Jennifer Wilber works as an ESL instructor, substitute teacher, and freelance writer. She holds a B.A. in Creative Writing and English.
How I Decided to Become a Substitute Teacher
After finishing my BA in English and Creative Writing, I was still having trouble finding a job I’d like that was directly related to my degree. The idea of teaching wasn’t even on my radar, but I saw a job listing looking for substitute teachers for districts in my area. The education requirements only called for a bachelor’s degree in any field, and at least some experience with children. Since I did have some experience working with children in a previous position at a museum and as an after-school reading tutor in high school, I thought I might as well apply. This seemed like a job where I could really feel like I’m making a difference in the community and am doing something worthwhile.
I applied, got the offer, and completed the training and other requirements needed, then quit my old part-time job as a graphic designer/printer operator. I had my first assignment in December, just before Christmas break.
My First Day Subbing
I’m not going to lie. My first day on the job was a lot more difficult than I had imagined. My first assignment was to cover for a third-grade class. On this particular day, all of the third-grade teachers were out for a meeting or training of some kind, so each of the third-grade classes had a substitute. Since none of the regular teachers were there, as you can imagine, the students were a bit rowdy that day.
As soon as this class saw that there was a sub, they began their mission of attempting to get away with whatever they thought they could. Try as I might, I couldn’t get the class to quiet down and follow directions. They didn’t want to work on their math assignments and the majority of the class had no interest in my math lesson.
There was another, more experienced, substitute teacher in my room with me for much of the day who was covering for an intervention specialist. She was really a lifesaver, as I don’t think I could have managed that class for the full day on my own my first time out.
Luckily, or so I thought, I wouldn’t have my home room class for the entire day, as each of the three third-grade classes rotated into my room for math class. The other two classes were almost as unruly as my home room class. Still, I persevered and managed to survive the day. My planning period and lunch break couldn’t come soon enough. While my class was at their special, found another teacher and asked for advice for anything I could use to regain control of the class. She taught me her discipline strategy, and I implemented it as best as I could, with the help of the sub for the intervention specialist in my room.
By lunch time, a recess monitor came to relieve me from my post while my class had indoor recess before their lunch. The class was still wound up from the morning and apparently gave her problems as well. To my surprise, this teacher came to get me from the teacher’s lounge and brought me back up to the classroom, where she made some of the worst behaving students write me an apology letter. I accepted their apologies and returned to lunch, hopeful that the afternoon would be better.
After lunch, the students calmed down a bit, but they still had some discipline problems. Some students still refused to do their work, while others finished too soon and quickly got bored. It was a challenge, but we managed to get through the rest of the day without too many major issues.
The Rest of the Year
I’ll be honest. After my first day, I was starting to wonder if I made the right choice in becoming a substitute teacher. Maybe I just wasn’t cut out for this after all. What if I never learn how to manage a classroom? Still, I knew I had to keep trying. That was the only way I would get better at teaching.
While there were some other challenging days throughout the year, overall, it got much better. I started to learn which grades and types of classes I am most comfortable in, and which I prefer to avoid. When I first took this job as a substitute teacher, I thought I would mainly want to work with younger children and limit the amount of time I spend in middle schools and high schools. Younger elementary school children, I thought, would be more respectful and more enjoyable to teach. After heeding warnings from other substitute teachers about middle school and high school classrooms, I wasn’t looking forward to subbing older students.
To my surprise, I have found that I prefer middle school and high school to the second- to fifth-grade age range. My favorite grade to teach, however, is still preschool. I also found that I prefer assignments where I am working with special needs kids either one-on-one or in small groups to general classroom teaching.
While some older students do try to test their limits with substitute teachers, subbing in middle school and high school classrooms isn’t nearly as bad as some other substitute teachers I’ve talked to have made it seem, at least in my experience. Older students seem more willing to learn and are usually better at following directions than some of the younger students.
During my first school year as a substitute teacher, I’ve subbed in classrooms from every grade from preschool all the way through high school seniors. I’ve been in regular classrooms, as well as special needs, gifted, and English as a Second Language classes for every grade level. Though I got off to a rocky start, I’m glad I stuck with it. I am planning on returning next school year and adding several more school districts to my rotation.
© 2018 Jennifer Wilber
Kaila Zunich on September 07, 2018:
Great article and so helpful; Thank you for sharing! Would you mind sharing the discipline strategy that you learned as well?
I’d love to try it out!
Brian Leekley from Bainbridge Island, Washington, USA on June 13, 2018:
I'm glad, Jennifer, that you like substitute teaching and that you learned through experience which classes you prefer. I imagine that substitute teaching is an excellent day job choice for writers, since you don't have to accept an opportunity to sub for a day or more and since it's the regular teacher who does the lesson planning, grading, etc., leaving the substitute teacher time for their own writing projects.