The spring and fall of 2009 have been trying times for California teachers. Even those with several years of experience entered the month of March on an anxious note, with their jobs in jeopardy amidst news of statewide budget cuts. As the temperatures of summer rose, so, too, did the number of pink slips handed out. And while some teachers who lost their positions were eventually rehired in the fall, many weren’t. The result: a lot of highly qualified teachers who are now sleeping nearer to their cell phones, waiting for an early-morning employment opportunity. This is the life of a substitute teacher.
As the husband of one such teacher, I get to experience the daily uncertainty firsthand. And the intrigue only begins when my wife (let’s call her “Mrs. M”) gets that 6:00 a.m. phone call. What school? What time? What grade level? Will she be singing and teaching sight words to excitable kindergarteners, or will she be multiplying fractions and discussing ancient civilizations with sassy sixth-graders? Either way, her workbag has to be packed and her clothes have to be hanging on the door, ready to go. That 6:00 a.m. phone call sometimes doesn’t come until 7:15.
When she arrives at the school, there are more questions in need of answering: Where is the classroom? Does she have bus duty? breakfast duty? recess duty? lunch duty? And, most importantly, of course, just who are these 30 small people with big personalities who are about to walk through the door?
A clue to how the day will go usually comes in the form of the notes the teacher has left. Are the lesson plans for the day included? Do copies need to be made? Did the teacher leave instructions about the classroom policies for bathroom breaks and pencil sharpening? (Maybe. Probably. Almost never.) And will the activities scheduled for that day actually take up the allotted time? Here’s where being the wife of an editor of educational materials can be a real bonus.
Two series of books that Mrs. M swears by are the Mind Twisters series and the Mastering Skills series. The Mind Twisters books give her plenty of ready-to-use, content-based time-fillers that get students to use their critical-thinking skills. Best of all, the students like doing these puzzles, riddles, and mazes so much that Mrs. M can use them as rewards for good behavior. The Mastering Skills books are handy because they’re great for reviewing grade-specific, standards-based skills.
The single most valuable resource Mrs. M has at her disposal, though, could be the Substitute Teacher Handbook. This one-stop guide is brimming with teaching strategies, classroom-management tips, and emergency curriculum, and it includes entire sections on working with special populations and being a professional substitute teacher (including FAQs and legal responsibilities).
While there is nothing that can make a substitute teacher’s job easy, there are resources like these that can make the substitute teacher more prepared. And you don’t have to be an expert in fractions or the Peloponnesian War to know that being prepared is at least half the battle.