Substitutes Are the Most Flexible People You’ll Find


“Classroom scenes in Washington, D.C. public schools: general classroom scenes, 1st Division” from the Library of Congress. Dated approximately 1890-1900.

Many jobs today require a great deal of flexibility.  So how might one demonstrate this characteristic?  In my case, the best examples have come from my substitute teaching experiences (also addressed in an older post).  I thought I might discuss exactly how flexibility is demonstrated in substitute teaching.  Not only does it provide an insight of the last few years, it may also help by showing others some unique ways to think about experiences.

  1. I work with a variety of age groups.  Depending on the day, I could work with any age from preschool (ages 3 and 4) up to high school seniors.  Some days I may work exclusively with one grade; others I could work with as many as seven (specials for PK-5 grades).  Some classes may even hold mixed grade levels, mostly at the 7th grade and up level.  Each group has different needs that need to be addressed.  For example, the older students are more independent and I usually get them started on a project or assignment and help as needed.  For the younger students, I have to work through lessons one step at a time with them plus help with the independent work segments as needed.
  2. I have to be able to handle every subject.  Substitute teachers are not regulated to teaching just one subject like regular teachers are.  I could teach high school math one day, then 1st grade the next followed by elementary specials (either library, art, music, or P.E.) the day after.  For 4th grade and below, I handle teaching all subjects except specials. For 5th and up, each teacher handles a specific subject.  Regardless of grade, I need to know the basics of each subject.  If I do not know the specifics (especially with middle and high school), I need to know where to look for an answer, whether that be in the teachers’ manual for the class or looking it up online.  Being able to handle every subject is especially critical when working with special education students as they often need help on a variety of subjects and/or I may be working with a group of special needs students in study hall that are all working on different subjects (the latter also requires quick thinking!).
  3. I have to be ready for “curve balls.”  Someday I may be schedule to go in to teach one class or subject only to be switched to another on arrival or later in the day.  I may have a day I only intended to be there in the morning, but they needed me to stay through the end of the day to fill in elsewhere.  Or I may lose a planning period to cover another class because there were not enough subs for the day.
  4. The ability to improvise is a must.  While most of the time the teachers leave behind everything needed to complete the lessons, this is not always the case.  In those instances, I have to quickly plan an alternative that explains the learning goals.  It may be as simple as writing out examples on the board in lieu of using a slide show presentation or explaining the ideas behind a video that will not load.  Or it may be as complicated as the time a lesson called for an experiment but none of the needed materials were in the classroom!  I had to figure out a way that day to teach the lesson using hand-drawn diagrams instead!
  5. My mind is a file of rules and regulations.  I sub mainly in two school districts which cover a total of seven buildings.  Each (district and building) has their own rules.  While all share some, not all do.  And each has their own reward and discipline system, ways of taking attendance, and expected classroom management techniques (which the students also expect to be used).  I have to remember these and use the right set at each location!
  6. Just because I sub in the school libraries doesn’t mean it is the same everywhere.  Filling in as the library media specialist like two completely different jobs depending on the grade!  For grades PK-3, the students first have story time of at least one book.  Then they select and check out their books.  For 4-5th grades, story time is replaced with a lesson.  Sometimes those lessons focus on research/information literacy skills.  Others they focus on learning to use different technologies. At my local school district, one person is responsible for PK-5 grades.  For 6th grade, the reading classes come in to check out books as a class.  For 7-8th grades, it’s the English classes instead.  The library aide for those grades also assists with any technology issues, as 6th grade and up are all issued Chromebooks to use throughout the school year.  At the high school, students come in throughout the day to work in the library or for assistance with technology issues.  The library media specialist also oversees academic lab, which consists of the students taking online college courses, and assists with research when needed.  At the middle and high schools, the staff do have ample time to process and shelve books, something the elementary librarian usually has little time to do.  As you can see, the PK-5th grade librarian fulfills more of a teaching role while the staff at the upper levels have a role similar to that of reference librarians in an academic setting.

So back to my main point.  Flexibility is key in my current job.  I have to be able to roll with the punches and help the students to the best of my ability.  These are skills that can be translated into other settings, such as my dream job in a library or archive.  Doubly so if the job involves working directly with the public as opposed to technical services/processing!  Also, something I realize after writing the above, there is another trend.  The students expect their regular and substitute teachers to be a walking encyclopedia of knowledge!

Does anyone else have experience where flexibility was a must?  If so, care to share so others can see the many ways flexibility can be shown?


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