The Pleasures and Pitfalls of Subbing

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Pity this reader, Julie:

I substitute teach in Maryland. I went for a half-day job in a fourth-grade class. I walked in and the teacher said, “I was too busy and left no plans. Do what you want.” He also warned me about a problem child. So, long story short, among other things the boy kept running out of the classroom. The fourth time I tried to stop him—after all, I am responsible for his safety. Reporting it to the office had been useless. I told the assistant principle [AP] of the boy’s behavior before I left that day.

Two days later I got a call from the AP. The parent complained that I “grabbed” her son's arm, so the AP accused me of child abuse. After the school filed a request to ban me, I was reprimanded and banned from the school and received a letter admonishing me for my inappropriate behavior. The complaint contained quotes of things I had not said—but I had no recourse. There was no person willing to meet with me. The system made up quotes and never let me defend myself.

All this for $19.00 an hour.

My father worked as a full-time teacher at a middle school in a rough part of Kansas City that had a fair amount of gang violence, so he—a large 6’2’’ retired Army veteran—was always called upon by teachers to try to neutralize an especially rowdy or violent student. (The security guard at his school would actually try to avoid such confrontations.) Physical contact with students is always incredibly dicey for a teacher, regardless of context, so if a student was a threat to others, my dad would try to quickly get him in a fireman’s carry—a safety maneuver, as he would remind parents—and haul him down to the office to detain, often for a police officer. He got assaulted many times but still had parents protest that he shouldn’t have intervened at all, so it was a really fraught, unofficial part of his job. (If you’re a teacher, of any kind, and have any advice or stories to share regarding violent students, please drop us a note.)

A reader in Texas, Dave, recalls a high point and a low one from his days of subbing:

I essentially got assaulted one day. I was the sub in ISS (In-School Suspension) and was helping a student with her homework at the desk upfront when I saw something flying toward me. I managed to duck just in time. It was a pear, and it hit the wall five feet behind us, with enough force to splatter us both with chunks of the pear. I wasn’t exactly sure who threw it, although I knew which desk it had been sitting on all morning, but dude should have been on the baseball team; that was a strong throw and pretty damned good control.

I did almost exclusively middle and high school, but I once did a day with a second grade class that was by far the most fun I ever had as a sub.

The district had told me I’d just be a teacher’s assistant that day, but when I got there, they told me I’d have the class to myself. The kids must have known they had a newbie, because it was starting to get a little rowdy when the office came over the loudspeaker to ask if everything was OK. They clammed up and I told the office we were fine. Then I said to the class “Y’all didn't tell me they could hear us at the office!” They thought that was the funniest thing ever (and honestly, I had no idea they could hear us at the office), and the rest of the day, they were in the palm of my hand. I even considered going back and taking some elementary education classes because it was so much fun.

In contrast, Bernie had a terrible time with second graders—and subbing overall:

I’ve attempted to do some substitute teaching a couple of times in my hometown, Burlington, NC. I found the position to be nearly impossible as it was presented to me. I was rarely called to be a sub, and most of the time when I was called, it was the morning of the day I was required. In two years I was never given the opportunity to teach two days consecutively at the same school.

Since most of my jobs were at schools I was not familiar with, I spent a large portion of my time trying to figure out where the lunch room was, what the proper procedures were to get there, and what I should do while my students were eating. Just imagine filling orders at Amazon one day, a local coffee shop the next, and working on the Ford assembly line the next.

Then there was the issues concerning the rules at each school. I was never told how to handle the use of electronic devices in class. I occasionally would resort to asking the students what the policies were concerning phone use. Of course, that made it difficult to determine which students were trying to mislead me.

Even though I was a male over the age of 60 while being a sub, there was virtually no respect given to me by the older students. I was just another sub to be ignored. In some of the high schools the discipline in class was atrocious. I struggled to keep the chaos from spilling into the hallways.

After a couple of assignments in elementary schools (one day at each, of course) I realized I was more intimidated by 2nd graders than I was by adolescents. Controlling a group of unknown 7 year olds was very difficult. They were often very sweet young people, but keeping the class orderly was nearly impossible, if there were some kids intent on acting out.

Even though I had raised two boys, had a MBA and needed the job, I finally gave up trying to do this work. I never learned the layout of any of the schools because I almost never taught at the same school twice. If I limited the grades I was willing to “teach,” my opportunities to work plummeted. Naturally I was given the classic treatment of subs by many students: no respect, no discipline, and little cooperation. I say “classic treatment” because I remember subs being treated the same way when I was in school.

Our school system had gone to a completely automated program of determining need and finding a sub. The system resulted in random assignments to a variety of schools. Of course, there were the subs who were called by individual teachers who received multiple consecutive days in the same classroom, or the subs who got assignments to replace teachers on maternity leave or other extended absences.

I never had the opportunity for one of these better assignments. As the author stated, you needed to have a friend as a teacher or know the person in charge of substitutes at a particular school to get a good assignment.

I removed my name from the substitute list after two years of trying to adapt to the changing conditions of this work. I have great respect for public education teachers—perhaps even more so now. But being a substitute teacher is not teaching; it is baby-sitting under the worse conditions possible.

Pity the substitute.

Regarding that automated program of random sub assignments, Bernie might have instead benefitted from the tech mentioned by this reader, Luke, who subbed in the Seattle area:

Many ex-substitutes talked about getting phone calls in the evening or starting from 5 a.m. for open sub positions, but I did mine all online. After checking a website online for a month, I started paying 5 dollars/month for a sub app that sent me notifications as soon as an open position was posted (and allowed me to reserve an opening from the app). I got as much work as I could handle.

The most popular such app seems to be SubstituteAlert. Mary in Kentucky doesn’t have to worry about such apps because she seems to have a pretty steady gig at the same school:

After teaching English/Language Arts to middle school students for 30 years, I retired at the end of May 2016. My plan was to come back this fall as a “guest teacher,” a title coined by a dear friend and fellow educator. Yesterday was my first day back at Burgin Independent School, a small independent school where I spent 16 years as a teacher.

I taught all day, and when I left I realized that I had no stress, no papers to grade, and no state-mandated paperwork to complete. There was actually intellectual space—no racing thoughts, no future plans rolling over in my mind. Just the peace that comes with doing what I was meant to do, without the stress. I loved it.

I think you substitute teach because you want to, no because of money. But I also understand why people give up on this option, given the social state of our country. There are tough situations with kids these days. But I will never give up on them, and my presence in the school after active duty has ceased gives kids something consistent in their educational lives.

And no, I am not a babysitter; I am a teacher, a mentor, a guidance counselor, a friend. I am not a “sub.”

To end on a high note, here’s a retired lawyer who ventured into subbing:

I especially liked special needs classes in elementary and middle school.  The experience is heart-wrenching and tremendously joyful. There are no words to properly describe the fleeting experience of connecting with a child who most of the day appears to be inhabiting a distant universe. You cannot imagine the intensity of the satisfaction that comes from teasing just a couple of normal sentences and eye contact from a child who is incoherent most of the day, and then have that same child recognize you when you come back to sub the next week, run to you at the doorway, and give you a big hug.  

Some classes are boring. Often the teacher had time to prepare a lesson plan for you, which might just consist of having the class answer the six questions at the end of Chapter 9, and then start reading Chapter 10. So you just take attendance and make sure no one sets the room on fire. But I have now decided that at age 68, I do want to teach as a second career, prepare my own material, make a difference in someone’s life, and hopefully get an occasional hug.