Monday, March 22, 2010


“Went to school and I was very nervous

No one knew me…

Hello teacher what’s my lesson

Look right through me

- Gary Jules. Song “Mad World”

Thursday morning, I received another call to teach Spanish – this time for a middle school that I hadn’t taught at much. In fact, I’d only been there three times: my second sub job ever for Music (no plans were left); Spanish, which was a challenging day, to say the least; and a rambunctious preschool class. Since it was a difficult middle school, I wasn’t looking forward to it.

When I arrived, the teacher was there. He explained that he was going on a field trip, so he’d still be there to teach first period and I’d only have a few classes to run. Not too bad, right? The bonus of this school’s location is that it’s near a Starbucks, so I made my way over for a cup of coffee and did some reading.

The teacher warned me about the eighth-graders, but getting through the class was another matter. While they weren’t killing one another or being disrespectful to me, all but about five students could care less about the class or doing any work. Fifty-minutes were spent nagging and warning that they wouldn’t accumulate the five tickets they needed for this class. Once they reached 100 from all the teachers, they’d get free time and once they reached 500, they’d get a pizza party. In my class that day, they received ZERO tickets. Did they care? No.

Fourth-grade went much better and fifth-grade was a dream. Even with the light schedule and fairly easy day, I was wiped out. I chalked it up to staying up late because of the Celtics game the previous night.

When I came home from school, there was a call to sub music the next day. It was at a school where I’d only taught PE twice before*. I was relieved that at least it wasn’t Spanish.

When I arrived to the classroom, I thought there were no plans, which made the large number of papers and Bose speaker (along with my usual handbag, lunch bag, and laptop) worth carrying as I commuted on bicycle. But in the far corner of the room, I found a DVD, a video, a couple of picture books, and plans. I was going to have four 1/2-grade classes and one sixth-grade class.

The television and wires into the DVD and VCR were a mess, but there were instructions to switch wires to get each player to work. As I carefully moved the television closer the rug where the students would sit, the power strip that held a bunch of chords separated, making me feel like when the same thing happens to the scientist at the clock tower in the movie “Back to the Future”. In fact, I may have sounded a similar, Aaack!

When I finally figured out what went where for which and when, I was ready. The first and second-grade classes ran the gamut from easy to difficult. Throughout the day, I had autistic, and mentally handicapped children mixed in with the mainstream students. Some kids required their own aides, while others needed support, which I had to provide. On top of that, there were the usual behavior problems. I made sure to sit next to those students, sending them to the other side of the room if they talked too much.

Here are some of the highlights from the Disney video:

At some point in the video, Johnny Appleseed wades through a river.

“Is that Jesus?” a girl asked.

“No, that’s Johnny Appleseed,” I explained.

“Oh, because Jesus can walk on water.”

“Johnny Appleseed is just walking through the water.”

In another clip, two skaters kiss.

“EWWWW!” There was a collective shout, mostly by the boys.

One girl turned back to face the shouters. “That’s not gross!”

“Yes it is,” responded one boy.

“No it isn’t. I kiss my mom on the cheek.”

Toot the tugboat toots out a distress signal.

“What’s S.O.S. mean?” asked a student.

“It means, save our ship,” I replied.

“I know what S.O.B. means,” a boy said.

The sixth-grade class would’ve gone off without a hitch if, when I opened the case, I hadn’t found the DVD cracked in half. (Swell.) A student recommended another DVD, which wound up being so boring that most of the class wandered away from the TV to talk in clusters. I didn’t blame them.

By the time the day ended, I was wiped out, though there was little reason to be. I’m burned out. Having to anticipate what a day will be like and constantly switching gears midstream as I figure out the students and little wrenches get thrown into the mix is mentally challenging. I’m at the point where I need a good, long break, but our spring break isn’t until the week of April 19th (Patriot’s Day is to commemorate the battles of Lexington and Concord. I swear this is only other holiday we get for the American Revolution).

Being a substitute teacher is to have a job that is constantly in flux. I rarely teach the subjects that I know well. I have little choice in where I go and what type of class I get. But more than the new situations and figuring out the students, subjects, and routines, is that my job is a little lonely. I don’t have camaraderie with the teachers or the students like I used to as an assistant. Even on the days that I write, which many might consider solitary, I can reach out to fellow bloggers or talk to family and friends on the phone. Being a substitute teacher is about as isolating as I felt being a new mother before I reached out to other mothers.

