Living the Life of a Substitute Teacher

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Being a substitute teacher isn’t exactly what I had in mind when I decided to be an educator. At 52 years-old, I have been trying to get a second career off the ground for 12 years. It can be difficult at times as I look around and see other teachers and administrators my age, and not think how much farther along I should be. I find myself asking why I didn’t I do this years ago but had someone told me 20 years ago that I would teaching I would have laughed. Being a teacher was the farthest thought from my mind when I was younger. But time changes events and you can never say, never.

What I wasn’t ready for was substitute teaching. Walking into a school as a substitute can be like visiting a foreign country for the first time. I like to compare it to a business trip I took years ago to Montreal, Canada, and getting on a subway train. I heard nor saw a language that seemed remotely English; announcements over the train’s intercom, signs, advertisements, the locals spoke French, everything was French. To say I felt out of place would be an understatement. Feeling out of place is the hardest part, that you don’t belong. You have no established relationships – not with teachers, not with administration, and most certainly not with students. You just get these alien looks, the same looks I remember getting when I was riding that subway train in Montreal, of being an outsider.

The worst part of substitute teaching was walking into that classroom, into that school for the first time. Students did not know me and I obviously did not know them. I introduce myself, but students just continue to gawk at me like I’m some ghost. I realize that I’ve stepped back in time. I am not the substitute teacher but the new student all over again, and it’s my first day in a new school. Oh, the horror. Is there something wrong with me? Is there something hanging out of my nose, is my zipper down, or is there this giant “L”oser painted on my forehead? This is about the time when I begin questioning myself.

“Why am I here”?

I answer this question in my own reflections all the time. I am here because I wanted to make a difference in a young person’s life. I’m here because I felt that “calling.” I’m here because I have a passion for instilling my love of learning to read and write in my students. I am here because I see our countries future walk through my classroom door every day, and they will be empowered to be better citizens because they will be educated.

Like most life events, it is getting over that initial shock. It is breaking the ice with the students. You find they are just as anxious to meet you, as you are to meet them. You realize the students are feeling as uncomfortable as you are. They wonder who you are, what kind of teacher you are, what sort of personality you have. You quickly learn that you need to be yourself.

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6 thoughts on “Living the Life of a Substitute Teacher

  1. I can’t imagine how difficult it is to be on “that side” of the desk–I remember, as a student, being annoyed with it when I’d walk in and find a substitute teacher because it felt like all we got to do that day was worksheets and sometimes just “relearning” the same material we’d done the day before. Yet all you can do, as the substitute, is implement the work plan that’s laid out for you. I feel for you!

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  2. Thanks for an insider’s glimpse at substitute teaching. It makes sense that the only way to survive a substitute teaching experience is by being oneself–children, kids, teenager, young adults, etc. can all sniff out and will pounce on someone who is inauthentic, especially on their home turf.

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  3. I am also curious what you did before becoming a teacher. As someone who has been an outsider for whatever reason I have learned to embrace it. There is value in it. From the times I studied abroad, to the moments where I know I just don’t fit in. There is so much beauty and mystery in the things that can be observed by those of us that remain on the outside, for whatever reason. You can’t wait for the world to open its arms to you–you have to open your arms to it.

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  4. Being a substitute seems to be just like being a student again, finding that awkward persona we all struggle for. Cringeworthy but praiseworthy that you have the patience and stamina for such a profession.

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  5. I applaud you for your service as a substitute teacher–especially as one who enjoys her routine and has a certain disdain for the unexpected, I can’t imagine having to navigate an entire school day while in a completely foreign place. You really seem to embrace the mutual uncertainty of both teacher and student, and it seems to work out for you and your students (:

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