The Complete Idiot’s Guide To Subbing

The latest school year has almost drawn to a close, meaning that I have survived the better part of a school year as a substitute teacher. All in all, not bad.

I started subbing back in October, working for the Madison City Schools district, but the turning point came in January, when I began working with the Huntsville City Schools. My experiences in Madison were all very good, but I was able to get work much more regularly and reliably once I started working in Huntsville. In fact, while I never officially stopped being a sub for Madison, I haven’t worked any more in that district since starting in Huntsville.

I went into subbing, particularly in Huntsville, very open-minded, not being particularly picky with what jobs I took, in order to learn more about what I did and didn’t like. I found there were some schools that I liked more than others, although what schools I actually worked at was heavily influenced by luck of the draw of what was available that day. There were some that, given a choice, I would probably choose to go elsewhere, but that I still ended up at when there was nothing else available. There was one in particular that I worked very hard to avoid, not necessarily because of the school per se, but because I got off on such a bad foot with a particular group of kids that it was easier to just not deal with them again.

Grade-wise, I had a bit more flexibility. What I learned pretty quickly was, I like the ends more than the middle. For me, there’s two different types of good days subbing. There are the uneventful days, where the students have their assignment and do it on their own, and the sub doesn’t have to do too terribly much. Then there are the days of teaching, when the teacher leaves actual lesson plans and you get to teach lessons to kids who actually learn. The former happens primarily in high schools. The latter happens primarily in elementary schools. It’s rare for either to happen in middle schools. (Though, as I mentioned, I did have a really good day in my old middle school, so there are exceptions.)

On the other hand, there are also bad days. Those are mostly the days that I get frustrated with the kids for robbing themselves, for refusing to do what they need to be doing. I get paid the same whether they learn or not; it frustrates me when they cheat themselves of what they should be getting. I still remember being in school, and I remember what it was like to have subs, so I have no illusion that the sub experience is going to be dramatically different just because I’m on the other side of the desk. I’m tolerant of the kids taking advantage of the usual teacher being gone and being a little less rigid when I’m there, and that doesn’t bother me. But when you don’t do your assignment? Your grades — and your learning — are what suffer for it, not me. And it makes me sad that they miss that.

It’s funny, because I try to be a good sub, and I want the kids to think I’m a good sub, but on my terms. There are days that they say I’m a good sub that it makes me paranoid — “OK, does that mean I’ve just been a pushover today?” — but then there are days, the really good days, that they say it and I receive it as a very high compliment. I’ve facilitated them doing what they need to do, but I’ve made it more enjoyable than it otherwise might have been.

And that, that’s a good day.

Loved Labour Lost

It’s been a year today.

I got up on the morning of 25 April 2011, and went to work at Marshall Space Flight Center for the last time. The day was spent out-processing, and shortly after lunch time, I had the surreal experience of driving out the gate without my badge, knowing that I wouldn’t be able to get back in. To be sure, after weeks of uncertainty about the future and dread, there was a bit of relief in having it be done, and, at the time, optimism over what I thought the future was going to hold, but, even so, it was one of the saddest moments of my life.

It’s been an interesting year since. When I left, I believed I was going to go back to school to get my master’s degree, and was within a week of starting that, but then changes in my personal life scuttled that plan. At that point, the real process of figuring out what the future looks like began.

Initially, I had hoped a new career would be quick coming, but eventually I realized I needed to invest in the here-and-now in the meantime.

I began working as a substitute for the Madison City Schools in October, as a tour guide and children’s programs leader for the Historic Huntsville Depot museum in November and as a sub in the Huntsville City Schools in January. Theoretically, I’m still doing all three; in reality, Madison and I haven’t called each other since Christmas break since the other two jobs keep my schedule pretty full.

And, you know, while the place I’m in right now is not anywhere I set out to be, and isn’t necessarily where I would choose to be, I’m still having fun.

Subbing has its moments. There are, to be sure, bad days, the rare days by the end of which I’m just counting the time until I can escape. (I’ve got a full post about subbing coming, so I’ll spare the explanation until then.) But there are a lot of good days, and there are transcendent moments. The times when I help kids learn something they didn’t know are good times indeed. I can’t tell you how awesome it was the day I was teaching, and one of the kids told a classmate that came in late, “Man, you missed it! We were talking about metaphors and similes!”

And the Depot — shortly before I started working there, I was having lunch with other subs in one of the Madison schools, and they were lamenting how they’d never been picked to sub on a day the kids were going on a field trip, ’cause that would be fun. And the Depot? It’s like permanent field trip. Well, almost at least. The kids’ programs days are, at least, and they’re the fun part of the field trip, without the riding around in the bus part. The other days, the tour guide days — I’ve worked as a tour guide at the Space & Rocket Center as a volunteer, and at the Depot I get paid for something I would do for free. That’s kinda cool. Plus, there’s the occasional random moment of awesomeness, like the day last week on which I followed up being filmed for a commercial by operating a forklift.

