I am fortunate enough that, while we really can use every penny I earn, I am not desperately trying to support myself or anyone else on what I earn. As a substitute teacher, IF I worked full days every day of the months that school is in session, I would not be able to pay the mortgage along with my student loans. Forget food, insurance of any kind, gasoline to get to and from assignments…

As it is, I am finally earning enough each month to pay for my student loans year-round (I have to save enough for the times schools are on vacation and I cannot work). Last month I worked just enough days to pay for the student loans almost completely, but had to get a loan to float me through to when I got paid for that work so I could pay the student loan for October — I will get paid for September work in November… The light at the end of the tunnel is that in this calendar month I am working enough hours to pay for two full months of student loans. If I can do this in November, January, February, March (this year spring break is in April) and May, I will have enough to pay my student loans easily through next November, set some aside to start a retirement account, and help pay some additional family expenses beyond my own specialized diet and transportation expenses. I can expect at least enough in December and April to pay the student loans and my transportation for those months.

My mindset this school year shifted. I have moved from a feeling of dread before assignments, to a feeling of anticipation. I don’t like complete uncertainty, but at this point I have been in so many different situations that I know a) I will live through them and b) so will the kids. They might be unhappy, and I might be exhausted, but we will get through the day. Generally we do more than get through the day, we have fun and the children do a lot of learning. Some things I have changed about my teaching when I walk into a classroom (that usually work), some of which I started last year but want to reiterate:

Best Foot Forward

  • Name on the board and a list of tasks/schedule/agenda – Kids enter the room, especially with a sub they don’t know at all, and they immediately become anxious. I go over the agenda as soon as I can, depending on the mood of the class I will even do that before I take attendance! Seeing that the sub knows what is planned is settling for most of them. Most of the others feel better just knowing my name and that I care enough about them to be up front wit them. I often remark that since I am not the regular teacher I know that things will be different and I reassure the students that it will be okay, the teacher will not be upset with them if things are done differently. A few, as happened once this week, will not be calmed even if they DO know me and that the teacher trusts me… see next point.
  • The first kid who deliberately misbehaves leaves the room (exceptions next) – While my goal is always to keep all the kids in the room and learning, I have found that generally the first kid who misbehaves is the “bad behavior leader.” They are accustomed to having subs back down and not having to work. When I remove that student immediately, the rest of the class understands that I DO have authority and they are safe while I am there. When I ignore deliberately disruptive behavior, in all but a few cases (see next point) the behavior escalates because the students feel I lack authority and therefore they are not safe. What I DO ignore, and will give warnings for: chatting with each other as they enter the room and notice I am there; some chatter and direct inquiries about procedures when I have a different method or approach than the regular teacher; wiggly bodies/minor safety issues; the occasional “trick” that is done out of high spirits rather than meanness. What I DO NOT (ever) ignore and do not give warnings: Deliberate disrespect (automatic call to the office); clearly unsafe behavior (roughhousing, chasing another student, threats — I will not try to decide who started it, or whether it was just play, but leave that up to administrators to figure out); consistently disruptive behavior (usually they have had at least two warnings to stop before they are ejected) will result in either a time out in the hall or a trip to the office, again there is an exception to this one… see below!
  • Keep the kids who want to leave – With very few exceptions, this can work when I have already subbed several times for a teacher and know the personalities. Most of the kids who just want out of the learning can be kept in the classroom once I know what their focus is. I try to give them a chance to participate in the entire group, but if their behavior or language are such that the kids around them cannot concentrate I move their desks, reassign their seats, or have them stand at the back of the room. Occasionally a child will continue to escalate, but if I can get the rest of the class to ignore them, eventually they calm down. If the child won’t calm down, or the situation seems unsafe, I call for help — safety is my first priority as a substitute. Usually these are students who have learning or behavior issues that I am not able to address in the hour or day that I am there.
  • Now that the children are safe and have been reassured that I know what I am doing and have the authority to teach them…

  • Make it fun – I can’t make every moment of every content area fun, but for me EVERYTHING is interesting! I enjoy teaching! I like being with kids! I like reading/math/art/science/music/writing/computers/stuff! I am a teacher who makes faces, uses funny voices, occasionally tries a feeble joke… and hands out stickers to high schoolers for good ideas and active participation. So, discussing variables in algebra isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. I understand that. I know that it is dreary in the long dark gray months to drill on the same task (spelling words, grammar drills, math facts) over and over… so I try to mix it up. If I don’t have the knowledge to help the students with a particular lesson, usually there are students who relish the chance to try teaching! They can tutor each other, we can all talk about how to get the work done, and I can remind them it is okay to not get 100% on everything. Really, they are in the process of learning and mistakes do happen…
  • Be clear about expectations – Technically I suppose this belongs up in the first section, but each new task, each transition requires a steady, calm willingness to describe what is going on, why, and how the students are expected to perform/behave. While the normal beginning of the day for me involves a quick run-down of my three rules: Be silent when I am speaking to the class, Keep Safety first (chairs/desks flat on floor, walking, etc), and DO ask questions if what I asked or said was confusing! The rest of the day is filled with more instructions. For example, as I hand out papers, I say, please put your names on these. If they have a task they are used to doing on their own during a class (for example if they have math stations) I say “use normal classroom procedure” and then I watch to see what the expectations are (often teachers aren’t that explicit in their lesson plans).
  • Chaos is okay, sometimes – Children who are engaged in learning need to talk, need to move. Depending on the task and the kids, letting them work in pairs, in small groups; talk; move about; use the white board/computers/floor… it looks chaotic, but the children, if they are engaged in learning, will be functioning at a high level. I monitor volume, movement and actual work. Just because I say it is okay to talk doesn’t mean you get to talk about your ex-boyfriend’s new date! I freely redirect, reassign and review whether the chaos is working, and I keep the level to a point where I can get back on top of the class without using my full voice — which I do sometimes need to use anyway. Kids who are engaged in learning turn off their ears!
  • Along with making it fun, do things differently – on purpose. If the teacher normally has them work all the way until the bell, they like to be able to play a quick game or take a short nap (five minutes is enough!). It gives them a break, lets them blow off some energy, and tells them that hard work is rewarded. It is a privilege, though, and so I make it clear if it’s my plan to allow something like this that it only happens if they work hard. Sometimes the kids are working hard, finish the task and I “pop” the reward on them. They like that, too! And even older kids respond to a quick review game — hangman, speed math, terminology bingo… It helps cement their learning as well as provides a bell-friendly transition point.

That’s probably enough for now. I take copious notes for the teacher (still) but don’t generally keep copies for myself anymore. I like to know what the day should be like, so I try to arrive at schools well before the assigned show-up time. Half an hour (which is what most schools require) just isn’t enough for me to really get the flow of lessons. On the other hand, I have reached the point that if I am assigned suddenly (late-morning call, filling in during my planning time, etc) I can roll with it. No plans available? Look at the board, ask the kids, fill in the gaps. If all else fails, have the kids run a review game and design their own quiz.

My new mindset, which does not prevent sleepless nights, is to focus on keeping the kids actively engaged in their own learning and providing a safe environment so when the regular teacher comes back there is a smooth transition. I don’t have to save the world, I just have to be with the kids and enjoy teaching. This much, I can do.


One Interaction on “Teaching in October: New mindsets

  1. This is why you are a good teacher! You love kids, love learning, love teaching and have the big picture in mind when details fall away. The kids who have you for a sub are very lucky and their teachers are even luckier. Keep going!

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