I Am a Terrible Substitute Teacher. Here’s Why That Matters.

Substitute teachers are essential to the successful operation of a school, especially in times of record numbers of teacher absences and open positions. Recent publications in TIME and EdWeek outline the crisis in detail, but if you are an educator or a parent, you likely have personal experience with this growing problem. As the COVID pandemic continues, and as demonstrated by the rapid spread of the Omicron variant, additional shortages have the potential to foment an all-out crisis.

Like many non-school educators across the country, I had the humbling opportunity to serve as a substitute teacher recently. When I subbed for the first time in 2005, I vowed to never do it again. Substituting is not like regular teaching. It is exhausting and unfulfilling in ways unlike any other teaching experience I have ever had. While subbing, it seems impossible to actually make a difference or improve over time. My substitute experience in November 2021 was no different for me, except it also came with a mini existential crisis.

I love kids. I know we all say that, but I prefer kids to adults in almost any situation. I have actual friends who are under 10. I make conversation with any kid I meet, whether at the bus stop, with my own kids, in line at the water park, or pretty much anywhere. I find them endlessly fascinating, entertaining, hopeful, and inspiring. I am in awe of what it takes to be a kid these days. Kids are resilient, compliant, creative, and hardworking. The world hardly deserves them.

I was so excited to spend some time in a classroom. On reflection, I left classroom teaching too early and often mourn the days when I was the conductor of my class and one of the most important people in the lives of 20-25 children. In my first interview for a non-classroom teaching job, I told the interviewers that I worried most about losing my “teaching mojo” – sometimes referred to as withitness, which allowed me to seamlessly attend to multiple needs, challenges, and opportunities all day long every day. I was right to be worried. I’ve lost my mojo.

Don’t get me wrong; my recent substitute teaching experience wasn’t that bad. I worked in lovely schools with educators I admire and respect. Teachers and administrators are performing miracles in today’s schools and classrooms, just like they always have, but in ten thousand more urgently important and difficult ways. Kids are still smiling and singing to themselves. Teachers are still wearing ridiculous outfits and dancing as they greet their students. There are some crucial differences, though, since the last time I was teaching. I’ll describe them here in terms of what I personally experienced and what seems to be universally true about substitute teaching. I will follow up this list with a second post, describing ideas I’ve gathered about what we can do next.

1. A true commitment to personalized learning and the belief that all children are unique creates dissonance with what it takes to manage a classroom while meeting the current demands placed on teachers.

There is nothing satisfying about whole group instruction and giving directions or assessments to groups of 20 or more kids with unique needs, talents, interests, and abilities. We are kidding ourselves if we think this is effective, especially for young kids. I knew this when I was a teacher, but I could ignore it for long stretches of time. Not now.

2. A teacher never gives full attention to any one student or even groups of students because the teacher’s attention is diverted, both internally and externally, to an unsustainable number of concerns and challenges.

While I was subbing, my brain was constantly diverted in 500 directions, never fully present to the thing I was doing. I understand this would probably improve with time and practice, but I couldn’t help but wonder… should it?

3. Kids are less compliant than they used to be. I think it’s a good thing.

I was a stranger. The kids told me I had a “nice voice” and they thought I was funny, which went a long way, but when they got tired, stressed, bored, or time just went on a bit too long, they started to fray faster than I remember. I am glad. Their needs were not being met and they were communicating it, even if subconsciously, and it created an urgency for me to adapt to their needs. I hope they keep doing this so we can stop practices that unintentionally harm them.

4. Adults are stressed, at home and at school. It shows in their eyes, their body language, and the way they treat the students and each other.

This was a heavy one. Everyone was trying their best, but I could feel a collective energy gap that was palpable in every school I visited. It made me think about the lack of energy I also see at the bus stop in the morning, at the doctor’s office, even in the grocery store. Kids are witnessing the strain of adults in every part of their lives. The joy of school is severely affected by this energy gap and we must do something about it.

5. Substitute teachers are not treated well by the full-time staff of the schools they work in.

I felt temporary. I felt like a nuisance. I felt stupid. No one treated me badly on purpose, but I felt bad pretty much all day. The staff around me were not cruel and tried to be supportive, but I left wondering how I treated substitute teachers in the past and how I’d act differently after this experience.

6. Classroom teachers do not know how to set substitute teachers up for success.

We try to make substitute teachers a cheap alternative to regular teachers. We set substitute teachers up to fail. There is no way for substitutes to feel satisfied at the end of the day because ultimately, the best case scenario is that they are a mediocre version of regular teachers. We need to rethink this.

