Help Me Help You

Teachers! You are fantastic. I appreciate you. I value you. I deeply respect you.
I would love to buy you a drink (or several).
I also could use your help.

See, I love subbing for you. I want to be as good sub as possible – following your plans and leaving the classroom in great shape so when you return, you don’t have to waste time backtracking or re-teaching or wishing you’d dragged yourself into school despite the positive Strep culture because omg what a disaster.

But here’s the thing: subbing is, by its very nature, unpredictable. Since no two assignments are alike, I try to be prepared for anything. No matter how prepared I am, though, there are still some things that would make subbing easier.

Here’s where you come in.
In the immortal words of Jerry Maguire: “Help me help you!”

Having been a classroom teacher for nearly ten years, I know how difficult it can be to plan for a sub. There were many times when I decided it wasn’t worth it to be absent, no matter how crummy I felt or what I’d miss with my family, because leaving thorough plans and trusting someone to actually follow them was more trouble than it was worth. Planning for a sub is a pain in the rear. I get it. I know. Truly.

With that said, a little help from teachers and schools can make the subbing experience go more smoothly – which makes returning to the classroom that much easier on your end! Best of all? Most of these can be done well in advance so you’re not frantically cramming even more into your sub plans. Woo-hoo!

Still with me??
Here are 10 things you can do that would help make subbing go extra super duper well.

1. Have a sub folder in an obvious place, with the obvious information — fire drill procedure, your schedule, etc. — clearly stated. A set of emergency plans is also fantastic for those mornings when your three year-old vomits all over her sheets ten minutes before you’re due to leave for work.

2. Tell me where the bathroom is – preferably the teachers’ bathroom, although any set of working toilets would do in a pinch. Nothing says “I’m new here!” like wandering the halls of an unfamiliar school when you desperately need to take a leak during the three minutes you’ve got between classes.

2. Make sure I’ve got a class roster. A seating chart is also super helpful; I’ll either look like a fool or a jerk when kids insist that this is where they’re supposed to sit and I have no idea if they’re pulling my leg or being honest. Even if name tags are attached to desks, a class list and a chart are pretty rad – when I’m trying to determine if everyone actually turned in their reading log or am asking for volunteers from across the room, having something to reference makes things much easier.

3. If a kid’s name is difficult to pronounce or is pronounced in a non-standard way, write the phonetic spelling beside it. Yeah, when I take attendance, I can self-deprecatingly explain that, since I’m new, I may make mistakes, and I’ll ask the kiddos for clarification, but it automatically sets me back when I pronounce Carolina like the state and everyone admonishes, “It’s Car-oh-LEEna! HAHA!!” Likewise if Marco goes by his middle name or Jacob only responds to his nickname, “Mooch” (true story). Help a sister out so I look like I know what I’m talking about, at least a little.

4. What’s your bathroom/drinking fountain/nurse procedure? Do kids sign out? Is there a pass? How many students can go at one time? Is it okay to leave during silent reading or should they wait until snack? This is true for specials teachers, too… When kiddos come to you room, they seem to arrive with their bladders bursting. Do you allow them to make a mad dash for the loo? Only in emergencies? I can invent a response on the spot, but when I say, “Please wait until the quiz is over” and I’m met with an indignant, “Mr. So-and-so ALWAYS lets us go whenever we want!”, it creates tension – not to mention I have no idea if the kid is telling me the truth or punking me.

5. Tell me your magical attention-getting cue. Do you use a special clap? Ring a bell? Turn the lights on and off? Use a call-and-response phrase? (My daughters had an awesome art teacher who utilized popular commercial jingles to get her classes’ attention. They’d be art-making and the teacher would say/sing, “We! Are! Farmers!” and the whole class would say/sing back, “Bum, ba dum bum bum bum bum!”) If I know what it is, I’ll put it to good use. If not, I’m stuck whispering, “If you can hear me, touch your nose!”, using the Teacher Classic, “I’m waiting…”, or thrusting my hand in the air and announcing, “Give me five!” while they look at me quizzically. I can raise my voice with the best of ’em, but I’d rather just do whatever you do.

6. Do you have a reward/behavior system? If so, how does it work? I can do my own thing, but if you’ve got something going, I’d love to continue it. Kids dig the consistency. If there are prizes to be earned and the appropriate benchmarks are achieved, may I dole out the loot? If so, where do you keep your stash? Either way is fine, but letting me know is way helpful because I feel like a schmuck explaining to little Miss that even though she read her tenth book, I have no idea whether or not she’s allowed to visit the prize box.

7. Let me know what happens during transition times. Is there a bell? Does it ring at the end of class? The beginning? Both? Is there an end-of-day bell or signal? Do I simply let the kids out of the room whenever the clock reaches a particular time? Also, for littler ones, let me know what my role is in their transitions. Your plans say: “10:15 – 10:45, Library.” Do I drop them off? Remain with them? Will they come back on their own or should I pick them up? After recess, will someone get them or should I go to the playground? Inquiring minds want to know!

8. Fill me in on some of the peculiarities of your classroom. Do you regularly allow kids to take their work into the hall? Is food permissible? Do they often spread books on the floor to have more room to work? How strict are you about tardies? Is partner work cool or should this assignment be done solo? Is chewing gum perfectly acceptable or grounds for staying after class? These may seem almost inconsequential to you, but I promise you that as soon as I stray from your routine, the kids notice.

9. If you can, keep some extra supplies handy. I’m not talking anything extravagant, but a spare dry erase marker or two, some tissues, a few band-aids, and a bottle of hand sanitizer that contains more than fumes can be tremendously useful.

10. Tell me something about your students. If someone’s really into the guitar, let me know; we can talk Fenders. If another kid just got the cast off her arm, I’d love to hear it; I’ll be sure she can sit out during recess, if she’d like. While I don’t want to hear a whole string of negatives – I can form my own unique opinions without you trying to convince me of yours – a bit of background can be really helpful. If you’ve got one kiddo who has trouble keeping hands to herself, tell me; I’ll try to redirect her before she bugs a classmate. If someone is easily distracted, fill me in; I can give him some extra one-on-one time to help him focus on his work. More than once, I’ve had teachers pick their classes up from music, ask how things went and – upon hearing that the kids were a little rowdy – say, with a laugh, “Yeah, they get out of control easily!” Had that information been relayed before we started, I might’ve held off on handing out the maracas and tambourines until we’d established a good rhythm (HAHA). I promise not to pigeonhole anyone; I just want this experience to be successful all the way around, and a little bit of background can make a world of difference.
An apple for the teacher: not just a myth.


I realize that not all of these apply to every teacher, and obviously no one can be expected to relay every single nuance of their classroom… but if you can at least hit on the highlights so I’m not flying completely blind, I would be ever so grateful.

If things go well, maybe you’ll call me back again – which would be awesome, because Mooch was nearly finished with his All About Dolphins poster and I’m dying to see the final masterpiece.

Do what you need to do. I got this.

Just subbing again this year? Nope.

“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!

All ready to go this morning…

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!

Today’s job began late enough that I could still take my morning walk with the dogs… and the girls. ‘Tis the mark of a good situation, my friends.

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.

Sun coming up over the hills. Which I still get to see, because I get to pick and choose my own schedule, because subbing is the bomb.