Substituting is surviving. Sometimes it can be teaching too, but too often it’s just keeping the kids safe, especially when it’s just one or two days with a room full of strange kids whose name you hardly remember. But for a young teacher still in training, it’s also valuable contacts and work experience.
I spent a lot of years working at a grocery store check-out after my lessons and on weekends. Once you attend teacher education from Monday to Friday, you can’t really start substituting and getting relevant work experience you need. So my advice, as soon as you can, get into schools. I think I stayed at my grocery store job a bit too long, mostly because of steady money and it was “comfortable”. Substituting is waiting for the call, going to a new school, learning the basics, reading the teacher’s notes etc.. in the five minutes you have before the kids enter the room.
But when you’ve made the transition from teacher education to substituting (whether you’re still in school or already graduated) get connected. My school (teacher ed) had an e-mail list where a lot of schools searched for substitute teachers. I also approached schools in my city and also the neighboring cities by email. I wrote to the principle stating who I was, what I’d studied and that I would like to be on their substitute list. Some of the schools never contacted me back, but some did.
Once I got the job, I was early, polite, well prepared and never turned down a task the principle or other teachers asked me to do. I once read an online article about substituting tips and one of them stuck on me: always have sneakers and proper clothes for P.E (+ a whistle!) in your backpack even though you’re not supposed to be teaching P.E. Once when I was packing my things and I was ready to leave after I’d taught all of my classes, the principle of a school asked me to sub a couple of extra hours of 4th grade P.E. So be flexible and be ready to be flexible.
A few of my tips:
- Be fast. The best sub-jobs go fast, reply to text messages immediately, if you want the job.
- Be early and be prepared. Have a few tricks/games in mind. Some teachers are not able to leave you any notes or teacher manuals etc. Be prepared for that too.
- Keep the kids safe. Introduce your set of rules early on. Don’t be unreasonable, but don’t let the kids roam the hallways either. The faculty will quickly see which substitute teachers can’t handle the classroom.
- Don’t expect too much from yourself. But try to follow up the teacher’s notes and requests.
- Leave a (positive) note for the teachers. Every teacher wants to hear positive things about their students. If you have something negative to address (something that happened and needs to be reported) add that too, but take the time to write some good things too. I’ve often heard the faculty talk about a specific substitute teacher and remembering her for taking the time to write a note to the teacher describing the day (and never complaining!).
- Leave the classroom in a better condition you got it in. Even if you’re in a hurry, clean up etc. It’s nice for the teachers to return to a clean classroom.
- Never say “no” when someone from the faculty asks for something. “Can you sub for two extra hours?” “Can you oversee the lunch?” “Can you come in tomorrow too?” Even though you’re not supposed to be on lunch duty and you’re hungry too and don’t feel like it, say yes anyway.
- Don’t be too limited in what you can or cannot teach. I’m not a musical prodigy, I can’t sing to safe my life but I am flexible and I can teach music.
- Stand out. Make connections. Introduce yourself. Principles know each other. They talk and ask around. Be always polite, never bad mouth a school/teacher/classroom. What goes around, comes around. Be the person no one has any bad things to say about. When your future employer calls another principle from the school you’ve subbed in, be sure he has only positive things to say.
- Don’t settle on what you know now. Keep on pushing yourself. The school of tomorrow isn’t a school where teachers shut the classroom door and never collaborate. Be interested in education. Attend conferences and mention them in your CV. You’re subbing now but teaching tomorrow.
So how I got my job? I was substituting a wood craft teacher for two days. That’s it. It paid off although I had never ever taught wood crafts. I got a text message a few months later to apply for a job opening and I did and that was that. Out of almost 40 applicants, I got the job. And that 6-month sub-job got me a job next year with my future 1st graders.
Finally, not all schools are great. Not all teachers’ lounges are nice and respectful places. Not all principles are respectful of students and employees. Remember this when you gather work experience. Sometimes it’s nice to know that you’re there for a day, maybe two, and you can leave and choose to work somewhere else. Eventually you’ll find a school that fits you best.
Last tip, but maybe the most important: always respect the student. There’s a quote in Finnish that says that no child is bad or evil, it’s just that some are weaker than others. There’s a lot of things we don’t know and will never know. Be mindful of that everyone is fighting a hard battle.
At the end of my CV are the most important recommendations of me as a teacher, at least to me personally. They are the notes and drawings the students have given to me.
“You help me understand things”