Surviving a Day of Substitute Teaching*

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.)”

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  • Jen

    I love reading about how much you love your profession. I hope I can find something that I am as passionate about as you are about teaching :)

  • Teacher Girl

    Great post! I really admire substitute teachers like you. Being a sub (or any teacher) is hard and approaching it with this level of insight and care is a rarity in my school district (and many others I am sure). Bravo for maintaining your love for this noble profession! 

  • Lynnprints

    Very well written, Shop Girl.  I have been substitute teaching for four years now, as I wait for the opportunity to be hired full time.  While I do so enjoy teaching and have experienced many, many wonderful days of blissful teaching experiences with students, there are those moments where the students can amaze you with the level of disrespect.  While the past three days have been challenging, there were those students who were ready to learn the lesson that I so wanted to demonstrate (math).  I always walk away thinking about how I could have done things differently, how I could improve as a substitute teacher in an attempt to be a more prepared teacher, and would it be possible to change the students concept of a substitute teacher?  Of course, there was a student who swore at me today and was sent out, and this experience always is upsetting. I find that there must be something going on in their life that is hard for them to deal with when they lash out this way.  And yes, there were amazing students who patiently and respectfully waited to learn with book, paper and pencil in hand.  And, yes, it is all the mix of students that make teaching an amazing profession, where we constantly grow and learn and are there to experience the students growth as young adults….and that is why I love my job as a [substitute] teacher….and am enjoying a day off tomorrow.  :)

    Mid Lifer

  • Kirstin

    Haha, I’m from Ontario too and curious as to where Hippie U is! I think I went to the same uni! I am also a teacher, well trying to be as I can’t get work in my area of Ontario. I find the GTA incredibly difficult to even get hired for supply. So after waiting for some time, I’ve decided to go to England to supply teach and hopefully eventually get a long term contract. I’ve heard horror stories about the students there and am really dreading it! I’m also starting to regret my choice to be a Secondary school teacher! I was searching tips for supplying in high schools and came across your blog tonight, it gave me a new found hope! If you have any more tips for behaviour management for high school, please send them my way! I’m starting supply in January and am just terrified!

    [email protected]

  • Holly

    Oh I so needed to read this! I know its been a while back but so glad I found it. I particularly loved the escaping out the window part. I haven’t had that one but had a similar situation I could have seen it happen in!

    I have been doing this for two years but I swear after a recent holiday break I find myself feeling nervous! I have no idea why. I think its just the not knowing what will come. Your words were refreshing and helped me remember why I am doing it and gain perspective that is comforting.

    Thanks again and happy new year!

  • Marian

    Thank you so much for sharing your experiences. Nice to know I’m not alone in this :)

    I have been subbing for longer than I’m willing to admit (it’s actually quite embarrassing, but I’m still below the decade mark, so that’s good news ;)).

    I’ve resisted going into teaching for the longest time. I’ve had classrooms that I have absolutely LOVED, and actually looked forward to going to…where the kids were wonderful, and I actually felt like I was making a difference.

    You have such a positive outlook of your experiences, and I think that is such is a blessing. I unfortunately can’t quite get past the politics of the administration and the serious mean streak some of the kids I’ve encountered have.

    I enjoy teaching, but I hate everything else about it…at least what it’s become now. I’m only 32, but I honestly don’t remember kids behaving the way they are now. This is not an environment conducive to teaching.

    Admittedly, I teach in a rough neighborhood…and the highest paying sub job in the area. We jokingly call it “Combat Pay”, since much of what we do is avoid conflict, instead of actually teach.

    I’ve been fortunate, like you, and been offered many long term positions. I’m good at what I do, but it doesn’t take away from the fact that at the end of the day, my nerves are fried.

    I have strong science background, so I know I can easily find a job, but everyday I do this makes it harder for me to believe that it will get any easier as a regular teacher. I want to teach what I love, so I can infuse that same passion and fervor in others, but I really believe that things need to change and they need to change soon.

    Thank you again for such a beautifully written post. Will definitely go back to this on my rough days :)

  • Sub101

    I know this post was made over a year ago but I’ll comment anyways! I so badly needed to read this today. I have only been teaching since last November and all in all there have only been 2 days where I felt I really struggled out of the 30 or so calls I have gotten. I feel like it is pretty good odds. I had an interesting group of grade 12 students yesterday for two periods. Was a class to repeat a credit and a college level class and I knew it was the type of day where I was off my game.

    I look back and think a I all the things I should have done or what I could have done but after reading you’re post and realizing it’s just another day it has brought back that sense of passion and enthUsiasm that comes with wanting to help those struggling kids.

    To be honest I fall into the trap of over analyzing or taking a bad day persoanlly, wondering what admin must think of me. But I must remember that to these student a I am a lady they may never see again who is to “babysit” them for an hour so I try to enlighten the mood and get to know the students as you said. I fell especially in situations where the students already don’t like or do t respect the classroom teacher it adds caring to the classroom.

    Going back to my day yesterday-
    The truth is though that as bad as I perceived the two periods to be I neglected to remember those 5 kids who came and thanked me after class and wished me a good afternoon. Even if it’s only 5, as a sub it’s good enough for me!