Unsung Heroes? A Day-in-the-Life of a Substitute Teacher

Getting the Call

   RRRRING!!!! 6AM!  Snap open your eyes and clear your throat so it sounds as if you have been awake for hours. This must be a call to substitute.

   That unsung hero, the substitute teacher, and the pitfalls of the job are totally familiar to us. Early in our careers we were both employed as classroom teachers. We began substituting when our children were young, and one of us eventually became a school principal in another state.

   Some districts across the country are desperate for substitutes, but here in Westchester, there are long lists from which to choose. Teachers are allowed to request a certain sub, so getting to know as many classroom teachers as possible is a must if you want to work. Many substitute teachers obtain their jobs because they have been devoted to the school community. One sub we knew had been the PTA President at both the elementary and middle schools, run the school fair and fashion show, and worked at the polls for the school budget vote.

   As a sub you have to be prepared to take an elementary class or perhaps one at the middle school, depending on the provisions of your certification. If a teacher has to go home early due to illness, you might have to find a whistle and sweat suit, or a clean art smock — sometimes at a moment’s notice.

Entering the Classroom

   After receiving that early morning call, the first objective is to get there as early as possible, because if no lesson plan is available, one has to be constructed. This is best accomplished by close examination of the room and the books and workbooks in the children’s desks, but you have to be careful not to have the permanent teacher think you’ve been intrusive in any way. One problem with arriving at the school building too early is that you might unknowingly take someone else’s parking space.

   As substitutes, we were especially appreciative if a complete lesson plan had been left, one that could be easily read and interpreted. All too often, it was difficult to read the teachers’ handwriting, and notations made in a personal code that only they could understand. Sometimes it was not even possible to locate the plan book because the teacher’s desk and drawers were so cluttered.  It could even be necessary to borrow a blank sheet of paper and a pencil from one of the students in order to leave a note about what had been accomplished for the day.

   Some teachers did not put out chalk. Either they never wrote on the blackboard, or they kept it hidden so the students wouldn’t pocket the chalk or toss it around the room.

   Same-grade teachers could usually be counted on to let you know what “specials” the class had that day and if you would have any extra responsibilities, such as recess or lunchroom duty.

Teaching the Class

   Subs are expected to stick to the lesson plan and accomplish as much of it as possible. All papers completed by the children that day have to be corrected. Homework has to be explained and the children reminded to bring home the necessary materials to complete the work. It is always appreciated if you have the children straighten their desks and the room in general before leaving.

   Displaying work means putting it on an empty bulletin board; one would never remove an existing display, even if it had been hanging there a very long time. If a teacher is absent for an extended period, you are expected to decorate the room in keeping with current projects or seasonal changes. 

   When working in an upper elementary grade, the grade book has to be maintained so that report card information will be accurate. If the teacher is out for an entire semester, the sub is responsible for preparing report cards, holding parent-teacher conferences, and attending any scheduled meetings or conferences. Long-term subs, as we would be called after taking a class for more than a few days, are also expected to contact parents, the school psychologist, reading specialist or nurse if any unusual problems are occurring with a child. It’s imperative to keep in touch with the regular teacher for input, guidance and approval.

   The most important aspect of being a substitute teacher is the ability to quickly establish a personal relationship with the children. Each one needs to feel that you are as competent, dedicated and compassionate as a regular teacher, that you are kind and trustworthy, that you know your subject matter, and most of all, that you like children and are fair. It’s helpful to learn each child’s name or preferred nickname. Giving them a treat by keeping them out a bit longer at recess or playing a new game will endear you to the children, but it’s most important to teach them and keep them safe.

Handling Problems

   School principals are usually polite and will sometimes stop by the classroom during the day to see how the lessons are progressing. It is understood, however, that you should not send a child to the office in every circumstance. We found that problems in the classroom were ours to handle no matter how heinous, and in fact our employment depended on it, even though the regular staff often had a steady procession going to the principal for disciplinary action. Subs know that they will be called upon to work, based not on how competent they are as a teacher, but on how few waves they make on any given day.           

No Silver Bowl

   In one of the school districts where we worked, permanent teachers were rewarded for their dedication at the end of 25 years of service with a large, engraved silver bowl.  This is a rarity among subs. Too many school districts have little appreciation for their substitute teachers, who are always ready at a moment’s notice to step in and fill whatever need arises. Administrators and parents seem to see those who come in on a day-to-day basis as little more than babysitters.   

   Parents are often upset when their child comes home with the news that they’ve had a substitute teacher for the day. Even if a child tells a parent how good the sub was, it is often assumed the kids are happy only because they had a day to goof-off and do nothing. This may once have been the case, but today, most districts in Westchester hire only certified teachers as both subs and aides. One parent recently complained about the pay scale for substitutes, saying that it is much higher than in other parts of the country. The rate, however, is commensurate with how permanent teachers in the area are compensated.

   The next time your children tell you they had a substitute for the day, pause a moment to consider the effort and attention that teacher has brought into the classroom, and instead of assuming the worst, imagine the best.

MARILYN PELLINI worked in Westchester as a substitute for 15 years, and prior to that as a kindergarten teacher. She was also an aide in a resource room for eight years.
BARBARA BEAUCHEMIN was a classroom teacher and substituted when her children were young. She concluded her career with three years as a school principal in Rhode Island.