I was in a middle school classroom this week, and one student asked me why I wasn’t a teacher and not “just a substitute.” Another said, “Real teachers know how to control kids.”
I often feel like I have to apologize for being “just a substitute.” And I know my classroom management skills are basic at best. But bear with me a moment and consider a few things:
- While many substitute teachers are, like me, people who worked in other fields and decided to see whether they were any good at teaching before they committed time and money to a post-baccalaureate or master’s program, many are not. Some are new graduates who haven’t yet found a full-time job. Some are retired teachers looking to stay active in education. Some are survivors of layoffs and working diligently to get a full-time job. All of us are “real teachers.” If you teach, regardless of grade level or subject matter, you are a real teacher. I like the term “guest teacher” that one district I frequently teach in uses. It has the same ring as “visiting professor.” It lets the students know that I had other opportunities but chose to come to their school and their classroom.
- It is true that many of us who come from other backgrounds don’t have a lot of experience with classroom management. But consider this: in the state I live in, the only criteria you need to substitute teach are a bachelor’s degree (and proof of said degree, in the form of a sealed official transcript and a copy of your diploma), a clean criminal record (including fingerprints on file), and a check for the license fee. Some schools and school systems want recommendation letters and a portfolio. Some don’t. Some offer – or even require – training for their substitute teachers. Most don’t. There are agencies that offer training in topics such as bullying, classroom management, and learning styles, but it’s not always possible to get the time to attend.
- No matter how much training you have, every time you go into a new school or even just a new classroom, you are a stranger in a strange land. There’s an entire culture you MUST learn quickly, and students WILL notice any deviations from their usual routine. (Moreover, the younger they are, the more likely they are to notice!) Most of the time, regular teachers are helpful. Sometimes, they are too busy to help you. Other times, they resent or distrust your presence. Fortunately, I have found the first to be the case almost every place where I have taught. At my assignment yesterday, three different teachers stopped by the room and invited me to reach out to them if I had questions or problems, and the regular teacher left me his phone number to call or text with any concerns.
- I remember my own school days (cough, cough) many years ago when a substitute would come into my classes. Some of my classmates made it their mission to make the substitute miserable. How many juvenile books, sitcom episodes, and family movies use the hapless substitute teacher as a punchline? Alas, I have encountered some students like that; in the same classroom where I heard the snarky remarks about substitute teachers, one student came right out and told me he “didn’t like subs.” He ended up spending the rest of the block with the intervention specialist across the hall, at his request; I obliged.
Substitute teachers may not necessarily have the credentials or experience that full-time teachers do, but we ARE professionals and deserve to be treated as such.