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Tales of a Short-Term Substitute

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Experienced teachers who think they know a lot about teaching should be required to substitute for a day or two in an unfamiliar school to remind themselves of the bare bones of teaching--the classroom, the curriculum, the teacher, the students.

Last year, while on leave from my teaching job of over 15 years in a private bilingual school in Puerto Rico, I had this chance. On several occasions, I substituted in the English department of an urban San Francisco high school. I had advance notice most of the time, but a few cold, dark mornings I was jolted out of a warm 6 A.M. sleep to be asked: "Would you like to substitute?" Once I accepted the offer, I had to pull myself out of my groggy state so that I could be in someone else's classroom by 8 A.M., armed with computerized attendance sheets and emergency lesson plans. The day of a short-term substitute often begins in such darkness and confusion.

I remember one of those days clearly. As students filled the classroom, I could not greet them by name. They were strangers to me. I didn't know if Jeffrey liked basketball or if Marcia's mother was feeling better. I was overwhelmed by what I was missing and by how important the relationship between teacher and student is to the educational process, especially when the learners are complicated, vulnerable adolescents.

And I was a stranger to them. They didn't know that "Mrs. Hunt" likes irony and rarely smiles right away when she thinks she has said something funny. One tall 9th-grade boy who passed near me looked down and asked, "Hey, how tall are you?"

"Six feet," I answered, matter-of-factly.

He looked at me strangely. He was six feet tall, and my head was way below his. After a second I smiled, quite pleased with my instant humor. He was pretty sure that I wasn't serious, but since he didn't know me, he didn't know how to react. I felt a sudden loneliness for "my classroom and my students." I wished that these kids and I could know each other immediately, but we hadn't had the time and so I had to function as a stranger among strangers.

It wasn't simply time. I had no reputation among these students. At times I have resented my reputation, but substituting gave me an opportunity to appreciate it. Since I am reputed to be demanding, I don't have to struggle to achieve control or to communicate that my academic expectations are high. In the substituting context, the only renown I had was as a generic "sub." I knew that until shown to be otherwise, a substitute is assumed by students to be uncommitted and incompetent.

As the first group of 9th graders settled into having a substitute, they began to enjoy the idea of having a period in which to do anything they wanted. I requested firmly that they all sit down; then introduced myself as Mrs. Susan Hunt.

"Can we call you Susan?" one of the students boldly inquired.

I looked at him pleasantly and said, "No, you can call me Mrs. Hunt." I mentally noted that for the rest of the day I would mention only my last name.

I struggled to maintain control. In two 9th-grade classes, even though I was teaching "The Miracle Worker," a play I had taught many times, things did not go as they would have in my own classes. There were students who, when asked to read a part, simply announced that they didn't want to read. When I asked their names, they would not tell me, and the seating chart was inaccurate. Many students seemed disappointed that I expected them to work. In fact, they seemed generally resentful that a substitute was actually trying to teach.

My lack of power as a substitute led me to analyze the sources of the teacher's authority. Besides the force of the teacher's own personality, there is the support given by other power sources--the administration and the parents. As a substitute, I had never met the principal of the school, to say nothing of the parents.

An even larger factor in the substitute's power vacuum is the lack of the evaluative function. As a substitute, I gained a begrudging respect for "the grade." How many adults would work at their jobs if they were not paid to do so? Grades are a kind of payment for work done. Students know that a short-term substitute will not determine their grade, and thus reward and respect for judgment drop out of the teaching equation.

It is also hard for a short-term substitute to feel comfortable with a curriculum. Luckily, in three of the five classes I taught that day, I was quite familiar with the subject matter. The seniors were able to determine in short order that I could teach Renaissance sonnets. I passed their test and we moved on to a meaningful educational experience. I was even able to challenge them.

In the two classes studying the Odyssey, however, I did not have an adequate command of the subject matter and I felt uncomfortable. Oral reading of the work was monotonous, and when I tried to get students to put more feeling into their reading, they simply did not respond.

By the end of the second class, the last period of the day, I finally came up with an entertaining activity. I asked the students to think of an epithet for themselves that described one of their major characteristics. As we went around the circle, there were a few laughs at offerings such as "marvelous Martin" or "spandex Melanie." This final lively response restored my "teacherhood" somewhat, but I was glad that the day was over. It had been successful in substitute terms: All the students had stayed in the classroom and they had been relatively quiet, but I missed the satisfaction I am used to feeling as a "real" teacher.