Once I’ve been to a school a number of times and have started to get to know the teachers and students, I don’t get another assignment there for weeks or even months. More and more, I find myself retreating to the classroom during my breaks, instead of going to the teachers’ room. I don’t know anyone well enough to have more than polite conversation, and at this point, that takes a mental stamina that I don’t want to exert. So, I microwave my food, and then return to the room to work or read.

There are a lot of good aspects to subbing, but these days I’d like some stability with students, subjects, and coworkers. Do other subs feel this way? How about other teachers? Writers? Parents? What do you do to connect with other people?


  1. I thought subbing was really hard the year I did it before getting a position. There's a whole lot of uncertainty and not being in your classroom that regular teachers don't have, and often you get stuck with really poorly behaved classes. But there's no lesson plans, and no grading, and not faculty meetings or department meetings or PTCs. That being said, mad props to you cuz I really can't even conceive of subbing at this point in time.

  2. I know what you mean about staying to yourself. You're supposed to eat in the lounge and be social and make those connections, but I find that really difficult sometimes. I often bring a book to read in the classroom over lunch, or else, spend the time figuring out what exactly the teacher had planned for the afternoon.

  3. Sarahjayne, I agree that it's great to not have lesson plans, grading, meetings, and parent conferences/e-mails/visits. As an assistant and ETS, I had all of that. I'm glad to have the flexibility and time to write. But I miss the relationships.

    Vagabond Teacher, you make a great point. Just because I see the plans in the morning doesn't mean I'm set for the day. Each class means more preparation.

  4. It all sounds very unsettling to me. I think you are great to keep at it. I wouldn't eat my lunch in the lounge either. The feeling of taking up space where I don't belong.

    Well done to you!

  5. Oh Theresa Milstein!

    What a couple of days you've had!!! Good grief - it was like one after another! And all with their own little problematic darlings too. Of course your mind is about to explode, you're constantly on the go mentally, no situation is ever similar and you have to constantly think on your feet to get through the lessons that are not normally as well-planned by the teacher you are subbing for!

    You know connecting with people is such hard work - if you were not so mentally drained betcha you'd be swanning away with the social crowd. But after the kind of class and experience you've had I think you're just really drained and maybe quiet time is what you're mind is crying out for?

    I'm not even worthy to be complaining about my work situation - it's nothing to compared to yours and to all the teachers and substitute teachers!!

    I want to start a petition to have a Substitute Teacher's Day darn it - where I can buy cards that say "To the best substitute teacher on this planet"! Seriously!

    But wasn't that line about "S.O.B" just hilarious?!?! LOL!!!

    Oh I am an evil one for connecting. I always go by my gut instinct. My gut instinct says this person is ok, I'm their best friend for life. My gut instinct turns over and presses the warning button about another one, all my walls are up and I'm on permanent red alert.

    Yet who am I kidding? I love my own company too much!! LOL! Very few are able to connect with me - but I see that as their problem.. LOL!!

    I'm rambling now so I shall end this with a big hug to you and a big starbucks coffee for you cos you deserve it!

    Take care

  6. Sounds like you have been having a tough time with your subbing. For me being a sub, is somewhat easier in the fact that when I went around to the schools I wanted to sub at, I chose the grades that I wanted and that is what I get. Can you do that? Subbing is tough, but I do find that if you can choose what you feel most comfortable with, it helps.

  7. Ann, sometimes I talk to people, but more often I overhear conversations while I try to read. I don't want to seem like I'm eavesdropping.

    Old Kitty, there is a Substitute Teacher's Day (believe it or not), but I don't think anyone actually acknowledges it. I once wrote a post about it:

    The SOB comment was funny. A little girl asked, "What's that?" I told the boy, "Don't answer." When the teacher came back, the girl asked, so I had to tell the teacher about the conversation.

    I think our instincts are usually correct. And we all have our own work gripes.

    Choices, the sub line calls us and we can only turn down five jobs before being off the list. The less subjects and grades I put myself down for, the less jobs I'll get. That's the downside of subbing in this district.