Really, if either (or both together) of those would pay the bills, I would be very content where I am. But, unfortunately, they don’t, and so the quest for real work continues. I wouldn’t have thought it would take this long, and, on some days, that can be a little frustrating. But in the meantime, I’m enjoying myself, so, ultimately, I’m blessed.

That said, if you know someone who is looking for — or needs and doesn’t know it yet — a writer or communications professional, please feel more than free to pass my name along.

The Other Side of the Desk

I had last week one of the most interesting experiences of my career as a substitute teacher — I taught, for the first time, in a classroom in which I had once been a student.

I’ve subbed a couple of times this year at my old high school, but the building I attended was torn down several years back and a new building built. So while it is my high school, it’s not where I went to high school, if that makes sense.

Back in college, I subbed very briefly one semester, and did get to teach once in my high school building, albeit not in a room in which I had ever been in class. It was, however, quite interesting having lunch that day in the teachers’ lounge, across from one of my old teachers.

Last week, I taught at Huntsville Middle School, the only school I attended in Huntsville which is still standing. And not just at Huntsville Middle, but in the science lab room in which I had classes all three years I attended.

I taught from behind Mrs. Riley’s desk.

Well, technically, it’s not Mrs. Riley’s desk anymore. She had long since left the school, and the room and desk now belonged to another teacher. But it was the same desk, and many of the other same trappings were still present in the room.

It was weird. Weird being back in the room after nearly a quarter century, and weird being on the other side of the desk. It affected the way I taught, informed by my experiences in the room.

There were weird bits of synchronicity — a kid was wearing a Pink Floyd shirt, reminding me that the first time I’d heard of the band was in that very room. It brought back to mind old friends, a few of whom I shared with where I was.

I took the opportunity to walk through the building, allowing a variety of other memories to wash over me — the gym, where Jason and I planned my failed run for Student Council (next to the locker room where I learned of the Challenger disaster); the keyboarding room, where I can still recall my indignation of Ann Marie being wrongfully accused by the teacher for something; the counselor’s office where Elaine and I bonded over the SOICC computer system.

I was made a little nervous at first by the fact that the assistant principal kept peeking into my classroom, until I remembered that his office would have been just next door; he had to walk by my room to go anywhere on that side of the school. I remembered Mr. Purcell, who had the office when I was a student there, and how intimidating it had been. Then I had the weird moment later in the day of talking to the current assistant principal and discovering that he and I had actually overlapped as student there — my first year at Huntsville Middle was his last, and that he also remembered when the office he now occupied had belonged to Mr. Purcell. I can’t imagine but that that wouldn’t be weirder.

I was very proud that it was a good day, that the students at my middle school alma mater were among the best I’ve taught.

One of my favorite moments of the day came in the last period, when I talked to the kids about the fact that I had been a student in that room many years ago. I mentioned the name of the teacher whose room it had been, and for some of the students, it clicked. It turns out that when she left Huntsville Middle, Mrs. Riley had moved down to the elementary school I had attended, where she had taught some of the students in her classroom.

In that room, a quarter century difference between us, it was cool to discover we had something in common.

Back To School

When I left my job six months ago, my plan was to go back to school.

To be honest, elementary school wasn’t exactly what I had in mind.

And, yet, nonetheless, that’s where I found myself a few weeks ago, marking my first day in first grade.

My plans of pursuing a master’s have been put on hold, the job search goes all too slowly, and money would be a nice thing to have. So for the second time in my life, I went back to grade school.

I’d worked once before as a substitute teacher, 16 years ago, ironically under not dissimilar circumstances — I’d hit a bump in the road in college and was reevaluating my future course, and, in the meantime, worked as a substitute in the Huntsville City Schools. I worked only sporadically then, but the highlight was, without question, going back to my high school alma mater, spending the day teaching, and, wonder of wonders, eating lunch in the teachers lounge. It was more than a little surreal, and far cooler to me than it probably objectively should have been.

And now I’m back. My first day back in the classroom was almost three weeks ago, an interesting day that I spent an hour or two filling in for different teachers who were in conferences, starting with first grade and moving on to fourth and sixth. I’ve been in high school one day, and in elementary the rest.

I’m enjoying it. A lot. For one thing, it feels like work, and after six months of not working, that’s a nice feeling. I worked four days in a row the second week, three of those in the same classroom, and at the end of those four days I was the most awesome kind of exhausted ever.

I’ve gotten to do some guilt-free reading during breaks and planning periods, and that’s been nice.

But the most incredible part of all are the occasions when I actually get to teach. A lot of it is babysitting while they take tests or read chapters or watch videos, but every once in a while, I’m teaching. In a fortunate twist, most of that has been language arts, and I can do that. We worked today on similes and metaphors, and, yeah, it was fun. A lot of fun.

Subbing pays quite poorly, so this is something I have to do while I have no job, and will have to give up when I get one again.

To be honest, I’ll be way more sad about the latter.