50: The Learning Curve of a Sub

50: The Learning Curve of a Sub

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Inspiration for Teachers

The Learning Curve of a Sub

You never really know a man until you understand things from his point of view, until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.

~Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird

I just finished my first year of substitute teaching, working in the same three buildings. The most common question the staff asked me all year was, “Who are you today?”

They meant who was I subbing for, but the question always made me smile, because being a substitute does have that schizophrenic feel.

After all, I’ve been in classrooms ranging from kindergarten to high school. I’ve covered subjects ranging from honors English to remedial study skills. I’ve been a librarian, a gym teacher, an art teacher and, once, a band teacher.

School is about learning, and I learned a lot.

I learned the immense value of the school office. They have the keys, the codes, the copy machine and the chair where the challenging children sit.

I learned every classroom includes a version of the same three kids.

There is the kid who wants to be the teacher. This one is very vocal about how things are usually done, how things should be done, and how to handle the uncooperative students. This kid is never far from my elbow.

Then there is the kid who wants to get away with murder. This one never stops misdirecting, slyly suggesting the class do things their real teacher never lets them do. This kid is never far from my other elbow.

Unfortunately, there is also the kid who is lost. Sometimes quiet, always heartbreaking — this one needs individual help. Rarely do I have enough control of the classroom to give that help. This kid should be at my elbow.

I feel bad about this.

I’ve learned that all kids, regardless of age, use the bathroom for independent wandering. That said, I always let them go. I’d rather be duped than clean up… stuff.

I learned flicking the lights is the best way to garner attention.

I learned fifteen minutes until the bell can feel like fifteen hours.

Substituting in a grade school taught me that one’s place in line is a sacred, sacred thing, not to be messed with or dismissed.

Substituting in a junior high taught me that nothing has changed for kids who are becoming teenagers. It is still a minefield of whispers, judgment, and alienation.

Substituting in a high school taught me to collect assignments at the end of the hour. It creates a sense of urgency for at least twenty minutes.

“Who are you today?”

That question was never as important as what I was supposed to be doing that day — teaching.

And I struggled. Mightily.

I walked in a lot of teachers’ shoes, and every walk confirmed how amazing teachers are. They come to school with a plan and are flexible enough to execute that plan in a variety of ways amid a variety of challenges.

And if that plan fails, they come up with another one.

I learned to appreciate this tenacity. Every sub assignment contained a low moment when I realized how outnumbered I was, how off track we were, and how much I wanted to quit.

My guess is real teachers have those moments, too. After all, these kids are not their kids. They are somebody else’s kids. Perhaps that is the most amazing part about teachers. The good ones feel parental responsibility toward somebody else’s kids.

If you don’t think that’s impressive, try taking over someone’s classroom, just for an hour. You’ll learn.

~Nicole L.V. Mullis

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