 kids in an instant of time.

8. Don't expect a Sub to know when kids are being extraordinarily bad.  Give the Sub the exact instructions for when to use out of room discipline.

9. Hold the children responsible for their behavior while you're gone.  Make sure they know what the repercussions are if the Sub has to give a bad report on any of them.


I am simply unable to consider being a Sub again.  I know my threshold is not very high for this kind of behavior in class.  I raised three children and they were all the best students.  I'm not holding myself accountable for the worst of them.  I simply didn't know what to do, and that's because I'm not trained to know what to do. And that IS the fault of the system.

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