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The value of substituting

I’ve been teaching for a while now. A lot of the bloggers who were around back when have moved on to bigger things than being in the classroom. I, apparently, have gone the other direction.

The school I had taught at for the past 4 years shrunk their enrollment precipitously. Some combination of demographics, charter schools, the school choice act and the fact that we had no academies or magnets made it difficult to attract students to replace those who might go elsewhere.

As a result, I was displaced. district wide, I was one of many hundreds. It was a hell of a job market to be in. I have done my time at poorly managed schools, and had no interest in returning to a high stress position where I would have to assume the responsibilities of my peers in addition to my own.

So, after very few acceptable (and apparently just pro forma) bites on my resume, I decided to spend this year as a pool teacher. Really, that means being a sub with fewer privileges.

Subs are very near the bottom of a totem pole at the school. It is not a position that garners a lot of innate respect. This can be demoralizing. It can also be very educational.

You do not have a lot of the usual disciplinary support. You don’t have the chance to establish practice routines. You do not get to plan interesting and engaging lessons. For a while, you don’t even know what to expect for the day when you wake up in the morning1.

But you also get a lot:

  • You get to practice your first impressions.
  • You get immediate feedback on how clearly you set expectations
  • You get to see the benefits of teaching in a structured environment (if the teacher you’re subbing for has one)
  • You get to see how much kids desire structure (if they don’t)
  • You get to practice developing curiosity with very limited materials.
  • The bar for failure is low – you can step out of your comfort zone, and even the most abject failures will have no repercussions past the end of the day.

In essence, being a sub means that your teaching practices are put under the microscope, and you get to tweak and modify and analyze far more than you do when you settle into your routine in a classroom.

You also get to see a plethora of administrative styles. If the school board really wanted to know how schools were doing, they’d do weekly polls of the substitutes – Stepping in as a sub tells you much more about the school culture than any dog and pony show ever would.

As a bonus, I’ve made good connections at schools that I like – I’ve had three requests for resumes even before the job application process begins. This is a very different situation from a year ago.

1 I had the good luck to spend most of the substituting time this year in long term positions – I effectively got to borrow a class to teach for several months while the regular teacher is out on maternity or medical leave)