4 Things You Don't (Want To) Know About Substitute Teachers
So you're fed up with your office desk job. Feel like making a difference? Have you ever wanted to know what it's like to do a job that could just as easily be accomplished by a corpse with a voice recorder? Good news! Chances are you're already more than qualified to be a substitute teacher. Now hold on and put down the tweed coat, because there are a few things you should know before you rush off to shape the minds of young people.
Your Only Preparation Is a Meaningless Test
Wait, what? You're supposed to be giving tests, baby, not taking 'em. What the hell?
Relax. Before you pack up and start filling out that application to Applebee's, let me tell you some things about that test. For one thing, you do it online, so no one's watching but you and the NSA, and they certainly don't give a shit what you're up to. So needless to say, cheating is fairly easy. In all reality, the test is just there to make sure you read all of the material contained in the training manual.
Now here's the secret: You don't actually need to read all of the material contained in the training manual. At the end of every chapter is a review that covers every question that's on the test for that chapter. All you have to do is have the review open in one window and the test in another and boom, easy A.
The kids will be so lucky to have you!
But ... maybe you've got more integrity than me. Perhaps you feel like it's your responsibility to be prepared for whatever might happen in a room filled with a bunch of hormone-fueled teens. You want to learn all about classroom management and how to deal with different scenarios that might come up in the course of a day.
You're a goddamn weirdo.
However, you're worried that it'll be too much to remember and you won't pass the test and then you'll never live out your dreams of babysitting 35 kids at once for a day. Well there's good news. The test is multiple choice. That's right, multiple choice, and not in a way that leaves much thought in coming up with the correct answer. Here's a real example from the test I took:
When is it okay to touch a child?
B) If the child's life is in immediate danger
C) If another teacher says it's 'okay'
D) Only when you're alone with the child
Having trouble picking the right answer? Yikes! Also, don't sweat it! You only need to get 70 percent of them right to pass the test and get a PDF of a certificate with your name on it (written in comic sans) stating that you can be left alone in a room full of kids for 6.5 hours a day.
There is one thing the test won't prepare you for, though.
You're Probably Going to Get Shot
Now, I don't know if that's true or not, but during my three-hour orientation, they certainly made me feel like it was a fact. I was reminded again and again that there was the possibility that I could be at school on a day when some unstable kid decides to bring his dad's .45 in to play target practice with everyone who made fun of him during lunchtime.
They'll do a lot to make you feel safe and like you're not going to die. But let me tell you, at the end of the day, it all boils down to the fact that you will be expected to lay down your life for a bunch of people who wouldn't shut up while you tried to take roll call five minutes earlier.
Look, I don't want to give you the wrong idea here. You won't be alone. In (almost) every classroom is a red folder that contains what you're supposed to do in case of a lockdown.
What else could you possibly need?
In many instances, if there is some sort of emergency situation, someone will make an announcement over the PA. Typically, this announcement will involve some sort of keyword or phrase to let you know what kind of emergency situation you're in and what you should do. Here's an excerpt from the emergency procedures at the last school I worked at:
THE LOCKDOWN PROCEDURE CODE WORD WILL BE: "TEACHERS, LOCK YOUR DOORS NOW."
Now, I'm not sure about you, but I feel like there's a small but important distinction between a "code word" and a "code phrase." You see, one consists of a single word, the other an entire phrase or sentence. But that's not even the worst part here. Typically, a code word is used when you need to hide something or otherwise secretly convey information to someone.
It's spy shit.
In this case, the intention is to alert teachers to the possible threat of an armed assailant in the school without letting said assailant know that anything is going on. Announcing "Teachers, lock your doors" over the intercom does exactly the opposite of that. A much better code phrase would be, "Just a reminder, we will be serving prime rib for lunch today."
Because there's no way a public school could actually afford that, you see.
Seriously though, what do I know? You'll probably be fine. I don't know anything about school safety other than what I learned skimming through the training manual. I mean, it's not like I've spent years in education. I'm not much better than a college dropout. Which brings me to my next point ...