7. We need to do more to retain substitute teachers, not just attract them.

If there’s one thing I’ve said over and over it’s this: I do not know why ANYONE comes back a second day on purpose. We are focusing on finding substitutes, but I think we need to put greater energy on keeping them, something that will require more than just higher pay and candy.

8. School staff assume everyone who enters their building understands their rules and procedures or can easily find help. They do not and cannot.

Every school has unique procedures for everything from attendance to materials to hallway travel and sending kids to the nurse. The teacher rarely thinks of everything, the kids rarely explain the procedures in a helpful or timely manner, and the entire school’s default reaction to questions is exasperation. It feels a bit like asking for a form at the DMV.

9. It is a miracle I did not lose a kid. It has nothing to do with my skill, just pure luck and the blind trust of the children.

I like to think I’m a bit overqualified for substitute teaching compared to others we often hire. It did not matter. My skills were largely irrelevant all day. This makes me think we are not actually substitute teaching. It sounds cliché, but substitute teachers are essentially babysitters. The 14-year-old who watches my sons does a better job babysitting than I did on any of the days I was a substitute teacher. If this is truly what subbing is, we can set up a much better day of babysitting.

10. Doing things well takes longer than we expect. Everything takes more time than we plan for. Everything. Quality always takes time.

Each day I subbed was either the fastest slow day or slowest fast day of my life. I was humbled and reminded to reset my expectations for instruction when real humans are involved.

I hesitated to write this post because I’m not sure it’s particularly helpful and I am always biased toward action. Describing my experience has been disheartening to say the least. It’s taken me time to convert my learning into anything productive and helpful. As I head into a new week of substitute teaching, my next post will be an attempt to distill some lessons from my own substitute teaching experiences and what I am hearing from a variety of stakeholder perspectives including classroom teachers, experienced and new substitutes, parents, and students in a way that hopefully advances the conversation and highlights the urgency of solving the problems related to substitute teaching ASAP.

10 thoughts on “I Am a Terrible Substitute Teacher. Here’s Why That Matters.”

  1. I agree with all of this especially the concern about procedures. I was substituting during a intruder drill. Second graders had to tell me what to do from covering the windows with specially laminated black pieces of paper to hiding in the corner. Columbine touched my family directly and deeply so this drill is tough for me anyway. But WHY aren’t there directions? In most classrooms you don’t even have the phone number to main office in case of an emergency.

    And a second thing. You are expected to instruct students with serious medical and psychological challenges with utterly no information on their conditions or even best practices. I substituted for an English class and both myself and the special ed aid were subs due to a staff meeting. There were easily 7 students in that room with conditions severe enough they couldn’t manage to take a quiz without disrupting the class, yelling at others rocking, etc. i had no idea why they needed an aide or even suggestions of methods to help them improve their behavior. How is that safe? How is that fair for the other kids taking the quiz?

    1. I can totally relate to this, Heidi! Less serious, I got a phone call at one point from the nurse while subbing once. She started to talk, assuming I was the teacher and almost accidentally disclosed some personal information about a student before I could say I was not the teacher. I was torn, because I did not know if I NEEDED to know what was said or not. There are very difficult situations to navigate with professional wisdom and experience. I cannot imagine handling them on any kind of long term basis when I started out at age 21! Thank you for sharing your thoughts on this!

  2. I appreciate hearing about your experience! I will definitely make sure to check in with subs differently and more frequently.

    1. Lisa, even just our short conversation before starting the day did a world a good for setting the tone for the day! Just knowing you were next store was a relief and I am sure that is true for many substitutes who work in your building!

  3. This is so relevant, vulnerable and spot on. It’s been several years since I subbed, but I will always remember how hard it was and that feeling of never really knowing what was going on. You have me rethinking how I plan for a substitute.

    1. My temptation was to make the next post in this series about what teachers and subs can do – there are some things we can do, surely. However, instead, the next post is going to be about SYSTEMIC solutions first. I think too often we expect the people closest to the work to solve the problem, but now more than ever we are asking far too much of those folks on the ground. When the problem is INTERNATIONAL, it cannot be up to teachers, building level admin, or even school systems individually to solve. We need profession and community-wide solutions. I am so glad individuals have ideas for what they can do, we all need to, but we also need some supports to get past this state of emergency!

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