Substitute teachers have a special role…and it’s important. Here are reflections from the trenches of substitute teaching.
By Barb Szyszkiewicz
Substitute teaching is not just a job. It’s a ministry. And it definitely isn’t babysitting. As a long-term substitute in second grade, I’ve learned a lot about the ways substitute teachers serve others.
Substitute teachers minister to students who are used to the way their Real Teacher does things. This is especially true in the primary grades. Subs try to maintain the usual routines, learning them as they go along and finding out halfway through a task that their Real Teacher does things differently. The kids aren’t being rude or defiant–they’re looking for the comfort of the routine their teacher has so carefully established. In second grade, it’s all about routine. There’s even a procedure for sharpening pencils. I’m a big fan of procedures, but the kids know them and I don’t, so I’m at a disadvantage. This week has been Procedure Boot Camp in the second grade–for me!
Substitute teachers minister to parents who worry that without their child’s Real Teacher, the kids will fall behind or miss out on learning key concepts. We’re not doing busy work here; I’m not babysitting the kids. I am teaching them the next math chapter and helping them practice their spelling words. We worked on the Oxford comma this week (and I even taught them its official name, which was not in the book, but that’s just a bonus you get when your substitute teacher has an M.A. in English Literature.)
Substitute teachers minister to the principal, who wants to make sure that learning is happening, the children are following the routines already in place, and no one’s swinging from the light fixtures or getting hit by cars in the parking lot AKA recess playground (yes, I’ve had to prevent that last from happening.)
Substitute teachers minister to the Real Teacher, especially when it’s a long-term situation. The sub walks that fine line of making sure the Real Teacher knows that the sub does not want to replace her, but just wants to do the best possible job as an unrehearsed understudy.
The students and I pray for their Real Teacher every day, which is a lovely perk of working at a Catholic school. It’s nice for me to be working, but I don’t want to poach her job. I know she’d rather be in her classroom with her students, and I’m trying to make it as easy for her to be away from them as I possibly can. When she comes back, I want her to just be able to step back into her usual M.O.
We’ve had our challenging moments, like today when I was frustrated because we were assigning next month’s classroom chores, and there was a dispute about whether someone could choose a job he’d already had in September, because “you can’t have the same job 2 months in a row” means, to some children, “you can’t have a job you’ve done before EVER.” I made an executive decision and shut down the dispute fast, and half the kids were not happy.
We’ve also had our sweet moments. If someone drops a crayon box, half the class hits the deck to help pick them up–unasked. One child has measured me for a rubber-band bracelet. And yesterday when they were answering some questions from their religion book, they reached one that asked, “Who helps you learn about Jesus?” and a few of the kids asked if I would write my name on the board so they could spell it and fill it in for that answer.
I’m following someone else’s procedures and carrying out someone else’s lesson plans. I’m trying to be fair to my grade-partner teacher who is shouldering extra burdens as she helps me pick my way across an unfamiliar curriculum and grade level. I’m going home each day with tired feet and a tired voice and wearing chalk-dust smears.
I’m teaching in someone else’s shoes. They don’t quite fit me, but for the sake of the kids, the parents, the principal and the Real Teacher, I’m doing my best to make it work.
Barb Szyszkiewicz is a Secular Franciscan wife, mom, writer, musician, and school library volunteer from New Jersey. She is an editor at CatholicMom.com and has taught in Catholic schools at all levels from kindergarten through college.