“Are you looking for a full-time job, or are you just subbing again?”
It’s a reasonable question, and one that I get asked quite frequently. Friends and family – even acquaintances or parents of the girls’ friends – know that I used to be a teacher and that I began subbing a year ago. They also know that I had looked for months for a music teaching position but that none had been available, so I applied as a substitute. I was thrilled to be back in the classroom, but remained somewhat disheartened that I was “only” subbing instead of teaching my own group of students. Hence, last year, the answer to the question was some version of, “Yep, still looking – but for now, just subbing.”
This year, my answer has changed only ever-so-slightly, but the meaning behind it has shifted dramatically. “Yep, still looking – but actually, I’m very happily subbing!”
The exclamation point is important, ’cause I’m gonna tell you a secret that not many people recognize: subbing is awesome.
With all due respect to the hilarious Dave Barry, I swear I am not making this up.
First, some caveats. If my family was relying on my income to make ends meet, substitute teaching would not be the best way to put a roof over our heads because it is inherently unreliable. You are not guaranteed work, instead waiting for other people to become ill or be absent, so – short of poisoning the water of local teachers’ homes – your salary (and I use that term loosely) is really inconsistent.
Second, if my family’s schedule did not allow for any variability – if it had to be set in stone and not budge – subbing would be a really poor fit. Barring a long-term gig like I had last spring, subbing means that no two weeks are alike, so your “schedule” (such as it were) is bound to be constantly changing, oftentimes not materializing until that morning.
Thankfully, my family does not need to rely on my income to pay the bills, and I am fortunate enough to have supportive and flexible folks in my life who can help put all of the pieces into place, even at six a.m.
But wait, there’s more!
Substitute teaching isn’t just about avoiding the negatives; it has its own set of really stupendous positives, many of which I didn’t even realize before I began subbing last fall. Sure, on the one hand, each day and school are different. Your hours aren’t the same, you might be five minutes from home or twenty, you have to learn the ins and outs of each school where you teach. But on the other hand? The hours aren’t the same! No up at 6:00, out of the house by 7:00, home by 4:30 if you’re lucky drudgery. No mind-numblingly similar commute every single day. Because each school operates differently than the last and each school’s culture is uniquely its own, you have the privilege of getting to know all of them. Plus, each time you sub, you’re doing something new, so it’s virtually impossible to get bored. How cool is that??
Subbing is like being a grandparent: all of the fun but almost none of the stress. You know that ridiculous amount of extra teaching stuff that makes it so exhausting? Doesn’t happen when you’re a sub! I arrive when I’m told to and depart when I’m done teaching. Lesson plans and grading? Nope. I just follow the plans in front of me and leave the rest when I go. There are no faculty meetings to attend, no field trips to proctor, no parent-teacher conferences to prepare for. But working with kids, watching them get those ah-ha moments, introducing a new concept, trying to reach the one student who seems unreachable? Absolutely!
And then I go home.
When you’re a “regular” teacher, you work with the same kids day in and day out. Even as a music teacher, although I had well over a hundred – sometimes well over three hundred – students on my roster, I still saw the same faces each week. This is great, of course, for building relationships and establishing continuity, and you do really get to know a particular age group quite intimately, but it does mean that you’re only working with one cross-section of kiddos. Subbing, I get to work with everyone – kindergarteners to seniors, individual saxophone lessons to entire orchestras, a sixth grade homeroom to third grade reading, students classified as gifted and those with special needs. Absolutely everyone is included, every age and class size and ability and race and socioeconomic status, and that is exciting as heck.
It’s also challenging, but in the best way, that Oh wow, I hadn’t thought about it like that before way where your brain almost hurts afterward – but it’s a good kind of pain. Teaching twenty-five first graders how to add doubles calls on way different skills and resources than teaching fifty tenth graders how to play that symphonic section adagio or teaching six ELA middle schoolers how to decode a sentence — and you guys, there is something so freakin’ exhilarating about having to use different parts of my brain, having to think outside the box, and having to do it on a dime. Growing up, I was one of those
dorks people who adored learning, especially if it was a fast-paced lesson, and that’s what subbing is like every single day.