  8. Hello

    Just checked out the Substitute Teacher's Day. 20th November?

    That's much too far away! That's like nearly x-mas!!

    Hm. It's in my diary!!!


    take care

  9. I never really thought about how isolating it must feel to be a substitute've really opened my eyes to something here. I take care of two very little boys in my home while their mother is at work (I guess I'm a nanny, though I don't much care for that word, it's too close to ninny...and I'm NOT a ninny...)I'm kind of stuck in the house all day, feeling like I'm trapped, but you're absolutely right...I can reach out to my friends, read blogs, write, etc. Thanks for the thought provoking post :)

  10. Old Kitty, if I'm still subbing without an agent by November... but it's nice that you put the date in your diary!

    Ant, nanny and ninny - that made me laugh. I would say it sounds more like Nancy.

    I think I've had too many down blogs of late. Must be the birthday. I promise that the next two will be more upbeat. Today was a funny gym day and Friday night with my daughter will be its own post.

  11. I just loved the quotes/conversations you posted here. Too funny!

    I totally hear you about retreating to your classroom instead of going to the teacher's room. I haven't had the chance to get to know any other teachers either, since I also sub at several different schools, so it's really hard. I often wish for some stability, too.

  12. I'm sorry I don't know anything about subbing, so I don't know how to encourage you - but it sounds like you're doing a great job because you keep getting all these calls. And you're getting some great material for your writing, some of these little snippets you post are hilarious. Hang in there, and April 19 will be here before you know it!

  13. I understand what you mean about subbing being a lonely gig. When I did my student teaching, all the English teachers had lunch together and talked in the hall together between classes. I miss that. Now, I just sit in the classroom or walk aimlessly down the hallway during planning. It's not like other jobs and I think that's something a lot of other people overlook when they think about subs--we don't have a core group to come back to like most other jobs. And that can make it hard-especially on days like the ones you've been having.

    It will look up! Don't worry.

  14. I usually love my alone, quiet work time (I work from home as a freelance consultant) but from time to time I long for that camaraderie. My husband can only listen to so much of my work ramblings....

  15. That's got to be hard, never having a schedule or a set group of coworkers. Hopefully that dream classroom will open up soon (or maybe that giant book contract instead)! I'll be praying for either for you (he, he).

  16. Shelley, it's nice hearing back from subs who know what I'm talking about. I can't think of another job that's like subbing where you don't have consistent coworkers.

    Susan, I like the material I get. And I get to observe kids, which is an upside. Hopefully a job comes next.

    Tiffany - I loved where I student taught. The other teachers treated me like a regular teacher and we always ate together.

  17. Rebecca, "work ramblings" made me laugh. Now that I blog about my job, there's hardly anything to tell my husband about work.

    Jackee, dream classroom or book contract - I'll take either or both!

  18. Hi Theresa, I admire you facing constant changing situations, it must be tough, though.
    Your sense of humour is still intact though, loved the SOB quote.

  19. Oh, subbing can be SO tough. I did it while in college and will never forget those lessons!!! It made me a much more sympathetic teacher when I started teacahing full-time, I can tell you that!

  20. I continue to be in awe at how you face these situations and move through them with such calm and grace. I'm sure you're a brilliant teacher.

  21. Brigid, if you're enjoying the quotes, my next post will have more after two days of PE.

    Beth, I'm going to be so nice to subs, I may leave them gift baskets.

    Talli Roland, thank you.

  22. Hey Theresa, I'm back to let you know that you have an award waiting at my blog. :)

  23. Thanks, Shelley. I just added one to my blog.

  24. For the first four months this year I tried out nearly every district within an hour -- now I try to take jobs only in the 4 or 5 I like. Ones with cooperative kids and kind adults. That makes life a lot less stressful. :)

    The difficult schools are not worth it, no matter how much they pay, or how many jobs they have. Really. Substitute teaching is hard enough.

    Your blog writing is great. And thanks for commenting on my Bus Stop blog posts! Hang in there this year!!!

    - John

  25. John W, I wish I had the flexibility to choose jobs like you and other subs who have mentioned alternative set ups. Here, I can only choose by subject, elementary, middle school, and high school. And I can be off for the two 8-hour schools.

    Thanks for complimenting my blog writing. I'm glad you came over and checked out the post.