First weeks back substitute teaching, finding my groove

17 Oct

I was nervous about going back into classrooms this year. Though I taught for a year fresh out college and substituted for two seasons after that, I had flashbacks to that anxious first year of teaching, which was more stressful that almost anything I’ve done since. Even though I knew that most of the problems I had were because of my inexperience and youth, both of which I have left behind. Inexperience with young people, or at least managing so many in one room, inexperience with aboriginal culture, teen culture, interpersonal communication. Inexperience with using curriculum, creating and organizing systems of lessons, sorting out educational priorities, with professional collaboration, community relations, and handling conflicts both outer and inner. My B.Ed. program prepared me as well as could be expected, but actual teaching was still boot camp. I would get there an hour early, get through the day somehow, take a short lunch, stay after school for hours, load my bike with work to take home, stay up late, work on weekends, and rarely feel on top of things. I worked sick sometimes because I didn’t have the wherewithal to create good lessons for subs. I came up with most of my curriculum myself, patching together pieces of the old books in the cabinets and the new materials that came in the mail for French, and whatever I could pull together for science. There were no department meetings, no list of mandated materials or skills to master. Grades, report cards, all new territory. It really didn’t need to be as difficult as it was, I see now–I tried to be original and go it on my own too much, didn’t delegate some of the classroom flow operations to students. But I had a supportive principal, who encouraged and mentored me, colleagues who treated me as an equal, sympathized with me in my struggles, and applauded my successes, and a supportive church home group. I also got away to visit with my fiance and his family many weekends, who let me talk out my trauma and gave good advice.

I go in with confidence now each morning, no longer with a knot in my gut hoping my breakfast would stay in my body the right amount of time, no longer feeling the need to mentally prepare for the worst by talking it out aloud in the car on the way there, rehearsing opening lines, girding up my loins for the battle. I’m surprised with how natural it feels to be teaching now, talking with, listening to seventh and eighth graders, how relaxed I feel, more and more in touch with the creativity that could enable me to be a great teacher beyond just getting the work done. Doesn’t phase me anymore when kids switch seats and get into fits of giggling, bumping desks and dropping pencils, or when teen girls in groups of three give me “the look”. I used to get distressed and offended by so many things and tried at times to crack down, become an enforcer, count up the warnings and dock the points and refer offenders to the office, and at others to appeal to students’ better nature, reason with them, get them to sympathize and get on my side.

At dinner, a rare restaurant date, I shared with my husband how nice it felt to find out I could be good at this teaching thing, and how this confidence was energizing, and transferred to dealing with my kids at home. To no longer be intimidated and stressed at things that go on in a middle school classroom, like “the look”–that now, I could just deal with it, and with all those natural teen behaviors that before would put me in a tizzy, even offend me, despite resolving not to take any of it personally. Now instead of trying to keep kids from talking, connecting, moving around, being cool and putting on a show, I try to fit in into the program, and just keep things moving along. Or stop and change things up, whatever it takes, including letting myself make mistakes. And really, truly, not take things personally. Also shared that when I’d start to feel confident, cool, on top of things with the students, I would start acting out of some place other than my center–ego or something, and start being stupid, and have to re-center, which felt like a kind of detachment.

One of the great advantages I have as an aspiring classroom teacher is that every day I listen to feedback from my four children about their teachers; what they do well, what not, what works, what they appreciate or can’t stand. What they wished the teachers knew. Priceless inside information. They also listen to my school stories, what happened and how I responded, funny stories, observations. My daughters have also deemed it appropriate to express their confidence in me as teacher, with the caveat that I mustn’t sign up to sub in their classroom.

