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Start out Subbing

Advice on being a successful substitute educator—and why it’s worth the effort

By Doug Provencio

Suggested by Shawn Brock (Student member 2009), University of Nebraska at Omaha

Have you considered the possibility that you will begin your teaching career as a substitute educator? Maybe you’ll be finishing up requirements for your credential and won’t want to work full-time; or, it’s possible you won’t be able to secure a position in your area in this economic climate, but you want to start accruing classroom experience (and income, of course).

Starting out as a substitute teacher offers a lot of advantages: You'll see many schools, meet many students, and work alongside colleagues who have different classroom styles. You can learn a lot by teaching at more than one site. You'll also have scheduling flexibility, and moreover, it's easier and quicker to get hired for a day than for a full year.

So does that mean substitute teaching is easy? No. You'll face many challenges trying to project enough authority to teach effectively, learn how to teach better, maintain good relationships, and make sure your progress towards your own contract and classroom stays on track.

I’m an experienced, full-time "sub" currently working in Oakland, California. Let me put it this way: When I first started working as a substitute teacher, I always wore a necktie so that I wouldn't get asked for my hall pass. Of course, you'll need to have a lot more than the right clothing. These tips can help you lay some good groundwork for the rest of your teaching career.

Take charge as students walk into the room.
Learn at least a few names and connections quickly. Students might not realize that knowing one name doesn't mean you know everyone right away. Then you have some more time to learn who everyone else is. Remind children that they already know the basic operations of the class.

 

Work the laws of inertia.

Minds in motion tend to stay in motion. Circulate; keep gently pushing and encouraging. Ask what idea or task should come after the current one. Appeal to instrinsic thoughtfulness. Teach flexibility by being flexibile yourself.

Follow lessons plans closely.

Beyond reading instructions left by the teacher, look for clues around the room about how a class has been building up to the current assignment. Reinforce the instruction that has come before you.

For better behavior . . .

be firm without being confrontational and selective without being unfair.  Reward good behavior by building up students who are doing the right thing. It's an art form and it takes time.

You'll learn through your inexperience that experience counts. 

It's built up over a lot of time in small pieces. Go for those small bits of learning instead of despairing that you can't get to it all at once.

Talk to your colleagues, even if they’re only colleagues for a day.

Ask questions of teachers in the same grade or subject. Introduce yourself to the person next door. Say hello to any adult who works there.

Touch base with other substitute teachers.

Veteran subs or retirees might get more assignments due to formal or informal seniority systems; remember that this helps make sure they're still around when you have a contract and need a substitute of your own. Listen to what they've learned in their time around the block.

 

In time, subs who earn a good reputation will start to receive more requests. Keep learning by doing and observing, but don’t lose sight of other goals. Make sure you're jumping through all the hoops to get that credential. Keep talking to people to get a sense of where full-time vacancies are, or will be next fall.

Could a long-term vacancy turn into a permanent position for you? Yes, but be real about the possibility that it might not. Talk to the administrator to find out what the chances are and what you have to do. After about a month, you should have a sense of whether or not it could work out.

Above all, remember your foremost responsibility is to teach in the moment. You are THE teacher for the day you're there. Don't just show up--use all the resources your brain and experience can muster.

Even when I was no longer a newbie at subbing, I was still wearing one of those ties teaching kindergarten once on picture day. I had built up good relationships at that school, and the staff put me in line with the class and bought me a set of photos. The photography company didn't know where to put me on the sheet, so I ended up looking like one of the kindergartners. With a tie.

Don't lose that inner beginner; it helps you relate to everyone around you, big and small.


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