Ten Facts About Substitute Teaching

Fact #1: The pay is lousy and you won’t get benefits.

While full-time teachers are now getting better and better pay, and districts are offering more and more benefits to stay competitive, substitute teachers make an impressive lousy amount to do what is, essentially, glorified babysitting. Because substitutes are not considered full-time employees, even when they work 40 hours a week, they are offered no benefits, such as insurance (which is often sorely needed come flu season, given that subs will be exposed to every strain of, well, everything that goes around).

It might be entirely possible for someone to live off of substitute teaching, but I’ve yet to see it done, as subs generally make approximately one third of their full-time teaching counterpart’s salary.

Fact #2: The hours are great.

If you’re in need of a job where you can take off as many days as you want without any threat of losing your job, regardless of whether your time off is a day or three months, welcome to the wonderful world of substitute teaching. Tardiness really isn’t a problem, either. As long as you arrive before school actually starts, you’re unlikely to encounter any criticism.

The typical school day for a secondary teacher involves 6 hours of teaching coupled with 2 hours of conference time/lunch. This often translates to long breaks in the day, being able to leave early or take a trip back home to sleep for a bit before the day actually starts. If you need a job where you’ll have enough free time in your day to run countless errands, subbing is certainly a great option.

Fact #3: Subbing is a great way to make connections.

Not only will substitute teaching help you determine whether or not teaching is something to do, it will give you an idea of what age groups you do and don’t want to work with. Moreover, you’ll get a good idea of the people you’d be working with in particular schools or the feel of a particular district.

Working in the school district, moving between schools, is an excellent way to accrue contacts. Teachers are generally quite kind to subs, and a couple of lunches with the other teachers will introduce you to both business and personal contacts. Over the school’s macaroni and cheese, you can meet people to provide future letters of reference, get your foot in a district’s door, find someone with whom to go kayaking on the weekends, learn of a new chess club in town, find a young teacher looking for a roommate, make workout partnerships. Don’t be afraid to talk to the other teachers/staff – they could probably use the change of scenery, and there’s an amazing amount to be gained.

Fact #4: Subbing can, on rare occasions, count as “field experience” if you’re trying to get certified.

Long-term subbing positions will count as field experience in some teacher certification programs, if the job consists of more than 4 weeks in one classroom and the assignment is pre-approved. While this might not seem like a big deal, the longest part of the teacher certification process is the accrual of enough hours of supervised teaching. Substitute teaching can on occasion make this easier, replacing the alternative unpaid student teaching or reducing the period of the paid teaching internship.

Fact #5: Finding subbing jobs can often be frustrating.

Behold the subfinding system, an often computerized gadget which allows you to log into the database and find jobs that are posted regarding upcoming teacher absences. The computer system is backed up by a phone system (in smaller cities, there is often just the phone system) that dials out to available subs to see if someone will take a job. In theory, this is a wonderful system, but in practice, it’s often less than ideal.

Sometimes the computer system works like poetry, allowing subs to book jobs weeks, even months in advance. When this happens, the sub experiences a rush of elation, knowing that he or she is safe from the perils of job-hunting for at least a little while.

The vast majority of the time, however, what happens is something more like this: job shows up on the computer, but when the sub goes to accept the job, it’s registered as being used by the phone system, so the available substitute cannot take the job. When enough time has passed that the job is out of the phone system (if it isn’t just taken by one of the subs fortunate to be called first), the job is snatched up by a rival sub when you’ve gone to get more coffee. Midnight rolls around, and nothing has come available. Two in the morning rolls around, and still nothing. Logic tells you that there will be jobs available for the next day as teachers who are also parents are woken up by sick children, or wake up ill themselves and cannot go into work, but by now it’s incredibly late, and all you want to do is sleep the little bit you can before getting up at 5am to search the online system again, hoping to catch a job.

Fact #6: People will ask you when you’re going to get a real job.

To people with a regularly scheduled job, regardless of the quality, substitute teaching does not qualify as a “real job.” It doesn’t matter if you work eight hours every day and sponsor the chess team after school out of the goodness of your heart; there’s something about the nature of the job that makes it somehow less than ideal employment. You can be the best substitute ever, encouraging students to make up assignments, teaching them better ways to do mathematics, helping them through personal problems, but regardless of all these things, what you do as a sub will never be seen as “real work.”

Fact #7: Students/teachers can lead to high on-the-job stress.

Small children have accidents. Elementary children ask five hundred questions about everything. Middle school kids don’t listen. High school students don’t care. No matter who you’re teaching on any given day, you’re bound to have some problems in the classroom. Maybe you’ll just have that one recurring student who grates on your nerves for a reason you can’t pinpoint, or maybe you’ll have one of the charming ones that stands up, screams at you and everyone else in the room, throws things, hits people, and then runs out. Don’t misunderstand – schools can be a lot like war zones, whether they’re inner city or the suburbs, and it’s not always easy to keep your cool.

Fact #8: You never have to take your job home with you.

Regardless of how many students talked back during the day, or the time when the lab table caught on fire, or the unanticipated tornado drill, or the four cheaters who had to be sent to the office, there’s one thing you’ll know for certain: when that bell rings heralding the end of the school day, you can pick up your things and walk out the door without looking back for even a moment.

You never have to worry about calling parents or bringing grades up to passing. You’ll never have to grade anything, or have a one-on-one talk with a parent or administrator. While all the other teachers are staying after for conferences or meetings or grading papers or working on lesson plans, you’re on your way home, and by the time you get there, you’ve already forgotten all about your day.

Fact #9: Subbing is often very boring.

Once you’ve established boundaries in the classroom, you won’t often have much more to do than sit back and watch your students do their work. On a daily basis, this amounts to being about as much fun as watching paint dry, so it’s a wise idea to come to school equipped with something interesting to do to entertain yourself. Books are always a good solution, but the younger the age group, the more questions you can expect about what you’re reading. Bring a laptop and they’ll crane to see what you’re working on (or check out the specs of your machine). However you choose to get through it, you have a good ninety percent of your day with nothing to do (not mentioning those conference periods!), so whatever it takes, keep yourself from going crazy with boredom.

Fact #10: Kids in school these days have enough stress.

Do you remember what it was like to be a teenager, to wander through the halls keeping in mind the subtleties of middle or high school politics, dealing with the drama that ran rampant? Do you remember what it was like to have to worry about facing ridicule and isolation if you said/did/wore/though the wrong thing? It hasn’t gotten any better since you were in school, and kids today are just as stressed in school as you were, if not more so. Kids today have no escape from their friends and parents; with the popularity of cell phones and MySpace, students live in a world where they’re constantly super-connected to everyone they know. Add to this the prevalence of part-time jobs, college applications, Gen X parents, and chances are those 20+ kids in your class are already pretty stressed out. There’s really no need for you to add to it.

Take a deep breath, relax, and remind yourself that you can enforce the rules without being a tyrant. You can get them to do their work without walking around the room and peering over their shoulders (you don’t like it when people did it to you – why do it to them?). You can even help them learn a concept or a lesson without being their full-time teacher.

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