They took my fingerprints, and the only thing I could think while they were doing it was, “Damn, it’s going to be really hard to get this ink off my hands.” But it was all necessary, I knew, the only way to start the occupation I knew I wanted for the rest of my life. Even if the fingerprinting was merely to be a substitute teacher instead of the real thing. Everybody has to start somewhere.
A substitute teacher has to be malleable, to shift from day to day, quite unlike most other professions, which are rote.
I decided to substitute teach when I was in graduate school because the classes were mostly in the evenings, and I wanted to get my feet wet in the profession I was going to school for, which seemed smart at the time. What no one told me, however, was that substitute teaching is so different from actually having my own classroom and set schedule. I learned pretty quickly, though, once I got that first phone call to sub.
First off, the calling system was automated, so I had to set up my “profile” in the system before I could even be called to sub. Once that was set it was all about waiting. Usually the calls would come ridiculously early in the morning, and I would have to re-map my whole day around it. Since I didn’t know the area very well, I would have to ask my wife how to get places, then leave very early just in case I got lost getting there.
I learned pretty early on, too, that it mattered which position I was going to substitute for, if just to help my choice of attire. Once I got the call and it was for P.E. but I didn’t realize the difference until I arrived at the school in a full suit. My shoes weren’t even allowed on the gym floor, so I ended up walking around in my bare feet for most of the day, and I ditched the jacket about fifteen minutes into the first class session.
It was important what grade the assignment was for as well, because I had to train my brain to function like the kids I would be teaching that day. If it was a first grade class I would have to set myself up for the constant chatter that characterizes many first grade classrooms. It was for eleventh grade I would have to prepare for massive silence because most of them wouldn’t even raise their hands to answer questions. Once I did three consecutive days in fifth grade, so I got used to the precocious youngsters, and the following day was tenth grade, another day of the dead.
The best tool in the substitute teacher’s kit is a poor memory, because respect is hard to come by.
Sad to say, it also mattered where the school district was located. If I was going to one of the affluent districts usually the day would be an easy one because the students would by and large be respectful even to substitutes, while in the poorer districts in the “bad” part of town the disrespect would be rampant. I recall one first grade class in the worst part of town where one of the students told me, “I ain’t gotta listen to you. You ain’t my teacher.”
Speaking of teachers, that also varied. Some teachers would leave comprehensive notes and expect a letter outlining exactly how the day went, while others would leave absolutely nothing and I would have to make it up as I went. For a six-month period I was in a sixth grade classroom basically every other day due to the health issues of the teacher, but the kids loved me and called me their “full-time sub.” That was a good half year.
For every good story that warmed my heart during those years of subbing, though, there were the bad ones to even it out. The biggest thing I took away from subbing when it was done was that subs need to be respected by the rest of the staff in the school. The students see that, and it helps immensely when they can see that you’re supported by others who are fixtures there. That means as a sub that you should get to know others. You never know when someone will remember you in the case of a job opening for a full-time position.
I remember after all of that, when I had graduated and got my first full-time teaching, to greet every single substitute when I saw them in the hallways, to make it a point to include them at lunch, and to leave comprehensive plans for them every time I had to be out for whatever reason. Because subs are people too, and they deserve that respect. I’m grateful to the people who showed me that when I was out there in the trenches.