Friday, July 31, 2009

How The Sausage Is Made: Substitute Teaching

The second part of a multi-part series going over the insides and outsides of various jobs I've had...

First, to answer a common question when people find out that I, of all people, am a substitute teacher: You don't need much to do it in Rhode Island. The only requirement to get the permit from the state is $25 and a bachelor's degree in anything.

From there, requirements vary from district to district, but almost none require an education degree. (The one exception, I believe, is Cranston, but they also pay $120 a day, vs. $75 for most of the state.) Most districts want three letters of recommendation, your past work experience, a cover letter and a clean background check. I technically had “teaching experience” anyway because I worked as a college teaching assistant, but I get the feeling that it wasn't a big determining factor.

Once the paperwork all goes through, most schools work via a substitute assignment system, AESOP. Basically, you get assignments in two ways:

1) Logging on to your computer and checking for unfulfilled substitutions. This is the easiest method, except that it normally only works for really long-range stuff. i.e. If it's March, you might see a bunch of dates up for grabs in June, and who knows what you'll have going on then? I was always reluctant to snatch a ton of these in case I found a full-time gig in the meantime.

2) Via an automated telephone message. Typically, they would call between 5 p.m. and 10 p.m., and offer you an assignment, telling you the school (high, middle or elementary), the subject and the time frame (half or full day). This was how I got most of my assignments, since most of the permanent teachers and the school secretaries wouldn't put in the day-off requests until that day of school, meaning you'd get the call later.

The district I was at was big enough that I could work five days a week almost whenever I wanted, which was good, because I needed the money. I would usually work four days a week, and then try to leave one day free (normally Mondays, since there were less subs this day anyway) to do things like mailing out resumes and job applications.

Enough about the boring stuff, the juicy info – Watching kids. The term “substitute teaching” is a fairly loose definition, especially the second part, because you are hardly ever actually teaching. I probably did it between 50 and 100 days, and I taught an actual lesson a single class. Luckily, it was something I was qualified in – English for 7th graders.

The vast majority of classes, you are either having kids do a worksheet or quiz, read or watch a movie (less than you'd think for this option, though). My typical “bribe” thing was letting them talk for the last 10 minutes of class, if they had been good.

Most would talk throughout class anyway, which brings me to the main gripe about substitute teaching – You are a low-paid babysitter. Elementary school kids behave fine (and they're wicked cute), but they're not doing heavy-lifting educationally anyway. Also, being a male teacher normally amazed the kids I was around. This might just be an isolated thing, but there was normally one full-time male teacher per elementary school I subbed at, so I get the feeling that simple difference gave me some extra authority for no good reason.

Of the age groups, middle school is by far the most difficult. The kids are all just starting to hit puberty and becoming hellions, and there is a ton of bravado mixed in with that childlike innocence from elementary schools. As an example, I would get asked by punk 13-year-olds about whether I had a girlfriend or if I had had sex. Lovely, lovely stuff, really gentlemanly, even.

The high school kids at least would be subtle jerks, meaning that I could normally outwit them, since I do have a college degree and all that. Instead of being obsessed with letting the entire class know about their illicit dealings, like the middle school kids, the high school kids would normally just stick to their own groups and sometimes like slip their grand plans for wealth via selling pot. (One kid told me he was going to be a drug kingpin like Tony Montaya, to which I quipped, “You realizes he dies at the end of that movie, right? That's not exactly someone you should be trying to emulate.” He didn't have a good answer for that.)

Eventually, I learned that the best way to deal with A-hole kids was to use the cliche from sitcoms when someone goes to prison – Make a mark early by sending the shittiest kid out of the room, and the rest of the class falls in line. Otherwise, you can let a small group of two to five kids prevent the other 20 from getting anything done. Establishing consequences for actions worked far better for me than trying to reason. Also, contrary to cliche, I never got spitballs thrown at me, or a “Kick Me!” sign attached to my back.

This post sounds rather negative, but I should add that there were plenty of good kids I ran into, at the middle and high school levels, during my five months substitute teaching. One fifth grader even drew me a picture in art class, and while I think this was more because she was bored than an endorsement of me, I'll still hang it up when I do get a permanent place. It's a nice little reminder.


  1. I could not imagine having to deal with middle school children, I think teaching younger kids would be a lot of fun thought. Interesting article man! Thanks!

  2. Yeah, middle school kids are little A-holes. Just people who want to start S and prove how tough they are! boooooo.


Try not to be too much of an ass, unless completely necessary. You are subject to tyrannical moderation.


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