Being a substitute teacher is like being stuck in between supervising recess and proctoring a test. Not complete anarchy, but certainly not orderly.
In order to be a substitute teacher, one must possess a variety of skills that are not particularly needed by contract teachers. Here is my short list of what skills I have to use on a daily basis in order to stay afloat and stay the course on the sometimes stormy sea of substitute teaching.
If you don’t have the ability to wait, you might as well quit while you are still ahead. Due to seniority-based hiring and an abundance of qualified teachers, substitute teaching in terms of career advancement is a waiting game. It could take months to start getting the classes you want (even as a sub) and possibly years to get your own class. You might as well learn to like it because if you want to teach, you have to put in your time and wait in line. You will also have to wait for details on what you are doing each day, as most schools operate in the “here and now” in terms of lesson planning and daily happenings. With students, patience is crucial to developing good relationships. Students will test your patience, and if they know you are cool as a cucumber, they usually give up as they don’t want to get into big trouble. If you can’t handle the little things, students will use your constant reactions as entertainment for the day rather than focusing on their work.
Get ready to teach anything in everything – that is, if you want to work consistently. Because of the nature of the job, your favourite classes and schools can only have so many absences in a year. If you are not willing to be flexible with your work locations and classes, you will naturally have to accept less work. Unless you are high up in the substitute hierarchy, you have to get used to working with hundreds of different students and multiple subjects per week. Even within schools, administrators may ask you to cover different classes in the case of a shortage of teachers or events within the school. Being a team player helps the day go by smoothly and shows that you are not rigid and unprepared.
Attention to Detail
There are always differences in class times, locations, yard duties and many more things in each classroom. This means that attention to detail is crucial for ensuring that the day runs smooth. Unfortunately, some students can assume you are not as competent and will be less likely to show respect if you are unaware of even the most minute and seemingly insignificant details.
A Good Memory
You will meet hundreds, if not thousands of students if you supply in enough schools. It can be overwhelming to meet so many people and keep up with their lives, but kids appreciate when you remember something about their life. You will also benefit from remembering the staff you work with, what they are interested in, where things can be found in the school as well as routines and procedures that are unique to certain classes and schools. Knowing where to go is also helpful as it minimizes wasted time.
I read somewhere that teachers make thousands of decisions per day. This can be exhausting as a new substitute teacher as you will likely not know the consequences of your decisions, and will receive little feedback on your work. With this in mind, having the ability to intuitively know what to do when something out of the ordinary happens is key to avoiding potentially disastrous days. This ability to use intuition as well as having an understanding of your professional responsibilities makes you look competent and professional. Knowing that you did the right thing also helps to ease your mind as you reflect on your practice.
On the topic of doing the right thing, sometimes you won’t. This is why having the ability to forgive is essential for substitute teachers. You have to be able to forgive yourself for your mistakes. Forgiving colleagues is also an essential trait as people will mess up. They will usually forgive you for your mistakes, so it’s important that you forgive them too. As for students, they will constantly test your boundaries. It is best to not take any of this personal as it is natural for children to do so. Forgiving them for their lack of foresight and wisdom and being patient with their development of social skills will ensure that you don’t burn out too fast.
Substitute teachers cover for sick days, so naturally they do not get any. This is why taking care of yourself is vital, as missed days will impact your income. Being fit and eating well will help you to stay immune to all of the pathogens you will experience in your day-to-day travels. Good mental health habits are also a priority as your outlook can sometimes determine how your day will go. Being positive and happy rubs off on students. If you feel like you can’t be happy at work, it is time to work on yourself. If that doesn’t work, get help from trusted friends, family, your employee assistance program or your therapist. Kids will remember the teachers who believe in them. If you are negative towards them because of poor mental health, your ability to establish mutual respect will be next to none.
This is a tough one as substitute teachers are intermittent in schools and it is hard to establish trust when you are a stranger. As a sub, an easy way to establish rapport with people is by disclosing information about yourself and helping people with their problems. This can be helpful if the information is light and age/school appropriate, but you can quickly get into weird territory if solid boundaries are not established. Remember that you are in charge of your students, and that if they know your personal drama, your credibility is reduced. For example, letting students know you are in a relationship is fine, but talking about it in detail is not professional. It is helpful to humanize yourself by sharing information, but you should try to avoid using your students as a sounding board for personal issues. After all, they have to listen to you as you are on the upper end of the power dynamic. It is then not a fair exchange, and burdens them while making you vulnerable to disrespect. The same rule applies when speaking to colleagues. Discuss any personal things in a positive way, as people genuinely like to learn new things about others. and they are less likely to be misinterpreted.
Do you have any ideas about being a successful substitute teacher? Please let me know!
More about my work and professional life can be found at kaitlynfitzpatrick.ca