The experience of the long-term substitute

March 4th, 2010 | Filed under: teaching

As someone that completed a licensure program mid-year and came out on the other side to a job market like this, the prospect of finding a contract position was slim. I was lucky enough to have great recommendations and found a challenging and interesting long-term sub position with a gifted program in the city of Norfolk. I’ve been teaching 37 sixth graders in reading, writing, and early American history. I have always loved history, but was thrilled at the opportunity to teach it. And I think therein lies the biggest challenge and greatest reward of being a substitute.

You’re thrown into a classroom where the students know one another and you know none of them. A classroom where another teacher has been running things the way he/she finds best, but which may not mesh with your own ideas. A classroom where the students may have been bouncing around from sub to sub, rarely feeling structure, and most often feeling lost. A vacuum, really, where you are tasked with quickly plugging up the hole before all management and structure are sucked out into oblivion.

It’s hard and lonely at times. You get a crash course, if you’re lucky, from the permanent teacher who, hopefully, had time to prepare some plans for you. More often than not you are left with a pacing guide and a classroom far behind where they should be on that district-mandated time line. I was lucky enough to have the teacher I was subbing for available by phone, text and email whenever I needed her. Not everyone is so lucky.

You’re spending so much time planning that the pile of grades continues to mount, yet you, in your new teacher fervor, have helped students create numerous artifacts and homework assignments, all of which you (surprise!) have to grade. At some point. Soon.

But your biggest resource and shoulder to lean on when you’re feeling out of sorts, I’ve found, is the kids. I have a number of “helpers” that are quick to tell me how Mrs. X did things and where they are in a certain class.

I have a license in secondary English education, so I can teach grades six through 12, but I’ve always felt my talents would be best utilized in a high school. I never expected to teach sixth grade, but I am grateful I had the opportunity to do so. It confirmed my feelings that high school, particularly ninth grade, is where I would like to be, but I will probably change this as the years go on and my experience as a teacher grows.

So for those of you feeling lost or frustrated with the job market and bouncing around as a substitute, enjoy it. You have the chance to be placed in another teacher’s room and learn your way around it, finding his/her personality and philosophies in everything you see and touch. It’s like having an ethereal cooperating teacher there, but not there.

I was supposed to be in this long-term sub position for six weeks, but I’m cutting it short thanks to being hired with Virginia Beach City Public Schools to teach ninth and eleventh grade English. My sixth graders are sad and my heart aches a little at not seeing their unmatched enthusiasm and energy every morning, but they were so happy for me. They understood that my role was as a temporary teacher, helping them learn until Mrs. X returned. I’m hoping to carry some of that energy with me to the eleventh and ninth grade classrooms I’ll be entering in March, an experience that will bring a whole new set of challenges with it, of which I’m nervous and thrilled to be facing.

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