Monday, January 18, 2010

Just a Sub

Being in the classroom is hard.

I read Mrs Mimi's great take-down of this opinion piece by a substitute teacher. (Link: The Replacements) Mimi made some great points about the piece, and I wanted to add a few of my own.

Here is some background info: This is my 6th year teaching. (Holy cow!) I've taught at three different schools. The first two weeks of my first year were spent subbing (one in a kindergarten classroom as an assistant, and one in a very tough middle school that would go through four principals that year). I subbed for three months last spring at a few charter schools. So at this point, I've seen enough to know both sides of the story fairly well (and also to know that, as rough a time as I've had, things could be so.much.worse than I've ever had it).

This woman subbed once a week for two years. This does not make her a reliable expert to me. If she had ever been a classroom teacher, she wouldn't be saying most of this. Most of her 'facts' and all of her suggestions show little to no research on her part. Also, her tone is just too far out there.

She says that teachers are out all the time, and that while sometimes it's 'legitimate' (ie, sick), she implies that many teachers are just selfish and lazy and are absent all the time (they take a mental health day or go to an event (which, I agree, is weird and probably inappropriate)). Obviously she hasn't spent enough time in a classroom to know that teaching has to be one of the hardest jobs out there. Surely she has met teachers who cough and hack for days on end because even if you do bring yourself to take one day off, you can't take more than that, even if you need to. (I have had to cough, hack and spit over the garbage can in the middle of teaching, because I was still sick. The kids looked concerned and asked if I was okay. "Not really," I replied. But what else am I gonna do?)

So a mental health day here and again? Any teacher who's been a teacher for more than a few months knows that mental health is a real thing and it's a real thing that can bring you down down down. The teachers I know don't take it lightly and don't take advantage. But sometimes, yes, for god's sake, we need a day off. If you think subbing is so, so hard, because no one told you what to do, try that for an entire year, every single day, in the same room with the same kids! You will need an occasional day off too!

As a middle school teacher, I often had to cover another class during a prep. Usually it was older kids, ie, devils. As a sub, I almost never had a lesson plan left for me.

If a teacher wakes up sick one morning, how is he or she supposed to magically send a substitute plan to the school? Ain't gonna happen. Are teachers required to have generic sub plans submitted to the office? Of course. Does everyone do that? Who knows. Do the plans make it to the classroom on the occasion that a sub requires it? Probably not.

Teachers know that a sub in their room means total chaos and destruction will most likely ensue. One day I returned from being out and things (charts and bulletin boards attached by nails) had been TORN OFF the walls.

Naturally, if you know ahead of time that you're going to be out, you want to leave something for the sub (because you can sympathize about the panic when faced with a group of unfamiliar, rowdy students with nothing to do, and because you want to minimize the damage to your classroom). You can't do anything new, because the kids probably won't get it and you don't want to trust a stranger to teach it how you want it to be taught. You basically have to find some busy work for the kids. Any sub worth their salt knows this and wants this. The sub can't really do much other than say, "I'll have to tell your teacher that you x/y/z." But it's better to have something concrete to give That Kid to do than nothing at all.

Are there bad teachers who don't give a shit about anything and never leave anything at all for the sub or the class to do? GOD, YES.

So guess what? I always brought a bunch of stuff with me. I wanted to be prepared, just in case! I have an assortment of games, activities, generic lessons (often grammar related, since I taught english for so long) to be ready with. I'm like a scout--always prepared! Can you imagine the alternative?

It sounds like she's had tough times with a few plans from a few teachers. And that sucks. But, and this might be my martyr complex talking, be grateful for anything left for you at all, for crying out loud! Also, there is always a good student somewhere who can tell you about those mysterious routines teachers might mention.

Point/counterpoint for her so-called fixes:
"School administrators should provide substitutes with basic training in classroom management, teaching, contacting the office and dealing with medical emergencies."
YES. Of course. That would be the professional thing to do. Realistically though, if you're going to a different school each day, and showing up 10-30 minutes before school begins, there's not a lot of time for this, for the sub or for admins.

"They should check with their subs during the school day."
This sounds like common sense, doesn't it? It never happened to me. Nor did I really expect it. Administrators, good ones and bad ones, are freaking BUSY PEOPLE. They have demands coming in from all sides all day long. There's no time to talk to a sub about how she's feeling that day. Especially if, like in so many big nyc schools, there are anywhere from two to eight subs in the building at once. The sub has the unfortunate duty of taking on a difficult task with little to no thanks or feedback. Come on, you have to know that going in!

