Over the past two months, two of the four teachers on my team has been out for personal reasons, having been replaced by a collection of long- and short-term substitute teachers. Spending an entire academic quarter working with subs has given me a new perspective on the qualities that make them effective. I’ve given more thought than ever to the important role that they play in our classrooms and on our teams.
Like any educator who has needed to miss a day, or been on a team with one who has, I’ve worked with my fair share of substitute teachers. They come in a variety of personalities, teaching styles, experience levels and some may possess online education degrees. They have varying expectations about their responsibilities. And, in all fairness, we classroom teachers have equally varied expectations for them. Some want a stand-in who will simply maintain order for the duration of the absence, while others are looking for a sub who will teach class in virtually the same way that the primary teacher would. With such a wide spectrum of needs, it would be impossible to make every teacher happy.
For the purposes of the list below, therefore, I decided to consider my own expectations for substitute teachers and assume that I am a fairly average teacher. By way of a disclaimer, I might add that what I like in a sub might irritate or even anger other teachers. In addition, high school and elementary school teachers who work largely alone probably don’t care too much how well their sub works with their colleagues while they are out. For middle school teachers who team-teach, having to apologize afterwards for the incompetence of a bad sub can be painful. With all of this said, here is my wish list for a perfect substitute:
- Middle-aged. In my experience, older (retirement-age) subs are easily frustrated and easily insulted. I’ve even heard some comment that “children today need more discipline” and seem intent on providing it. Young substitutes suffer from a lack of life experience and a desire to befriend the students rather than earn their respect.
- Firm and fair. Students inevitably challenge a sub in the first few minutes of class. They want to affirm their dominance in the classroom, and a sub needs to reaffirm that they have control. Otherwise, things get rough and the primary teacher ends up picking up the pieces when they return. Oh, and teammates often have to step in during the day and bring order, on top of having to do their own jobs (sense any bitterness?).
- Willing to do more than she is paid to do. Let’s face it: Substitute teachers barely get paid enough to simply show up in the average classroom. They don’t get paid the exact same as the average teacher salary. Throw in a rough group of kids and a complicated lesson plan and the financial injustice becomes downright immoral. We’re not even talking about long-term subs who sometimes grade work and even write lessons. Nonetheless, my vision of a perfect sub is one who is willing to modify the lesson plan as necessary, and adjust to the needs of the students.
- Confident but willing to accept advice. Any teacher who exudes confidence is going to have an easier time handling any classroom, but some subs come into a new situation with the attitude that they can conquer all–without help from anyone. This is a particularly frustrating trait on a team of teachers who know the students and can offer sound suggestions for being successful with them.
It’s not a complete list, but these are the basics of a good sub according to this one teacher. I’d love to hear your ideas, good or bad, about the list and what you would add to it. Let the comments flow!