Secret Struggles of Substitutes

By Stacey Figueiredo


If you have ever been in a situation in which you do not feel at all prepared, adequate, or remotely in control while still being the “adult in the room,” you have some idea of what it is to be a substitute teacher. As with all jobs, the personalities, strategies, and competencies of substitute teachers vary. Some substitute teachers are too strict, and students dread the days that a substitute is present. Others are too lenient, less bold, or too worried about upsetting student feelings to address bad behavior as it should be addressed. In these cases, students love the days when a substitute is in their class, because they know the teacher can be easily manipulated. Then there is the third sort of substitute, who has learned to balance the strict with the gentle: capable of keeping any class on task, while retaining the ability to connect with students without losing the respect afforded the educator’s position.

A substitute teacher’s job comes down to two priorities. The first is ensuring that students are on track with the teacher’s lesson plan, so that when the teacher returns they are not behind and scrambling to make up time. Second is ensuring that all students are safe, learning properly, and behaving well. Depending on the grade, and especially on the maturity and level of self-control (which varies from student to student), the substitute’s focus can shift. Upper grades need less instruction on behavior and self-control, so the focus is placed on the topics taught. Lower grades have less advanced topics, while shorter attention spans and an overabundance of pent-up energy lead to a greater focus on behavior in the class.

Substitute teachers must learn to balance all of these things, and a new substitute must do this while feeling wholly out of control and unprepared. Most often a substitute will not see the lesson plans for the day until they arrive in the classroom, usually 15 minutes before classes begin. This means there are only 15 minutes to look over what needs to be taught or accomplished until the first recess break or prep period. This leaves the substitute heavily dependent on the teacher’s notes and the details of their schedule. Some teachers leave highly detailed notes, which make classes easier, while others leave relatively simple outlines that offer little help if questions or complications arise.

Occasionally teachers also leave seating charts, which are helpful at any grade level. In the lower grades these assist in identifying student names, especially if there are no nametags on the student’s desks. In the upper levels, seating charts enable a substitute to keep mischievous students from swapping seats to sit with their friends and cause distractions. Most often when a teacher must assign seats or move a student, it is for a good reason and will benefit the student’s quality of learning. When a substitute teacher arrives, the attempt to keep the class running smoothly by separating students can be derailed if no chart is left to consult.

In some cases the seating arrangements are not necessary, but when they are required there are several factors that come into play. Some students do not get along well and must be separated; vice versa, students who are best friends may need to be moved to help them focus on the lesson rather than on their friend. Some students are highly competitive in their academics with certain other students, and being in close proximity, or even in the same class, can cause trouble. Other times, students that see no need to apply themselves to academic studies can be motivated by being placed next to a highly motivated student. However, that may potentially backfire through the unmotivated student becoming an annoyance to the motivated student. Ideally, the realities of student interactions and personalities are taken into account by the teacher during the assigning of seats. For a substitute, the personalities and typical interactions between students are often unknown; thus they are reliant on any notes in the lesson plan regarding which students may sit or work together.

Further, many schools include students of international backgrounds. Private schools especially cultivate international links and may have several international students in any grade. In these situations the substitute will usually have a note from the teacher about international students in the class, including information on any students who may be able to help with translations and explanations. This is another situation that requires a substitute to take a step back and consider exactly how to explain a topic or project. Often a mental reminder is needed to check with that particular student as the day progresses, making certain they understand the material and are on track with the other students for the return of the teacher.

All of this occurs while attempting to maintain an externally calm visage, a confident approach to student-substitute interactions, and still prepare for each topic, project, and behavioral or social upset. Internally, the feeling is similar to a panic room, especially when trouble of any variety arises and the students are not well known to the substitute. The Pixar movie Inside Out has a perfect example of a substitute teacher’s internal mentality, especially that of a new substitute who is less familiar with teaching multiple grades and subjects. Although in the film the mind is that of an adolescent boy being faced with a young girl who is simply handing him his water bottle, the scene of panic is the same: siren lights and sounds, everything burning, and the emotions running wild in a blind panic.

Here, even with a calm and confident exterior, the interior is asking: “What if I mess up? What if I get it wrong? What if something happens and it’s my fault? What if I get the material wrong and cause more work for the teacher?” The litany of panic eventually fades throughout the day, as confidence is built up. It fades further with the experience gathered over time in different grades throughout the year. What begins as a panic room settles into a whisper, and even the whisper can be set on a shelf until it becomes silent. But even in that silent confidence, there remains a weight on the shoulders of any teacher, regardless of their position as either a permanent or substitute teacher.

The weight of responsibility is always an intimidating presence. A substitute may bear the weight for a day, or for a week– maybe even for a month or more. It may change depending on the grade level or subject matter to be taught, but it always adds an extra dimension. Not only are the children entrusted to the substitute teacher by parents and schools, but there is additional weight from the permanent teacher. Permanent teachers create bonds with their students, and like parents they entrust the substitute with “their kids” while also relying on them to keep the lessons up to date so they may continue upon their return.

In some cases a substitute who does her job well is regularly requested by certain teachers, and that is both an honor and a blessing. If a substitute spends enough time in the class, even having the same students in various grade levels over the years, the substitute will be able to bond with students and understand which students work well with each other. Those bonds and insights work as confidence builders to the substitute, and not having to walk blind into a classroom eases the weight of responsibility. Without the extra weight of worrying about how smoothly a class will go and what academic or social upsets might occur, a substitute teacher is allowed to prepare for the day calmly, even without seeing the lesson plans until 15 minutes before class begins.

Possibly the most difficult part of being a substitute teacher is the fact that the class is hers for only a short time. Overall, this job requires giving up many of the joys of being a teacher while taking on most of the sorrows.

We substitute teachers are responsible for the students and for seeing that they make wise decisions concerning behavior, attention to their studies, and respectful socialization in class. But we do not get the same trust, or get to see the pride and joy when a student achieves a goal or accomplishment. We may see their disagreements and injured feelings, but we must leave these little hurts in the hands of their teacher, to be fully resolved later if that is not accomplished on the day we are there. We do not often get notes or cards telling us we are great teachers, and certainly not their favorite teachers; we do not receive little gifts of thanks from the parents on Teacher Appreciation Day.

What we do get is the thanks of the faculty. They recognize the hardships, the blessings, and the drawbacks of the job. Many of them have no qualms in saying they think the substitutes have the more difficult position. Some might even say they don’t know how we do it, or that they know they could not do what we do. They understand that the respect given their position, by students and parents alike, is not often offered to the substitutes and they empathize and appreciate the efforts we go to in the classroom on their behalf. And in some bright, shining moments on the job, even students will understand and express appreciation of how hard we work as their substitutes. It may be a difficult and often overlooked job, but it is not without its rewards and it is certainly not without importance.

For more information on Stacey and her work, check out her portfolio for The Coolidge Review.

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