"And they should form district-wide advisory committees (comprising the superintendent, principals, teachers and substitutes) to find solutions to problems related to substitutes."
That sounds awfully complicated, vague and, again, unrealistic. There are way too many big problems that schools/districts need to worry about. Subs should be certified and trained, sure. But I don't think that they can do much more than that. Subbing can really suck, and teachers have to be absent sometimes. End of story, really.

"To minimize the need for substitutes, principals should require that teachers call them personally when they’re ill — calling in to a machine increases absences."
Meh, I don't know about that. Teachers feel guilty about taking a day off; they're thinking about their students and their classroom. That doesn't change if they're talking to a machine.

"They should keep track of all teacher absences."
Um, they do that already. Where are you that they don't? Why on earth would you think otherwise?

"And they should hold in-service training sessions for teachers on weekends or during the summer, rather than on school days, or else conduct them in the classroom with the students."
No Effing Way. Are you on glue? NO.

"Principals should also try to arrange for other teachers to use their prep time to fill in for absent colleagues. British secondary schools do this — and pay teachers a stipend for the extra work."
Again, they already do this in secondary schools. It sucks, but those teachers deal with it. Because of course teachers of adolescents need to have even more stress during the day, dealing with unruly, unfamiliar adolescents. But it happens, and teachers have to suck it up and do it. Who is this woman claiming all these outlandish things as suggestions?

To reiterate:
I've been Just a Sub. It's freaking hard. Ignored, left high and dry to suffer through a day. Some students are pleasant and polite, but many are not. And that's to their 'regular' teachers, so amplify that times a million for a strange substitute that they'll see for less than a single day. That's a hazard of the profession. (At least in this town.) Some subs work really hard to manage their temporary charges, and teachers admire them and are grateful to have them cover their classes. Some subs don't work very hard. Some subs do try hard, but the kids can make things really difficult.

I agree, there are a lot of things that need to be fixed about education, teaching, teachers, curriculum, discipline, management, and schools. Substitutes are a necessary thing, and I really empathize with the people doing it, but it's nowhere near even the first half of all the trouble facing schools nowadays. This lady needs to get over herself.


kherbert said...

I agree with you about most of this except staff development. Staff development should not take place during class time.

The way it works in my district, we have student holiday/staff work days. These are used for both campus and district staff development. We are also required to get 8 hours off the clock. So far I have 37 listed it should be 41 -
10 for Tech Retreat this summer

1.5 for new gradebook training

.5 for CPS

24 (should be 30) for G&T training this is because I screwed up and didn't get my update in time.

1 for site based meeting.

I would rather get my 8 hours in the summer than any other time. We get 8 hours comp time on Easter Monday. Technically they have a workshop on that day. Last year they actually had to have it for some teachers. The admin was ticked. We have been told if you don't have your 8 hours at the end of February, your contract will not be renewed.

Schoolgal said...

Great post!! Sounds like someone else is joining the anti public school teacher/anti public schools movement.

rachelblue said...

AMEN, sister!!! Sing it! Thank you for this great post; you said exactly what I was thinking about this article.

I always write my sub plans as if the substitute I'm expecting has never been in my school before and has possibly never met a child before. As a result, they are effing LONG, typed documents, and on several occasions I've been sick enough to contemplate calling in but the thought of writing The Dreaded Sub Plan has actually stopped me. When in reality, for the amount of work that seems to get done when I'm gone, a post-it on which I've scrawled "Just please don't let them kill each other" would probably suffice.
--miss brave

Karenina said...


I have subbed for 2 years, and I do have my teaching license for middle school (though I never had a class of my own). I sympathize with this lady-- though I don't agree with her fixes, I do think she has some points. I was taught in teacher school to always have emergency plans written, seating charts available, a teacher helper in every class, and a list of any students who had special health or behavior problems. One year, I subbed for 90% of the school year for one teacher out getting chemotherapy, and although it took some time to prepare this stuff, once it was done, I didn't have to worry about it for the rest of the year (though I occasionally checked to make sure that everything was still up to date). It wasn't that hard nor time-consuming, and when I had to be out, it was a relief to have it done.

Hardly any teachers did this for me. So when I subbed, I always arrived at school early enough to read whatever plans the teacher left; I also had emergency lesson plans of my own and a bunch of brainteaser and puzzles to keep the kids engaged in something other than trouble. When a teacher had left decent plans and information, I had a great time. When they didn't, it sometimes sucked.

I don't think that this lady deserves such venom-- she doesn't sound anti public schools to me. She just sounds naive.