Substitutes work with rented material. Even if they have a good command of the specific subject matter in the lessons of the day, they can't appreciate how those lessons fit into the overall educational agenda of the regular teacher. That sense of design and ownership of curriculum is just as essential a part of effective teaching as is the incredibly complex teacher-student relationship, which combines the role of caring friend and impartial judge in the confines of the high school classroom.

There are a few important steps teachers can take to make the short-term substitute experience positive for both their students and the substitute teacher. Two kinds of situations require substitution for a regular classroom teacher: preplanned and emergency. In the first case, teachers can request a particular substitute and go over lesson plans in advance. Even if their normal seating procedure is informal, teachers can provide seating charts, with the understanding that students will sit in the assigned seats. They can tell their students when they will return, and provide an introduction for the substitute. They can prepare student leaders for some activities and explain to students what they will be expected to accomplish and how their work will be evaluated. They can put the force of the respect their students have for them behind the substitute.

If the substitute has some knowledge in the specific curriculum area to be covered, the regular teacher can give him or her an active teaching role. It can be an advantage for students to experience another teacher's approach to a topic. Group work monitored by the substitute can be effective if the group task is meaningful and will produce material for their regular teacher to see. A whole-class discussion can be good if there are some student leaders who can call on their colleagues by name. The substitute can then monitor the discussion and join it if appropriate. In all instances there should be an atmosphere of accountability; the work of the day should mean something.

Substituting for an emergency is more problematic. Ideally, the regular teacher may still be able to request a particular substitute and send detailed current lesson plans. Teachers should always have emergency lesson plans on hand. An accurate seating chart should exist and students should expect to sit in those assigned seats in a substitution situation. Accountability should be a major factor in the creation of emergency lesson plans. Students should know that the regular teacher will not only see evidence of the work of the day but will care about its quality.

In all cases, the regular teacher must empathize. Understand that substitutes are functioning without the basic elements that regular teachers have worked to build in their classrooms. Imagine having no relationship with one's students and no real basis of authority other than the force of one's personality. Imagine teaching someone else's lesson plans and having no sense of how they connect to the total curriculum. Imagine taking on a generic negative reputation which one had no part in constructing. Imagine being called at 6 A.M. and being asked to take on this very challenging teaching situation and to do so immediately. Imagine that you are a short-term substitute.

A few simple guidelines can help short-term substitutes.

  • Study the lesson plans before the class begins and take note of any materials needed, especially if machines, such as vcr's or overhead projectors, are involved. Get an idea of the sequence of activities and how long each will take. Be careful about unplanned class time.
  • Find a way to quickly identify people by name. If the seating chart is out of date or if there is no seating chart, have the students immediately sign an attendance sheet. If, for example, they are sitting in a circle, a paper can go around the circle. Count the number of students and make sure that the number of signatures corresponds. Make notes next to the names on the signed attendance sheet and use them to provide an accurate report of class activity.
  • Create an instant "mini-reputation." Introduce yourself and show that you know what you are doing.
  • Be prepared for the full spectrum of possible behavior and know ahead of time how you will handle it. You may experience totally undeserved hostility from some students, especially if they like the regular teacher and resent your temporary presence. By simply doing your job well, you may inspire dislike. Your job is to maintain a controlled environment and to facilitate learning; it is not to get your temporary students to like you.
  • Lower your expectations. A short-term substitute works with too many disadvantages to expect "real" teaching satisfaction. Creating a cooperative atmosphere in which the lesson plans of the regular teacher can be carried out is a worthy accomplishment for a "sub."
  • Be open to positive new experiences. Every student is different and every class takes on an individual personality. It can be like starting all over again as a new teacher--challenging, difficult, frustrating--but nevertheless rewarding.

My brief experience as a short-term substitute has been an education for me. I have been able to analyze and appreciate the complex workings of a classroom in a way I cannot in my own familiar setting. I return to my life as a "real" teacher enriched by the insights I have gained and, admittedly, grateful that I don't have to earn my living as a substitute teacher.

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