Four Days in the Life of a Substitute Teacher

This week I spent four days with a group of eighth graders in an urban school, substitute teaching for various members of their teaching team.  The first two days I stood in for the social studies teacher.  Then I stood in for a math teacher.  Finally, I played reading teacher.  To say the experience was grueling is an understatement.  To say it was extremely satisfying is also an understatement.

Over the past four days, I experienced the following.

  • I heard the “f” word more times each day than one would when watching a comedy routine or an R-rated movie.  I heard other choice words as well, but that word was most popular with the students.
  • I was challenged by two 13-year-old males.  They stood inches from me and stared me down, daring me to touch them so they could hit me.  They did this because I would not let them into the classroom before the rest of the students arrived and they did not like that I blocked the door.
  • I watched students chase each other around the room for two seconds before I jumped between them and managed to get them to sit down.  Yes, I know I was not considering my safety.
  • A student ran into the room after lunch, then ran on top of the desks from one side of the room to the other.
  • After repeatedly telling students to leave the locker room attached to the classroom, I had to leave this enclosed place to calm down the students in the classroom who were getting out of control.  Before I could get to the phone to call a teacher for help, a student who was fooling around in the locker area put his elbow through a pane of glass in the door.  I called down the hallway to an assistant principal who came running.  Security and administrators flooded the room.  When things were cleaned up and certain students removed, I sat at the teacher’s desk and held back tears.  The students left in the room were so quiet it was as if I were alone.  After what had been a good day, I now had an injured child and a broken window nagging at my conscience.  When the students left for the day, I finally allowed myself to cry.  (Everyone I talked with about it, including the permanent teacher who had been in meetings all day, said that the incident was not surprising.  No one in administration blamed me for what happened and welcomed me back the next day with a smile.)

By now, you may be assuming I will never want to go to that school again.  However, that is not how I feel.  This week, I will be going to an elementary, middle, and high school in other districts, but I really want to go back to that middle school.  Why?  Well, here is what else I experienced.

  • More than a few students told me I was the best substitute teacher they have ever had.
  • One student came into class and said to the others, “Listen up!  This teacher is mad nice!  You better be nice to her!”  Then, he went to his own class.
  • Some of the students remembered me from a month ago and still had the “I’m proud of me!” stickers I gave them on their notebooks.  They were excited to show them to me.
  • For every child that had a behavior issue, five kids were there to learn something and thought I made the learning fun.
  • More than a few students were grateful for my one-on-one help.
  • More than a few students earned pencils and stickers from me for good work habits and polite behavior.  Middle school kids love scratch and sniff stickers and cool pencils.
  • They liked the way I sang Dynamite by Taio Cruz.  I did that to get their attention and it worked.
  • After my first day there, some students greeted me with a smile.
  • Students asked if I liked working there and if I was coming back.
  • One student saw my tears after the door incident and, instead of leaving the school for home, went to find the teaching-team lead to help me.
  • When the student ran across the desks, another student left the room and raced down the hall to get a male teacher to help me.
  • Last, but not least, the staff was incredibly supportive, especially when I was having trouble.  Six kids landed in in-school suspension because of their behavior while I was teaching, which showed me that they read the detailed notes I left them and wanted to show the students that such behavior has consequences.  They treated me as a professional, shared their stories, and made me feel a part of the school.  I would work with that group any time.

I learned that if I maintain my positive attitude toward students and not judge a group based on bad experiences with some students, I could find great joy in working almost anywhere.  Yes, the experience was exhausting.  What started as a cold this week is now bronchitis because I am so worn out.  I hope I get a chance to go back, though.  Those kids taught me so much about … everything.  I think I taught them a thing or two along the way as well.

Miss, I don’t understand this…

The other day, I taught an eighth grade math class as a guest teacher (or substitute teacher, if you prefer that term). Ninety percent of the students in the class spoke a language other than English, so a paraeducator was in the class with us. Their assignment for the day was to complete a pre-test on adding integers. They could not use calculators to complete the assignment. When I reviewed the plans prior to their arrival, I thought, “Oh, this will be so easy that I need a filler activity.” I was wrong.

Not five minutes after the class started the assignment, I heard a chorus of “Miss, I don’t understand this…” and the paraeducator heard, “Señora, no lo entiendo…” Well, I believe that is what she heard, but they were speaking so fast that it was hard for me to understand them because my Spanish skills are very weak. As Señora ran around the room trying to help the students, I went up and down the aisles trying to help also. Then I went to the board and tried to explain the concept using a number line. Since I am an English teacher and not a math teacher, I was relying on my own prior learning to help the students. Some of them then understood, but others kept saying, “A negative plus a negative is a positive, Miss! That’s what she [the regular teacher] told us.” I told them that is true when multiplying, but not when adding. Since the students did not know me, a few of them did not trust my reasoning. Two or three students became very frustrated and almost gave up. I had to work with them to calm them down. One student picked up a calculator off a table in the front of the room. I told him to put it down, reminding him of the teacher’s rule against using calculators. For a moment, he ignored me. I stood there, with my hand out, and waited for him to comply. After he verified his independent calculation using the calculator, he handed it back to me and returned to his seat.

By the end of the class, I could tell that those who were confused in the beginning were still confused. In retrospect, I realize that Stephen Krashen, a language acquisition expert, would have been very helpful here. I wish I had remembered his comprehensible input hypothesis. According to a paper that he delivered in 2004, “The Comprehension Hypothesis states that we acquire language when we understand messages, when we understand what people tell us and when we understand what we read” (Krashen, 2004). I wish I had gone to the book, reviewed the lesson related to the pre-test, and prepared a mini-lesson that broke down the concept into smaller and comprehensible parts. (I know I would have appreciated that as a math student and I am fluent in the English language. That goes to show that if the textbook does not explain things well, it is incumbent upon the teacher to modify the lesson accordingly.) As I imagine what these students were feeling, “overwhelmed” and “confused” come to mind immediately. I wish I had done a better job. Although the teacher wanted them to complete the pre-test without assistance, it was clear that most of the students in the room were lost, whether they were native English speakers or not. I feel that I failed them and will not make that mistake again. I am a reflective teacher. I want to help students understand. I will do whatever I can to help them and can only be successful if I learn from my mistakes.

I want to thank my students-for-the-day for teaching me a very valuable lesson and reminding me of Krashen’s Comprehension Hypothesis. I also want to thank Dr. Michael Genzuk and Dr. Monica Neshyba of USC for introducing me to this very valuable concept.


Krashen, S. (2004). Applying the Comprehension Hypothesis: Some Suggestions. Stephen D Krashen. Retrieved October 2, 2011, from