Life Lessons from a Substitute



It was my first day on the job. At the sound of that signal a stream of rowdy sixth grade boys stomped into the Spanish classroom shouting, cheekily pushing each other around, and repeatedly slamming their binders on their desks. They could tell I was fresh meat; I looked young, obviously had little teaching experience, and barely knew anything at all about the school or its students. No, being a substitute teacher isn’t easy.

I started substitute teaching last September because I wanted to gain more experience in the classroom and sample different subjects, grades, and education styles before going to graduate school for a Masters in Teaching. I did not know what I was in for. Challenging though it may be, throughout this school year I’ve learned many lessons from my subbing misadventures that I think are applicable to all sorts of general life situations.

Lesson #1: Fake it ‘til you make it

Walking into a new classroom as a substitute is like walking into the unknown. You don’t know any of the students’ names, what they’re learning, their rules and routines, or whether they’re going to be trustworthy or mutinous. But it’s your job to take charge of the class and make everything run smoothly just as if it were any other day.

When I substitute I need to take full control and act like whatever classroom I’m spending the day in has been mine all year. Whenever you’re trying something new, a bold face and straight spine goes a long way in boosting confidence and presence, and assures those around you while you figure things out along the way. Of course, don’t let your act get in the way of asking questions; being a newbie is still better than screwing everything up.

Lesson #2: Hold your ground

There’s always at least one student who will try to test their limits with a substitute, whether it’s conveniently forgetting normal classroom rules or dramatic displays of outright defiance (I once had a student who refused to stop shouting ‘Yo mama’ jokes in the middle of art class). To do my job correctly and prevent anarchic uprisings I have to be an unwavering rock, laying down the law so that everybody can successfully learn in a respectful and safe environment.

People are always going to challenge you whether it’s at your job, in your relationships, or randomly on the street. Stick to what you believe is right to do what you need to do.

Lesson #3: The power of positive framing

When I first started, my instinct to deal with misbehaving students was to chastise them and warn them with a punishment. I soon realized that by emphasizing their misbehaviors, my words made the students feel threatened and distrusted, causing them to act out even further. Once I started framing my words positively, I immediately saw a change in students’ reactions. Instead of, “Stop shouting or else your free time is over,” I would phrase my directions more like, “Remember, we use quiet voices in the classroom so that everybody can concentrate.”

Using positive framing when trying to motivate people is more effective because it optimistically envisions what one can work towards rather than against. People will feel more encouraged by kind words that respect their free agency and it will be easier to build more trusting relationships.

Lesson #4: Laugh it off and let it go

I have questioned my likableness and abilities as an educator, especially after having so many students challenge my authority in mischievous ways. Then I remember that these students aren’t acting up because they have a personal vendetta, but because historically, students have been messing around with substitutes since the dawn of time. While at times I can get frustrated with the students and with myself, I don’t take any of it personally. At the very least I always walk away with a hilarious story.

It’s not you, it’s them. Sometimes people just react to you negatively because of your position, their mood, or an infinite amount of other reasons. It’s not a reflection of you as a person so just laugh it off and let it go.

Photo credits: Hi Miss Gray