A couple of weeks ago I wrote a post about why I chose to become a teacher in Ontario.
The truth is, in this current job market, it wasn’t a one-time choice. It’s a choice I continue to make every day.
I choose to get up and wait each morning for a call to work, and on the days when the call doesn’t come, I choose to look at a day off as an opportunity or luxury that I wouldn’t otherwise have if I was working full-time.
Really though, I know I’m pretty fortunate. The days that I do get calls far outnumber the days that I don’t. Sometimes I’m afraid to talk about it, because I know that in my board I’m very lucky. I still troll through that same Facebook Group and constantly see teachers complaining about the lack of work, and my region / school board has come up more than once as being notoriously difficult to survive in.
I often feel guilty that I’m getting calls when others aren’t.
I like to think that part of it is because some of the joy and passion that I expressed in my last post comes through my teaching style and interactions with staff and students.
I like to think it’s because I work hard at what I do, and I like to think that it’s because I have more successful teaching days than failures.
After posting my article, a friend commented on a reference I made to some of my “bad” days as a substitute teacher, wondering how I handle being in those situations when they do arise.
Luckily for me, in the two years that I’ve been supply teaching, I can count the number of bad days I’ve had on one hand.
Of course, my definition of a bad day might be a little different than most.
Since beginning this career, I’ve been sworn at, had students walk out of class, had elastics thrown at me, had personal items stolen, been told that I am I am a terrible teacher, felt completely out of control and even had a student escape through a window.
(Yes, that actually happened.)
To someone outside this profession–or even to someone who has a full-time job and sees the same students in the same school each day–any or all of these may seem like a career deal breaker.
So, why do I deal with it?
Because I love it.
I didn’t love those particular days, but I survived them. Over the last two years I’ve learned a few ways to get through the hard days so that they don’t cloud over the good ones.
For starters, my job is all about picking battles. On any given day I’ll teach anywhere from 75 – 100 teenagers. Seventy-five tired, hormonal, stressed teenagers who often believe they already know everything that you could possibly have to teach them.
Because I mean really, I’m just a supply teacher, right? What could I know?
The moment I step into a classroom I have to command attention and control of the room. To these students, I’m just another supply teacher. I could be just like the one they had before, with whom they didn’t get along and disagreed with his/her methods of teaching.
Some teachers like to enforce immediate silence. Some like to start yelling or using props to command attention.
I prefer to smile. I say hello to each student as they come through my door.
And then I wait.
You see, I’ve learned that the way that I begin my class is the most effective tool I have in my teaching arsenal. If I am on my game and don’t let anything from my personal life affect those first 30 seconds after the bell–exhaustion, stress, or whatever it may be–then it’s almost always going to be a good class.
I also have to remember to be realistic. I work with teenagers. Teenagers who attract drama and gossip like flies to honey, and if I prevent them from having 30 seconds to greet each other and dish the latest news before beginning my class, they’ll just do it while I’m teaching instead.
This lets them know one important thing: I’m not a robot.
(To teenagers, becoming a human being in their eyes is a very important thing.)
The trick is not to let it go on too long. Instead of shouting at the room to be quiet, I simply call out “Good Morning / Afternoon!” when I’m ready to begin. Most of the time, this makes someone laugh or smile and the class clown at the back of the room will inevitably respond with a hearty, “HELLO MISS”.
I could say something about shouting in class or go the primary division route and remind them all about “indoor voices”, but again: it’s all about choosing battles. Instead I find it wildly more effective to stop everything and respond to the student with a laugh and say hello back. This immediately establishes that I have a sense of humor and again, am not a robot.
Then I switch into business mode. I’m not someone who believes in introducing myself with a speech or going over a lengthy list of classroom rules at the beginning of class. Here’s a secret: they don’t care. Unless it’s a grade 12 class about to apply to university, they don’t care where you went to school, what your teachables are, or what your wishes and dreams are. They already know the classroom and school policies, even if they pretend they don’t. Instead, I give the class my name, power through the attendance and go over the agenda for the period with the class, which I always have written on the board.
Then it’s straight to work.
I usually let students chat quietly while they work, and circulate through the room to maintain crowd control. Would it be easier to sit at the front desk, demand silence and read a book while they work? Sure.
But then I would miss out on the awesome opportunity of getting to know these students. While I circulate I stop at each desk and make comments about things I see–books they have chosen to read, essays they are writing, quotes they have written on their pencil cases, etc. I make an effort to help them understand the work their teacher has left them and help them be successful students.
I do this because I believe it shows each students that I see them, and not just another group of kids I have to teach to get through the day. It helps me build relationships with them, even when it’s just for 76 minutes.
It helps those students remember me, so that the next time I teach them, they are excited to have me back in the class.
Of course, this method doesn’t work for everyone.
Sometimes my cheery hello and attempts to get to know students while they work are met with resistance and anger. It’s in those moments that I have to remember that those negative emotions usually have nothing to do with me–I’m just the target at that given moment.
Usually it’s a result of something going on with a friend, a parent, a teacher or some other authority figure, or most often it’s a lack of understanding in the material being taught.
And that frustration comes out and is directed at me.
Usually I can diffuse the situation with a little understanding, patience and sense of humor.
Occasionally though, I’ll go through every idea I have and realize that there’s nothing that I can do. In that moment I have a decision to make: I have to evaluate whether or not the behavior of the student is affecting the learning experience of the other students in the room.
Occasionally I have to do what I hate and contact the office for support.
For me, this is a last resort and I only do it when I feel that I have exhausted every other option available to me.
Want the truth? Some students will try out the behaviors just to see how far they can push you. They aren’t bad kids, they just are just used to pushing someone and meeting no resistance.
For some of these kids, a trip to the office isn’t a punishment, it’s an opportunity to take a walk, check their cell phones and tell their vice principal that the supply teacher over reacted and they don’t really know why they’ve been sent there.
Think back to your own high school experience: didn’t you push the borders a little with supply teachers too?
So, using a curse word in my class won’t get you a trip to the office. It’ll get you a stern look and a gentle reprimand, but not a trip out. I would only ever send a student out for swearing if the situation was extreme and the language and emotion behind the word was directed at another person.
It’s all about choosing your battles, right?
As far as throwing things goes, it happens. I’ve had paper, elastics and a host of other things “tossed in my general direction”.
Again, for the most part they are just testing the water, and it’s amazing what a fierce look will do to quell the urge to throw something more than once in my class. I’ve only ever had one thing thrown at me with real intent, and I was in a special education classroom at the time so the circumstances were entirely different.
…and thankfully their aim wasn’t great and the desk was too heavy to throw very far.
All in all I’m happy to take the challenges with the good, as in my experience the challenges have been few. I could easily choose to focus on these hard days and complain, but then I know I’d miss out on all the other amazing students I encounter on a near-daily basis.
I wouldn’t be able to get past the behaviors to see the struggling student underneath who just needs a break on the day that I’m there.
And worst of all, I’d miss out on the joy this profession can offer. I’d miss out on being able to teach, even if it is while I have an elastic thrown at me.
So, I choose to take each day at a time, and leave the emotions associated with a challenging class at the door when I leave each day.
I remember that I chose to become a teacher for a reason, and that even though I’ll have days where I may question that, the good will always outweigh the bad.
And lastly, here’s my biggest secret to surviving life as a substitute teacher– on those days when things just don’t seem to be going my way, I channel a little Anne of Green Gables:
“Tomorrow is always fresh, with no mistakes in it. (yet.)”