Saturday, December 27, 2014

Sink the Sub - I Was the Target Substitute Teacher

My last day to substitute teach in the local city schools I became the target of the upper elementary game "Sink the Sub." These students were quite astute at playing and I am certain many subs lay in their graveyard of the sea of humans they have hit. A fourth grade class should not be such a big deal for a 51 year old. (Think again!)

This should come with every Substitute Folder

Know the Dangers

I deliberately knew what I was getting into. I chose to take to the waters of this dangerous sea. Only a month prior I worked half-day for a new teacher--an energetic, hardworking, determined twenty year old that was facing the turbulent waters of challenging students who themselves had been through their own individual wars in life. The first time I saw her I gave her a big hug; I wanted to be an encourager to her; she had enough behavior issues in her class of 24 that could make tsunami waves. She had to learn how to sail in rough waters and to remain the captain of her crew. And I was proud for her sticking in and refusing to be tossed overboard.

So when I received a text from her to take on a full-day, I agree knowing what I was getting into. Being a certified teacher myself, I had the skills to tackle any lesson plans I would be given and after teaching my own children K-12 grade though homeschool I had a wide range of subject matter knowledge. Also, I am compassionate. I love people, including children. I want them to be the best they can be, to succeed in life and to learn all they can to be the unique person they were created to be. And oddly, I really do LOVE to teach.

I deliberately came prepared with an art project and purchased the supplies of black paper, paint trays and q-tips to use with acrylic paint that I owned. I wanted to let the class know that we had a fun activity reward if we could successful get through the days work.

Have a Zillion Back Up Plans

All was basically smooth waters until intervention rotation began. Some of my students left and in walked a handful of new students who were sorted by reading level. The students entering my class gave me no problems. However, for a one hour period, I was to lead these students through a two page reading assignment on a copied handout that had four questions at the end. We finished in thirty minutes. It is great to get work accomplished, but it can bring the sharks circling if the sub's lesson plans do not include extra work. I had none.

The complication of having students that are at a specific reading level is that as a substitute teacher I have no idea what the students can and can't do. I don't know how to gear a thirty minute "out of the hat" reading plan for them or coming up with a reading lesson without a reading book. Sure, now that I am out of the shark tank, I can know think of hundreds of ways we could have tackled that two page handout creatively, but that is where I began to gasp for air. I was stumped, and the students smelt the tinge of red blood rise to the surface. That is all it took for their hunger to play "Sink the Sub" to unleash.

I stalled them through the thirty minutes and successfully made it through math intervention with a mixed group of students from all of the fourth grade classes. We tackled long division and I had enough work to keep them plugging along. But by the time my original class returned, I was still shaken and word must have gone out because the jabs and volleys of toying with the teacher were in full force. By the time I had the class lined up for lunch I was hold back tears and filled with doubts of my capability to ever had thought I could take on this challenge. I had lost emotional control of the class.

Bullying Need to Include How Students Treat Teachers

Recognize The Kind of Leadership

Returning to my class, I passed the principals office and through tears asked if I could speak to her. Unfortunately, she was a stern, slab of rock. Emotionless and undaunted by my tears, she said she would come to my class after lunch. Without one word of kindness, compassion or encouragement, she "off with my head" told me that if I couldn't handle the class she would sit in it the rest of the afternoon. Rattled I walked down the hall to my classroom, opened the door and intentionally made sure it locked behind me. Fragile, I pulled my lunch from the frig and headed to the teacher's desk to cry between bites of food. The twenty minutes felt more like two. I pulled myself up as composed as I could muster and headed to the cafeteria to pick up my class.

Thankfully, as I led them out I ran into the dynamic, assistant principal. He knows each and every student personally because he is driven by a desire to see each child succeed. I shared with him that I was having a rough day and he walked with me back to the class. Like a pro, he came to my rescue in a way that elevated my stature in front of the class. He honored me before the students. Next, he spoke to the children and asked them to self-access if they had acted appropriately today. He told the students who felt they had to stand by their desk. Amazingly, about half of the class stood, and the others properly knew they had not and honestly judged themselves. As he was carefully instructing them on behavior, the stonewall principal arrived.

She lectured the class, and indirectly me, on the reputation of the school and how she did not want me --whom she called a visitor that traveled around through out the city schools--to go talking about what a bad class and school they had. After her "cover my ass" performance, she exited and was never seen again.

I thanked the assistant principal and proceeded to make it through the rest of the day. We had a lot of ground to cover prepping for two test the following day. So together as a class we plowed through a History and Science review sheet. Fortunately, earlier that day I realized the teacher did not leave me the answer key so I asked the lead fourth grade teacher for it. I would have certainly drowned trying to find the answers in the chapters of the books. Yet by the end of the day I was still shaken to the core. I didn't sink, I floated on a rescue raft thrown out by the assistant principal but I was walking unsteady. I tried to tidy up the room and leave an honest note to the regular teacher about the day.

We Teach and Sub Because We Love Students - Believe it or Not.

Ready Yourself to Return to the Seas

Even though my confidence is shaken in my ability to handle any class situation, I have not fully raised up the white flag.

What I learned from the experience is that long ago, about twenty years ago, I realize now that I had a "stonewall" principal. Being a newbie teacher I didn't know a gentle, compassionate supporter from a rigid, slick head, but now I do. I can see clearly why my first year teaching was so difficult. I didn't have the helping arm of an administrator that knew her students/teacher or even cared to know their situations. I had a master of a cargo ship that was aiming on taking to the high seas to rise up in the ranks as far as she could go.

You see there are two kinds of leaders. One keeps at a safe distance and barks out expectations on how to sail. The other gets into the turbulent, rocking boat and helps guide you through the icebergs or sandbars with you, for a while, until you are back in stable waters. Anybody can be the first kind of leader, but it take a unique, special soul to be the second. Thank God I was blessed with one of each to learn what God wanted to show me.

It is about time for me to check the substitute calendar for new assignments for 2015. I am grateful that I write, because I am able to use it to talk myself through difficult situations, and maybe in turn it will help one or two other daring souls who substitute teach.


  1. Oh, I know where you wrote from. So enjoyed that delicate balance of information and humor. Reminded me of the first room of 6th graders in my music classes. I soon learned the posture of apathy. Thanks for the reminder. Retired, but still loving teaching children....

  2. Thank you so much! It is a joy to meet other teachers. I have subbed three times in music class. My family laughs because they say I can't hold a note but I loved it each time.


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