Jules said...

karenina: exactly, to everything you said. and sorry--i didn't mean to sound venomous. she just doesn't seem to be qualified to write an article like this.

miss brave: your subs must love you! i don't put in quite that much effort. i write up a poster for the kids to see what they're expected to do. titles, page numbers, etc.

thanks, schoolgal. i'm not anti public schools, though. can't tell about the writer. she obviously wants reforms for subs, but again, that's just never gonna happen. i'm just anti people who don't know what they're talking about. :)

kherbert: i agree that PD shouldn't be during class time. sometimes workshops or conferences happen during the regular weekday though. i have gone to a couple conferences on weekends, but those were for my personal development, not school mandated. i would have a real problem with a school requiring me to do PD on a weekend. staff workdays, no problem.

Miss Eyre said...

If I know I'm going to be absent, I always leave work--substantive, lengthy, individual, self-explanatory seatwork. I also tell the kids I won't be there and post reminders on the board for them the day before, so that they have a note from me on the board when they come in. Then I give at least two alternatives for things the sub can have them do if they finish early or if there's a problem with the work. I'm also an ELA teacher, so my classroom is full of books if worst comes to worst--the kids can grab a book and read.

I read that article and I sure as heck resented the implication that most teachers take off whenever they feel like it and don't give a damn about the sub. Nothing crushes the spirit more than missing a day or two of work only to come back and find a chaotic, messy classroom in which nothing has been accomplished. I tell my kids very clearly that I will tolerate NO crap being given to subs, and they get the message when I make phone calls if the sub names them in a negative way. I want my subs to be able to come in, sit down, and watch kids work all day. Their job is hard enough to expect much else.

Mimi said...

Whoo hoo - say it sister!

Schoolgal said...

I was referring to the many articles out there putting down public school teachers.

I for one always left my planbook on the desk and many times subs ignored it. If I knew I would be absent, I left period by period detailed plans. There was always a seating chart and daily routines listed. As a sub I always came prepared with lessons too. But if I couldn't find the planbook, I would find out what the students were up to and take it from there.

I had a conversation with a sub for not following my planbook. The lessons he did made no sense. He claimed he didn't know there was a planbook. Bottom line--the school hired him as a classroom teacher.

Subbing is hard. I understand that. But, having to use common sense also comes with the job. I also think it's the admin's job to provide the sub backup pertaining to discipline problems otherwise people will not want to sub at certain schools.

Nancy Cavillones said...

In our school, other teachers covered for absent teachers. We were required to have emergency lesson plans on file with the AP of our department but this was supposed to be in addition to plans left for a scheduled absence. I was pretty diligent about doing the plans until I realized that the other teachers subbing for me when I was out weren't using them-- there were a variety of excuses like AP didn't deliver them, I couldn't find them, the kids didn't want to do it, or sometimes, no excuse at all. I was lucky if attendance was taken!
I think the experience a substitute has depends on the culture of the school, and the grade level. I subbed in an 8th grade classroom, long-term for a teacher on maternity leave. She left her plan book behind for me, but didn't have everything planned out. I was able to fill in the blanks by looking at what she had written on previous pages, so that helped a lot and because the kids were younger,and I had actual work to do with them, not just busywork, it wasn't so bad. The hardest part, actually, was not knowing everything about the conditions of the students I was teaching. It was a special ed deaf class, but some of the kids had other issues including one girl who was supposed to be on medication, but wasn't and it caused all kinds of erratic behavior. Because I didn't know this, I treated her like a misbehaving kid and not like a kid with a chemical imbalance, with very bad results. Not helpful at all!

dmac said...

I have provided plans, copies, names, helpers, etc and STILL subs ignore it all and just have the kids color, read, do a page in the math book, repeat. And these are subs who I know because they are always in our school (we have 200 teachers, so with PD that they have us go through during the day or absences, subs are always around).
My mom was an awesome sub, so I know it's possible.

The other day, a colleague was out because of the snow, so the school broke up her class. About 5 class got 5 kids each, and as much of a pain as it might have been for us, in some ways I think it's better than having to worry about some incompetent sub leaving your kids alone, or talking on her cell while kids are reading, or inviting a friend in to hang out (all of which has happened to my students).

Had to vent, sorry :)

Rachelle said...

I'm a new sub and have covered everything from Grade 1 to Grade 12. Teachers usually leave some kind of plan, but far too vague. For example, "they will write in their journals." Do teachers not know that the students will pretend they don't know what to write, where their journals are, etc? Yes, of course your students know what they are supposed to do, but I don't, and they know that too. I've had more luck bringing in my own materials than trying to figure out what the teacher meant.

On the issue of discipline, I'm in a school where the administration is powerless and a significant majority of parents are unable to discipline their own kids. The graduation rate here is less than 10%.