I admit that as a substitute teacher I don’t have much pressure. I do what’s on the plan, don’t take work home, and if there are no openings or I don’t want to work, I don’t. But I have a plan. First, I’m meeting people, learning all I can, making connections and observations. How’s the classroom set up? Do things flow? What’s the culture? Would I want to work here, and in what capacity? How friendly and professional are the staff? What do they think of the school, the curriculum, the rules, their job? Not so much info available on those latter items, but as I become more familiar to the regular staff, I expect that will come. Second, I’m figuring out how to balance my home responsibilities with work, and training the kids to take over a reasonable amount of the chores and errands, preferably on their own initiative. Third, I’m planning on increasing my hours to get used to a more regular work week–it’s an adjustment to be on my feet all day, talk more, stay organized, keep my energy up, fit in exercise, writing, other projects, study. I’m taking a weekly Spanish class and reviewing my content areas, figuring out what other classes would bring me up to date. And I’m listening to teachers, trying to get a realistic perspective of the field, the changes and issues, and an angle of approach that will work for me.


Posted by on October 17, 2014 in Education, Places & Experiences


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4 responses to “First weeks back substitute teaching, finding my groove

  1. jdawgsrunningblog

    October 18, 2014 at 6:37 am

    Love the way this is written–the density, rhythm and staccato beats of the sentences–and how it gives such an accurate window into the arc of teaching–in such a compressed manner, to boot. Well done.

  2. LeRoy Pick

    October 20, 2014 at 10:19 am

    I guess I’ll have to be my usual (nit-picking) self on this one. This article finished well and I loved the subject matter, but it opened poorly. Sentence 3, that begins with “Even though . . . “, isn’t a complete sentence as it lacks a predicate. If you ditch the “Even though” opening, the sentence will work, but with the “Even though” the second part becomes a subordinate clause rather than a finish to the sentence, so there needs to be a following clause to finish it properly. As written, it just leaves things hanging. The next two sentences are awkward as “inexperience” appears to be the subject as they are written, but really the subject of both is the unstated “I” (as in the writer) so the reader is forced to figure out the unspoken bits.

    Then again, the problem may be that I am too thick to follow it all, or it could be that the unstated bits are enough to cause mayhem in my environment so I can’t let them stand wihout comment.

    Regarding the subject, I can relate twice: my mother 30 years ago and my sister now. My mother went back to the workforce as a substitute for a stretch in my grade 10 year, but after that itch was scratched she returned to the home. (Thank goodness; I was spoiled by having my mother home all of the time and it was a major shock to my world when she wasn’t there.) My sister has been substituting for quite a few years, initially because she just could not break into the “system” full time (I think becoming a made-man in the mafia would be easier), and now because she enjoys having the freedom to choose where and when she will work. Between the two of them, there are a lot of similiarities with what is written here.

    • toesinthedirt

      October 20, 2014 at 10:44 pm

      Thanks for your comments, LeRoy. Yes, I realize these are not classic sentences, and I considered “fixing” them, but left them in a conversational style. As if I’m finishing thoughts brought up and followed by a pause for the “listener” to consider. See? I did it again just now. Things like that used to bother me, in the same way that musical pieces I was trying to learn in 4/4 time could suddenly slow down at the end. I just didn’t realize how interpretive, how flexible language is, and the “rules” have never been derived from pure principles. I’m now reading Steven Pinker’s The Sense of Style, which I recommend. It may help you feel less irritated with writers who deviously avoid the kind of nonsense up with which linguistic purists will not put.

  3. LeRoy Pick

    October 21, 2014 at 9:55 am

    Ooop! That last bit is a mouthful! “Nonsense” describes it wonderfully. The agony through which one will go in order to avoid ending a sentence with a preposition!

    I never did understand that rule. Avoiding the to’s and with’s and other siple words usually results in a barely comprehensible disaster. LIke you, I have discovered over the years that writing things in a fashion that mimics conversation can hold the readers interest more than a precisely crafted, but otherwise very dry, piece of grammatical and linguistic formality.

    After I wrote and distributed a long, and potentially boring, “lecture” about a work topic, I had a Chinese co-worker comment that “it reads just like you are standing there talking to me”. That’s a compliment I repeat with pride.

    ’til later . . .


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