Take heart, substitute teachers, it gets better

8th May 2016 at 11:45
Advice to fellow teachers, substitute and otherwise, on moving forward with the positive

"Embrace your mistakes ... because that is when you learn." These were the wise words from my mentor on my final placement as a student teacher. Words I had started to live by as a new teacher midway through my first year of real-world teaching. I had not been lucky enough to secure a permanent job offer after receiving my teaching credential, so I started my first year teaching by picking up odd days of substitute work.

Newly licensed and fresh-faced, I was eager to accept every assignment offered.

"A school over an hour's drive away? Yes, that's great!"

A phone call at 9.30am. with the news that another substitute backed out at the last minute? "Of course, I'll leave immediately!"

Like earning my teaching credential before, I found substitute teaching also had a steep learning curve. The teachers' lounge protocol, timing of lessons, routines for lunch and breaks all needed to be negotiated before I could pick up someone else's planning for a class of strangers.

You learn a lot more than you think

As I reflect on my experiences so far, I realize how much I have learnt. The name games I used as ice-breakers have been honed after a particularly mischievous portion of the class created new identities for themselves.

An afternoon painting activity resulted in over-zealous helpers mixing mass quantities of powdered paint. The more reluctant artists began a war of paint flicking and sabotaged their artwork.

What works wonderfully with a class you know will not have the same effect with children who are as strange to you as you are to them.

The thing is, teaching requires a relationship. You may have been loved by your internship class but it is near impossible to build trust in a class loaned to you for just one day.

My judgment skills have improved considerably since I held an improvised circle time after a turbulent lunch and it descended into a heated argument.

The lows have been numerous, the highs few and far between, but I cling to the positives. I have a wealth of anecdotes and can answer interview questions much more sharply with apt examples from recent experience. More than this I have learnt from my mistakes. While the experience has been mildly painful, I have emerged from the first few months of teaching as a wiser and savvier teacher.

Ursula Watson is a substitute teacher. This story is a reprint from an earlier issue of TES.

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