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Who Are You Today?

Adventures in substitute teaching

By Doug Provencio

Being a substitute teacher often means having to wrestle with identity at the start of each day. People will ask who I am today, and I have to figure out who they are. Getting a name right starts the day better.

Young kids like roll call. The community gathers on the rug and they can tell the day will work out, even without their regular teacher. In a Spanish-speaking group, they’ll say “presente” until one says “presidente,” and I’ll know who has a sense of humor.

Effective Professional Development for Substitutes

Professional development for substitute teachers should be lively and interactive, and should provide time to gather data about what is and isn't working in the training and at school sites.

Substitute teachers should be paid for the day, and food should be provided.

If substitute teachers are members of the local Association, the professional development should be bargained into their contract, and should be designed and approved by both management and the Association.

The program should deliver needed information on classroom management, safety issues, general teaching techniques, the teaching of reading and math, and other curriculum-specific practices. It should also deliver advice on ensuring the inclusion and motivation of all students in the learning process.

Training should be part of a comprehensive effort to address substitute shortages but not the only component. An effective effort should also include raising pay to professional levels and adding incentives for working more often at a site, or in the same neighborhood or district.

Professional development should stress that experience counts in teaching and encourage continued growth in skills.

With older students, even if I have a seating chart, I ask everybody for their names and write them down on my own impromptu class map. With the tougher teenagers, I have to preface this by saying they’re not in trouble, I just want to learn their names.

Names are linked to dignity, and everybody wants to have a say in what they will be called. Having students say their names sets a tone of mutual respect. Likewise, when a student wants to call me “Mr. P,” maybe they aren’t thinking what I would have thought as a 10-year-old: “Mr. Pee.” But I don’t want it to sink to that level, so I steer them away with “call me Mr. Pro, you don’t want to get confused with my cousin.” They always fall for this and ask who my cousin is. I say, “Master P,” and then take advantage of their confusion to start in on the next item of work. Substitutes develop all kinds of tricks to guide their charges.

Modern gadgets make things especially challenging. Students carry many things with them today; sometimes we have to relieve them of those items. Once I was talking with a first-grade class when a cell phone suddenly rang. A student pulled it out, said into it, “I can’t talk, I’m busy right now,” and put it back. Six years old, he had already perfected the proper business-like manner.

Teenagers have fancier electronic toys and many other items as well, like the live garter snake a ninth-grader pulled out of his pocket and waved around.

We have interesting objects, too. One of my students refused to do her chemistry assignment computing moles. Then another student got a cut and I gave her one of my X-Men bandages. The first one said she wanted one, too, even without a cut. We cut a deal: She got the bandage, I got a perfectly completed paper. (All the while, I was trying to recall my knowledge of moles from a previous decade, and then trying to be humble when I finally remembered).
With all that goes on in classroom management, it’s sometimes hard to focus on why we’re

Doug Provencio substitutes in Oakland, California, and wrote Standing in Your Shoes to help regular and substitute teachers work together. He also helped bargain for and design professional development for substitutes.
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there: We’re teachers, not babysitters. The advice to substitute teachers to carry around worksheets falls apart when faced with the huge scope of today’s curriculum. It’s better to walk in like a detective, ready to analyze every detail one can find in the room to figure out what needs to be done in the context of what the class is already working on. Then the job is to explain, motivate, and lead all students along on the journey.

That journey can lead anywhere. Once, just before Martin Luther King Jr. Day, I had a kindergarten class. After talking about how sad it was that he was killed, one boy said a word very quietly. I asked him to repeat it and he said “cake.” I asked what he meant and he said, “Well, if Martin Luther King is dead and it’s his birthday, who gets to eat his birthday cake?” Someone else suggested “everybody” and I said that’s true in a way because he made the world a better place for everybody. All the kids nodded because that made perfect sense to them. It takes a lot of maneuvering on our part to get a class ready for those moments of sudden wisdom.

J.K. Rowling worked as a substitute teacher. So did Bel Kaufman, who wrote Up the Down Staircase, a composite account of the schools where she subbed. In her novel, the narrator is frustrated by one student who never calls her by name, but just says, “Hey, Teach.” At the end, she has an epiphany, realizing that “Teach” was a mark of respect.

So, if you still don’t know what to call us traveling adventurers, you could do a lot worse than “Hey, Teach.”


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