You Don't Need a College Degree
I used to work for Whole Foods, and I had to follow someone around for an entire week before I was allowed to bag groceries. I watched them place customers' food items haphazardly into a paper bag, I mimicked their every movement as they sorted recycling and took out the trash, and I even had to learn the finer ins and outs of customer service, like how to best explain to people that no, we don't carry Coke products. All that, just so I could stand at the end of a register and ask, "Would you like paper or plastic?"
Substitute teaching, on the other hand, really only requires that you be an adult, that you've attended a few college courses, and that you not currently be on fire.
That last part's probably negotiable.
That's right. Those three semesters of ceramics are finally going to pay off. You don't need a master's in English, nor do you need to have finished college at all. You heard correctly, all you third-year dropouts -- you only need 60 credits in anything, literally anything, and you can be approved to teach kids. You spent $60,000 just so you could fail Latin for four consecutive semesters? Perfect! You're hired!
Most of the people I knew working at Whole Foods had college degrees (some even had master's degrees), and they worked at a grocery store. Why mess with that when you could be making above minimum wage, have a greater influence on society, and get respect and admiration from random strangers who don't know any better? Maybe that sounds like hyperbole, but it's not -- most people don't have any idea what substitute teachers do, so they just automatically lump you in with real teachers.
I've never made this many people pay attention at once in my entire life.
Most don't realize that you're just a placeholder so the regular teacher can have a sick day, go to a special training session, or take one of their other classes on a field trip to keep everyone from killing each other.
And don't worry, your lack of qualifications won't just get you hired. They'll be all you need to keep your job, too. Because ...
No One Cares What You Do In Class
Everyone's different. I've known substitutes who actually wanted to someday become teachers, and who really took the job seriously. These are the people who show up early so they can study the teacher's lesson plan. They have backup plans of their own in case none were left. These people have mastered classroom management and really work hard to be valuable assets to their schools.
Now, think back to the substitutes you had when you were in school. Me? I once had a long-term substitute who, instead of teaching us algebra, taught us the finer points of 20-egg omelets and helped manage a three-month-long tabletop football league.
Including a Super Bowl
He never consulted a lesson plan and never had a performance review. He did, however, make an extra ten dollars per day for being a long-term sub.
That guy kept his job. Do you want to know why? Because at the end of the day, most schools don't have the resources to care about whether or not the students are actually learning anything from subs. Also, as long as you haven't been hog-tied to the desk while the kids have started to form their own system of government, then there's really not much for the administration to get upset about. They're worried about all of the teachers they've got on salary who have to meet government-mandated standards, because if they don't, the school won't get funding next year.
You will never be this important.
For a while, I would go in and really do my best to maintain order and structure in the classroom. This typically led to a lot of frustration and stress, as I realized that the minimal training I was provided with left me ill-prepared to handle a bunch of kids who would rather send Snapchats and talk loudly about their weekend than pay attention for the five minutes it would take to actually learn something useful. I mean, I would dress up. I wore nice shirts and ties. I did my hair. What I'm trying to say is that I tried. I really ... tried.
That all changed when I was in the middle of trying to keep a classroom on task and one of the students told me that they were glad I wasn't "weird" like their last substitute.
"Go on ..."
Apparently, this one guy came in wearing sweatpants and reeking of marijuana, and then proceeded to lecture the class for 50 minutes about how taxes are evil and the government is on the brink of collapse.
I figured that if that guy could keep his job, then why the hell was I trying so hard? I mean, it's not like I get performance-based rewards. And I'll tell you this: The kids seem to like me a lot more when I'm not trying to get them to work.
That's not what they want. You're just a nostalgia tourist here. You are older. Your life is done, or nearing completion. These kids still have their whole lives ahead of them. They've got a good 10-20 years before they're as bitter and washed up as you or me. That's probably the saddest part. There is no way to convey to a 17-year-old the feeling of having all of your hopes and dreams crushed by life, and then having to go to work and sit in a room filled with people who have more opportunity and potential than you ever did and watch them piss it away on their phones. So why bother conveying anything at all? Just sit there and try to not get shot.
For more from Will, check out his podcast on Soundcloud and follow him on Twitter @wcbolt.
For more reasons to second guess a career in teaching, check out The 6 Most Horrific Lessons Ever Taught in Elementary School and 4 Teachers Who Just Went Nuts on the Job.
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