Saturday, February 27, 2010

Whatever You Do, Don't Tell the Boss!

I don't always get to meet the teachers I sub for, so when I do, I generally get some good information and advice. At the very least, I hear some good stories!

This week, one of my jobs was in a 1st/2nd grade combination class. The teacher warned me ahead of time that they would be difficult and that I'd have to come on strong from the very first moment. As it turned out, they weren't too bad. They were chatty and had a hard time sitting in their seats, but I've had harder groups. And I was only there until lunchtime, so that made it a nice day.

Anyway, in my discussion with this teacher, she told me they'd had some really bad substitutes at the school. I always hear horror stories about bad subs, and I really don't understand what can be so hard for some of them. In my experience, I've always had lesson plans and the day planned out moment to moment. I seldom have to use up time on my own. (And now that I've said that, I'll probably have a bunch of jobs with no lesson plan!) My hardest day was a one where the teacher had been out the previous two days and written the schedule on the board, with instructions to just pick up where the previous sub had left off. That got a bit ridiculous, since the kids argued about where they were on each subject, but I made it through the day.

These "bad subs" this teacher told me about were all in situations where the classroom teacher doesn't leave lesson plans. Teachers can be so entrenched in their own systems that they don't write them down. If there's an unexpected absence, there may be no sub plans. The error on the part of these substitutes that got them blackballed was in asking the principal what to do in the absence of these plans.

Now, while I can see the panic that would arise from having a classroom full of kids and nothing to do with them all day, the one thing you never want to do is make someone look bad in front of their boss! I have no idea what these people were thinking. Really, both sides are guilty. If a classroom teacher doesn't write day to day plans, she should have a generic substitute folder with activities and a schedule in case of an emergency. And a sub should be ready with at least a few ideas to fill time if necessary, without panicking.

I can only imagine that the sub's intentions may have been to get further instruction from somebody in charge. However, pointing out that the person you're supposed to be helping isn't doing her job is never a wise strategy. It comes off as passive/aggressive. I once worked for a company where people would send emails to "remind" each other of things, and cc managers "just so they're in the loop." What a manager sees in this case is a red flag that she has to oversee something that in reality she probably don't need to be involved with. It makes for a terribly nasty work environment where everyone is trying to make everyone else look bad, under the guise of looking polite. It undercuts autonomy and is really a form of "tattling," a habit we all try to break kids of.

In fact, because substitute teachers go in so blind to the work environments, I've grown to be on the side of not even asking other grade-level teachers for help unless instructed by the teacher for whom I'm subbing. I once had the teacher next door pop her head in first thing in the morning, only to find she was a little bit irked about the teacher being gone yet again. I inadvertently compounded the problem by asking if she knew the location of the worksheets that were mentioned on the sub plan, but that I couldn't locate. She went right to them in a corner under a shelf, and went into a tirade about how every time that teacher had a sub, the sub couldn't find the worksheets.

Nobody said that substitute teaching was easy. And because we're on our own so much in a sea of politics, attitudes and rules that differ from place to place, you have to have the strength to improvise and adapt to whatever comes along. And sometimes, you're damned if you do and damned if you don't. So, my personal strategy is to stay under the radar unless I'm absolutely sure I'm shining.


  1. Interesting post. I have heard of some subs that don't follow the teacher's plans at all and do their own thing, which is usually chaotic. I would much rather have minute by minute plans that the teacher would be doing if she was there anyway. Makes for a smoother day for the kids and for me too. "Sub plans" seem to make the kids go nuts.

  2. I agree Sarah. My preference is to have the day mapped out for me, but even generic sub plans are better than nothing.

  3. I've had a rough experience that began with a one-sentence lesson plan: "The kids know what they're working on."

    Oh, sweet lord.

  4. Just wanted to chime in here:

    The bane of my existence is incomplete or nonexistent plans. I've become quite adept at creating lessons on the fly!

    I must disagree with you on this issue, though. In my opinion, the teacher is always at fault for not having lesson plans. Emergencies come up, to be sure. But that's why they have these wonderful things called "emergency plans." I think every teacher should be prepared in case the unexpected happens, and that includes making generic lesson plans. I really appreciate going into a class for a last-minute assignment and seeing emergency plans. It's thoughtful, and I wouldn't want to be a teacher who left a sub out to dry. Leading a classroom for seven hours without plans is a hard position for anyone to be in.

    Also, when I have had those occasions that there were no plans, other teachers are a great help. Usually, the absent teacher has emailed them to a neighboring teacher, or the other teacher can at least come in and help get some plans going for the class. When that happens, the other teacher has to take time away from their class to help out and, again, it could all be avoided by a few proactive measures from the absent teacher.

    Asking for help isn't really because I "need" it, since I always have my own extras. I do it because it has so often been the case that the other teachers have the lesson plans. Just in case the absent teacher has made the effort to send in plans, I ask. If not, teachers usually jump up to help me, even though I tell them not to worry since I have a lot of stuff with me, anyway.

    I've never been to a school where I don't have plans and I'm frowned upon for asking for help. Sometimes, I automatically ask the office for help because they sometimes keep the plans in the office (this has happened when I'm new to a school and I'm unaware about how they handle subs), and teachers sometimes send their plans via email to the administrators. I remember once being helped by an asst. principal digging around a classroom looking for a teacher's plans. After finding them in the oddest place (under an overhead projector), he told me, "If you need anything, just ask!"

    I just can't see a school being mad because THEIR employee was unprepared and didn't leave sub plans. I wish emergency planning was emphasized more, like in one school where I sub where teachers are required to have a few days of emergency lessons. It at least gives other staff members breathing room for awhile in case an emergency because a long-term absence (when teachers have to come up with several days or weeks of lessons for the absent teacher).

    All of that said, I come prepared everyday with activities and work I can give to classes in case I have nothing. I just expect to have time to fill, and I prepare for that. I agree, subs should never panic. I disagree, however, that the right thing for a sub to do is not ask for help. I think kids should do substantive work, even with a sub. In most cases, the time-filling activities subs use are only appropriate for a few minutes, not hours. A teachers' lesson would be the most appropriate. Instructional time is wasted when you're forced to extend a "time filler" to over an hour.

  5. Just putting myself in an administrator's shoes: I'd reach out to help substitutes when there's a huge instructional issue like not having plans, have the students do something substantive, and then later address the issue with teachers in order to not have the problem again. It ensures that substitutes will have a smoother time, and be more willing to come back and fill in when we have a need.

    I think it's just a disservice to the students, the sub and the other staff members when there are no lesson plans.

    Regarding the situation with the grumbling teacher, it wasn't your fault! The only other option you had was to not mention the elusive worksheets, but then what? Have the kids simply not do the assignment? Fill-in time doing something else? The teacher was unprepared, but I don't think it reflects negatively on you. Perhaps if the issue is addressed by the grumbling teacher (but preferably by you in a note), it would help the teacher be a bit more organized and prepared for the next sub.

    Whatever the case, I do agree that it's just the nature of the job to expect the unexpected. Always be prepared!