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Three insights into substitute teaching

Grace Conyers (left in the black sweatshirt) was lucky in that she was a substitute teacher for a variety of ages and skill levels. (Image: Grace Conyers)

There is a beauty to substitute teaching at various levels that has gone unnoticed by me before. I am able to gain a lot of experience and insight substitute teaching various grades, various classes, and various topics, where I wouldn't if I were a full fledged teacher. This has it's ups and downs, but in my mind more ups than downs.

For instance, I have breath of experience of both where the kids are coming from and where they are going. On the side of the lessons, I realize that teachers leave the easy stuff for the subs, as if subs need an easy task to undertake — and half the time the equipment doesn't work to pull off the assignment. Much of the time, subs stay within a certain range of ages which they feel comfortable teaching, but get to go from class to class, school to school, and sometimes, but rarely, from subject to subject. I, being unlicensed but having a higher degree of education and experience, got lucky when the school system asked me if I could do more than middle school.

Here are a few of the insights I've gained over the last year by substitute teaching:

1.  Speaking their language

Learning how to adapt my speech for each level was trying, to say the least. It is natural to talk differently to an honors class versus a non-honors class. You seem to expect more of them. It's the same thing with different grades. You talk to a seventh grader differently than you would even a sixth grader. I found out this was a huge mistake. And students let you know with dramatic eye rolls, exaggerated sighing if you talk down to them, confused looks and deer-in-the-headlight behavior if you use all the vocabulary in a section. The gradations are much more slight than I naturally reacted, and I had to adjust accordingly. I found that treating them like they were older than they were actually helped, too.

2.  Decorum

There is, as always, a certain level of decorum. It's relatively unspoken in the ways that really matter. Kids are always going to see how far they can push the boundaries of all the rules and regulations the school, their normal teacher, and previous subs have imposed on them to see how far you'll let them go. I found that if I behave the way I wish they behave, and keep a firm grasp on the situation, I can often turn around an unruly child in elementary school. Middle and high school seem to be a different story, and a whole new levels of problems. For this, I felt like I was playing an epic game of chess using will power, rewards, punishments and the imposed regulations as the pieces.

Interestingly enough, I often found that bending the rules with logic got them to follow the rules more closely than if they were just acting out to act out. I found that teachers would tell me to put in a video for them, but leave no video. To get around this, I asked the students to find and share their favorite YouTube videos on the subject at hand, and I shared mine as well. It became a game with them to find the coolest video to wow their classmates with, and it was educational as well.

3. Letting go

This lesson is double sided, especially when I visited the same class more than once. The students liked my teaching style and thus me. I was granted the greatest prize when they said they learned things about science, math, literature, and life with me. This was followed by disappointment when they said they didn't want their normal teacher back because the teacher was "boring and stupid" in their eyes — count on kids to be brutally honest when you least expect it. It's hard for me to let them go and face the reality of the world, just as it's hard for them to let me go while they return to their normal schedule and life.

I get around this by telling them if they see me outside of school, they are welcome to come up and talk to me. A few have, and when they do, they are delighted to find that I treat them with the same respect and courtesy that I treated them in the classroom. This helps when I've seen them the next years in other classes, or they have a sibling in other classes, to keep spirits high and learning a fun experience.  

Representative Image Caption
Grace Conyers (left in the black sweatshirt) was lucky in that she was a substitute teacher for a variety of ages and skill levels. (Image: Grace Conyers)
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