Is Substitute Teaching the Job for You?

If you have the guts to watch 30 or more kids in a crowded, noisy classroom, give some of them a dirty look if they act out of line, reprimand one of them for throwing a piece of wadded-up paper across the room, and keep your cool when the paper thrower says, “You’re just picking on me because I’m black!” then this job is for you.

Often, substitute teaching is little more than glorified babysitting, but in many cases, you are expected to teach. My first day as a substitute, the high school teacher I was replacing for the day wanted me to teach advanced probability questions. As a former English major, I knew it was out of the question the very moment I looked at the page in the textbook. The students did what they could (or would) with the problems, and goofed off for the rest of the class.

Students never behave for a sub the way they would for their own teacher. Take that as a rule of thumb. As soon as they see me opening the classroom door or in front of the blackboard, junior high students normally cheer “Yes!” as though they’ve won the lottery. “Sub day!” On the downside, it means you’ll have to take a lot of crap. I’ve had to send a kid to the principal’s office for throwing a bottle cap that hit me in the face. A substitute teacher friend of mine had a student who stuck a large chocolate chip cookie down his pants to entertain the other students. Similarly, a student I had last week kept putting clamp-paperclips on his nipples and screaming. I told him he should join the drama club next year in high school. What I was really thinking was that he had latent sadomasochistic tendencies.

On the upside, subbing means less responsibility, and the chance to enjoy a position of authority while also getting to joke around with students and get to know them a bit. (Plus, it gives you a lot of funny stories to tell your friends.) Chances are, there are at least a few students who don’t like or are intimidated by their regular teacher. Since you’re not quite their teacher, they might feel more comfortable confiding in you or showing you a hidden talent.

On the other hand, many students will try to take advantage of your unfamiliarity with their names, and the fact that you don’t have contact with their parents or control over their grades. Earlier this week, I was trying to get a class’s attention by saying, “Can you please settle down now?” to which several students replied, “No!” I knew enough to not get flustered or show my exasperation. I changed my request to a statement: “Please settle down now.” Subbing, as well as teaching, is often an exercise in acting. If you have any background in drama, it might come in handy.

However, don’t be afraid to use the intercom to phone the office. If a class enters so rowdily that you know they’re going to be impossible to control, send the worst offender to the office right off the bat. Call the office and ask the administrators to keep the student there for the whole period, and if possible, send along some work for the student to do while he/she is there. It will make your job much easier. Plus, it will show the other students you won’t tolerate disrespect. If necessary, call the office and get the vice principal or another disciplinarian to come into the classroom.

Often, students will whine and try to make you feel guilty. Don’t be swayed. If you make a decision and then get persuaded to change your mind, the students will try to lower your standards even more. Stick to your guns. If a student ignores you, be persistent. Sometimes a few students in the class will help you calm down the rest of the class.

Other times, students will be curious about you, and hang on your every word. If you have something interesting to say about the lessons you’re helping them learn, go for it! This week, I got the chance to talk about labor strikes to an AP history class, and I compared centuries-old strike methods to modern-day protests in our own community. For one moment, the whole class was riveted. I enjoyed that moment of power.

If you’re considering a teaching career, subbing is a good way to get a head start and a glimpse into the realm of education from a teacher’s perspective. At the same time, don’t forget that subbing is worlds apart from normal teaching. Teachers have a responsibility to make sure the students learn and pay attention to a much higher degree than a substitute teacher, whose main duties, in my experience, are to ensure the students don’t make a giant mess, or damage either property or themselves. I have a good friend who enjoyed subbing, and he’s now studying to earn his teaching credential. However, now that he’s learned how stressful actual high school teaching is, he no longer wants to do it.
Emergency substitute credentials are easy to come by in California, but you must be a college graduate. You also have to pass the CBEST to prove you’re educated enough to teach. Most people I’ve talked to said they found the CBEST surprisingly easy. There’s a fee for taking the test. Your county’s office of education will have a packet of application materials for you to fill out. Filing your application will cost around $125, and will require fingerprinting. Other things they usually want are proof of a negative TB test, and your college transcript.

If you’d like to substitute full-time, make sure you’re signed up for all the districts in your county. Some districts may have separate applications you have to fill out. Call the substitute hotline several times a day – don’t wait for it to call you. Some districts have even progressed to an internet-based system. On your days off, introduce yourself to teachers you’d like to substitute for, especially if they teach a subject you want to teach. Make sure you sign up for all the grades you’d be willing to teach. (I’ve been in classes as young as preschool.) Create a business card for yourself, and if the school administration will let you, drop the cards in teachers’ boxes in the office. You can also make flyers and put them up in the staff lounge or lunch area.

Above all, keep your sense of humor, both inside the classroom and out. Happy subbing!

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