About Cari Zall

Cari Zall has been a Social Sciences educator for over 12 years, in both brick & mortar and online environments. She currently works as the Curriculum and Instructional Support Manager for an online high school dropout recovery program, and is the Assignment Editor and a writer for The Educator’s Room, an online education magazine. Cari is certified in Gamification and has worked on several projects incorporating Gamification into online and traditional education environments. Her areas of expertise include Gamification and Student Resilience & Motivation; Conflict Resolution & Collaboration, and social justice education. Prior to her teaching career, Cari worked for 15 years in civil litigation and as a human rights activist in Northern Ireland and Washington, DC. She holds a BA in Conflict Analysis & Resolution, an Masters in Teaching, and an MA in Political Science. Cari is a James Madison Fellow, and is the author of the book, How to Finish the Test When Your Pencil Breaks: A Teacher Faces Layoff, Unemployment and a Career Shift. You can finder her on twitter at @teachacari.

One of the new adventures I’ve embarked upon since my layoff in 2011 is substitute teaching.  Many unemployed teachers I’ve spoken to have been substituting for a very long time, sometimes half a decade or more, waiting to get back into a permanent position.  Substituting can be one of the worst – or best – situations in which an unemployed teacher can find themselves.   You get to be in a classroom and work with students, but in order to do so, you are a stranger (often in a strange school) and have none of the best parts of teaching (getting to know your students, planning fun lessons, etc.).  On the other hand, you don’t have to grade work or stay after school for interminable meetings.  There are benefits and drawbacks for sure.

My own personal substituting experience has been a challenge for me.  I primarily sub in the building where I taught high school.  At first, I thought this would be easier (and in many ways it is) because I am familiar with the workings of the school, the administrators and the other teachers.  However, going back there to sub can also sometimes feel like a stab in the heart, knowing that I no longer hold a position there and am now reduced to being a ‘stranger in a strange land.’  One of the worst feelings is when one of my former colleagues sees me coming in to sub and asks me “who are you today?”  It feels as if I have completely lost my own individual identity as a teacher, and now only serve as a replacement robot in someone else’s name.

It feels as if I have completely lost my own individual identity as a teacher, and now only serve as a replacement robot in someone else’s name. Click To Tweet

As classroom teachers, we’ve all had our share of great – and horrible – experiences leaving our classes in the hands of substitutes.  We get to know who our preferred subs are and which subs can handle which kinds of lessons.  Some substitutes thrive on subbing and make a career – or a retirement – out of it.  Most subs nowadays are either former full time teachers (like me), or new teachers who have matriculated out of their training, but have yet to find permanent positions.  It’s not easy coming into a class and managing students who often don’t want you there or believe that they can manipulate you because you are a temporary inconvenience to them.  Especially at the middle or high school level, you might encounter hundreds of students in your classroom in one day, and it is crucial to be able to maintain the class the way the teacher needs.

Now that I’ve seen substituting from the other side, I have found there are several things that a teacher can do to not only make the substitute more welcome in their classroom, but also make it easier to navigate through the day:

Have a Sub Notebook or Folder.  If you go to the bit of extra time it takes to make yourself a permanent notebook or folder to leave for subs, you won’t have to do so much prep when the time comes that you need one.  Handy items and tips to have in this notebook or folder can include:

  • Phone Directory / Instructions on how to contact Administrators/Counselors/Security
  • Basic bell schedules – your sub may be coming in on a special schedule day, so having the bell schedules available is handy.  Another helpful hint would be where the sub should go for assemblies or rallies, or other events that may occur while they are there.
  • Names of the Teachers in immediately surrounding classrooms (to ask for help)
  • Basic instructions for operating any mechanical, technological or other items (projectors, computers, document cameras, etc.) in your classroom (also – should blinds be closed/opened, chairs put on desks, etc.)
  • Emergency Procedures – where does your class go in the event of a fire drill, what are your procedures for a lock down/lock out?
  • Class Lists – if you have an attendance system that allows you to print out class seating charts with pictures, this can be very helpful to a sub in identifying students
  • Any notes on accommodations or other issues the sub may encounter in a particular class.  It’s important that a sub know if they need to accommodate a student so that every student can experience continuity in their learning environment, despite not having their regular teacher there.

These are things that don’t really change that much in a semester, so having them ready and prepared in a Sub Notebook can really help.  Even on those mornings when you wake up sick and have to make the last minute call to the school, knowing that notebook is somewhere accessible, will give YOU more confidence that the sub will be able to manage your classes for you.

Leaving as clear directions as possible in your lesson plan is another really helpful piece for a substitute.  The management of a classroom can often simply boil down to a tight lesson.  I know that it’s hard to be prepared for anything, but if you have a few extra “sub plans” you can set aside that you can draw on for emergencies when you haven’t had a chance to plan ahead, this can really help your classes move smoothly while you are away.

If you find a substitute who handles your classes well and teaches the lessons in the way you prefer, it doesn’t hurt to establish a personal contact with them through email.  Then if you need them, you can send a lesson plan directly to them, and they might even have time to prepare a bit for it.  If your school’s substitute system is not set up that way, having notes in your Sub Notebook will go a long way to making sure you come back to a class where you don’t have to make up too much time from being gone.

Being a substitute can be very challenging, especially when you are a teacher that wants to be able to teach and work with students.  Finding ways to welcome subs into the classroom, paving the way for them to manage students effectively, and giving them clear guidance on what is expected can really go a long way to aiding both the classroom teacher and the substitute in creating a successful environment for the students.

To buy Cari’s book that details her sudden unemployment, “How to Finish the Test When Your Pencil Breaks” please click here

Are you working as a substitute?  Do you have some other ideas for tips or helpful ideas for teachers preparing for a sub?  Please feel free to share your ideas and experiences as a substitute in the comments below!

Substitute Teaching


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