When I’d started substitute teaching, I tried not to go into the endeavor with any delusions. I did not expect to be Morgan Freeman in Lean on Me or Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society. I thought about my own time in elementary and high school and how we’d treated substitute teachers back then (smh). I was realistic: my only goal was to be present and positive—a chill, charming space-filler at best. Like I said, no delusions. Here’s how my first three assignments went…
Gig 1: Fifth Grade
I’d always imagined myself having better luck with older students, ones who were at least functional (if not fluent) in sarcasm. But I wanted to jump in; the longer I put off my first day, the more anxious I would be. So, I took a half-day assignment with a fifth-grade class and arrived early on a Monday morning.
Thank goodness I was early. By the time I introduced myself to the teacher next door, figured out where the bathrooms were, wrote my name on the board and finished my coffee, it was time to pick up my class from the gym. They walked in a line (that’s still a thing!) back to the classroom. Their teacher had left instructions to complete assignments on their laptops and email them directly to her. I went back and forth between teacher’s editions and student textbooks, from reading to spelling to social studies.
We got through a few assignments, and then it was time for school pictures. I corralled the group in the gym while we waited our turn. Fifth graders in an open gym with nothing to do but wait? A moderate level of chaos ensued, but I decided to pick my battles. Another teacher who was in the gym (more the disciplinarian type) stepped in and decided to address the volume. I was embarrassed but grateful.
After pictures, I handed the students over to the librarian. I went back to the classroom to retrieve my things where I met the afternoon sub. (She looked about as interested as the librarian was.) I told her they were a “spirited” bunch, walked her through the remaining assignments, and directed her to the library. I left notes for the regular teacher and a thank-you note for the class on the board; I returned to the office, thanked the administrator(s), signed out and left. Then I plopped down on a bench outside, my voice half-gone, and waited for my ride.
I took Tuesday off.
Gig 2: 8th Grade
What a difference 3 grades makes! I liked eighth grade so much better. For one, they changed classes, so every 50 minutes I got a new batch of fresh faces to try out my most teacherly expressions and catch phrases. Their teacher also left a library assignment. So, we walked over to the library where I got to watch the librarian, an experienced educator, at work. There was movement, multimedia, collaboration, textual analysis—it was great. In fact, the worst part of the day was locking the classroom door with all my belongings inside (a rookie move).
Gig 3: Alternative High School
I went for an even older class for my next assignment and took a posting for secondary school. There was no grade level listed, but I figured I’d have ninth graders at least. When I arrived and asked the administrator what grade I had, she hesitated. That should have been my first clue. When her answer was an age range instead of a grade level, well, I guess that should have been my second clue. The security guard who seemed more like a warden completed the ‘inner-city school blues’ trifecta.
The day consisted of computer lab, snack breaks, bathroom breaks, and worksheets that should not be a challenge for someone old enough to drive. I did what I could to keep them on task and to engage them in conversation about themselves. (Who knows how often they’re even addressed as real, whole people?) At the end of the day, a teacher asked me how things went and what I thought of the class. We were within earshot of the students, so I made sure to project, “The personalities were outstanding. The discipline was nonexistent.” I left wondering how much more I could have accomplished with them given more time…
That was one of my biggest observations and frustrations: As a substitute, I could keep the wheel turning, but I don’t really get to direct the course. Soon I started taking long-term assignments where I could stay with the same class for weeks—maybe quarters—at a time. I was still pretty nervous in the beginning, but there was time enough for us to get comfortable with each other. Time enough for something meaningful to happen.
Do you remember your first days on a new job or assignment? What did those early days teach you?