Learning? you say; I thought you were teaching. Well, yes, of course, but as everyone knows (they do, right?), one of the best ways to be a good teacher is to be a good learner, and I am learning so damned much in these classrooms – in a different way than I did as a “regular” teacher. Then, I learned the ins and outs of middle school music and it was wonderful – truly – but now I’m learning about teaching, period. I had never conducted a high school band before I subbed, but let me tell you, when you have a hundred impatient teenagers staring at you as they await instruction that will help them prepare for next month’s concert, you figure it out fast. I’ve been shown games to help beginning readers, seen classroom management techniques that had never crossed my mind, and heard songs from across the globe that I’d never known existed. Yes, I’m teaching… but I’m also getting the best education of my life.
And that whole unpredictable, no-set-schedule thing? Amazeballs. Subbing is ridiculously flexible. Because I am fortunate enough to not have to work every day in order to support my family, I get to pick and choose. One week, maybe I’m available Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday; the week after that, perhaps Monday and Thursday only. If I only want to work a half-day, that can be arranged. If I need to leave a little early for an appointment, no worries; they’re grateful to have me anyway. Until I actually accept a job, I’m never locked in – if my schedule has changed but I still receive a call, I simply say, “Sorry – I’m no longer available that day!” and no one thinks a thing of it. It doesn’t get much better than that!
Best of all, I’m teaching. I’m back in the classroom, back with kids, back to what I feel called to do. From the moment I walk in those doors to the moment I turn in my ID badge, I come alive and give it everything I have. Sometimes, all I’m asked to do is clerical work – making copies, cutting out decorations, sorting papers – which is not exactly teaching, nor why I applied for this job, but you know what? I totally don’t mind. For one thing, I’m no dummy; if I can get paid to hang bulletin boards, sign me up! But beyond that, I know that I’m helping teachers do their jobs better. For each stack of homework that I file into take-home folders, a teacher is gaining extra time with her students, for his grading, for their professional development. Sign me up for that, too!
When I am in the classroom working with those kiddos, there’s nothing better (professionally, I mean; I do love hanging out with my own kiddos and seeing a movie with my husband and a mean Sauvingon Blanc and a Salted Caramel Mocha… sorry, where was I?). It used to be that I was irked at my subbing status, embarrassed even. It was only what I was doing temporarily, what I felt forced to do because what I wanted – my own classroom – wasn’t available. Each of those early times that I subbed, I felt compelled to explain myself to other teachers, to let them know I’d spent years in the classroom and why I decided to sub, to prove that I wasn’t just some wannabe who couldn’t get herself a “real” job. I wasn’t ashamed, but I was definitely defensive.
Now, a year in, I’m completely content with my decision and my position as a substitute teacher. I don’t need to prove myself – I just need to continue doing the best that I can and let my teaching speak for itself. At the end of the day, I leave the classroom feeling solid about myself and the job I’ve done.
We – all of us, society as a whole – need good substitute teachers. We need our children to receive excellent educations and to be taught by excellent teachers, but those teachers simply cannot be in their classrooms every minute of every day. When they’re gone, it does little good to hire people who cannot be counted on to take their places effectively. Subs play a critical role in education; good subs are even more important. Not to toot my own horn (HONK), but… I’m a good sub.
I’m no longer on the defensive; in fact, I’m proud of what I do. Don’t get me wrong – if a “regular” music position opened up, I’d still go for it. But right now, I’m thrilled with being a sub. It keeps me on my toes, it makes me think, it teaches me more than I thought possible. I’m out there, back in the classroom with kids, making a difference while still being able to make the difference that I want to in my own daughters’ lives. And let’s face it – the hours can’t be beat.
So, no. I’m not just subbing again. I’m subbing again because it is exactly where I want to be.
And I love it.