Here are 5 lessons learned during my stint as a substitute teacher.
We're always told that school teachers have a tough job, but until we find ourselves in charge of a classroom full of kids, we won't understand how tough that job truly is.


Last fall, when my youngest child left home for all-day Kindergarten, I decided to try my hand at substitute teaching. I figured, with the flexibility of saying "yes" or "no," that substitute teaching just might fit well with my other part-time work. I didn't realize just how much I'd be learning, not just about how to do the job, but about the behind-the-scenes happenings of my children's school and education.

Ultimately substitute teaching didn't work out for me because my other paid work presented opportunities that squeezed out the hours I could've been accepting teaching assignments. I'm still available to substitute teach a couple times a month, but by the nature of the job, the need for a substitute is unpredictable at best and often doesn't line up with the few days I have open.

But I certainly gleaned a lot of insights into the job of a school teacher.

At my children's school, they employ a co-teacher model, so that each classroom is led by multiple teachers. In some classrooms, the teachers work side-by-side; in others, the teachers split the class and take their individual groups to separate rooms for certain lessons. So, as a substitute teacher, I was able to experience leading a classroom on my own as well as helping alongside another teacher.

I'm sure what I learned about teaching was just the tip of the iceberg, but for me it was eye-opening.

Here are 5 lessons I learned during my stint as a substitute teacher:

1. Smaller classrooms make a huge difference.

I understand that many private schools make it a point to limit class size. Since my kids attend a public school, it was interesting to see the difference between trying to teach to the whole classroom of 30 kids versus a group of 5 to 10. The intimacy of a smaller group really made a huge difference in being able to connect with each child, keep them all on the same page, and not lose anyone to attention or discipline issues that could otherwise be addressed in a proactive way.

2. Discipline gets in the way of teaching.

As parents, we understand that any interaction with children involves some level of discipline. I expect my child to listen and be respectful whether I'm actively teaching her a new skill or simply walking out the door. It's the same with teaching: Teachers need children to listen to them and be respectful in order for them to teach effectively.

Yet, because children come from a variety of homes with a range of behavioral expectations, the classroom resembles a mish-mash of discipline challenges. There are the children who are listening respectfully, there are the children who perhaps have some challenges with attention especially in subjects they find boring or difficult, and then there are the children who reflect the neglectful homes they're growing up in.

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Teaching anything is hard to do when even one child, let alone several, chooses -- whether consciously or not -- to behave in ways that are not congruent with the collective expectations. If your child brought home a lot more homework today than usual, it could be that there was another student taking a lot of the teacher's attention in discipline issues.

3. It's easy to overlook the "easy" kids, and it's easy to not hone in on the "challenging" kids.

It is really easy, as a teacher, to not give more attention to the children with discipline issues and less attention to the children who are meeting behavior and academic expectations. It's not fair, and this disparity in attention is helped in large part by teaching assistants who can help carry the load with the kids who qualify for special education.

But it's not just the kids who overtly have behavior issues who glean much of the teacher's attention, but also children who have learned how to manipulate more attention from the teacher. While a strong attachment to students is important, teachers should be careful of favoritism. While the outgoing, schmoozy child may be easy to like, the quiet kids may be easy to overlook.

4. Afternoons are largely chaos management.

I have long felt that the typical 7-hour school day is just too long for most kids. I know the day is broken up with recess, art, music, and other offerings that allow a chance for kids to get up and move around, and provide a less-intensive learning environment than many of their core subjects. But every day I substitute-taught, whether early in the year or later, I always sensed a dramatic difference in behavior issues, overall attention, and social dynamic in the morning versus the afternoon.

I feel that kids just get tired by the afternoon!

In the morning, they're more likely to be more attentive to the teacher, their classwork, and one another. By the afternoon, all bets are off. They're craving a break, or better yet, for the school day to be over. And it makes sense, adults feel largely the same way as their work shift comes to an end. We want to get off the computer, go home, put our feet up, spend time with our families, and give our brains a break from the grind.

The school day seems to be more designed around the typical adult work shift, but perhaps more learning would take place if students' school "shifts" are confined to a smaller portion of their day.

5. Teachers can't ignore the social drama of their classrooms.

My children's school approaches bullying prevention through a set of behavior standards that are expected among both teachers and students. The idea is that by cultivating an atmosphere of respect, responsibility, resourcefulness, and safety, children are becoming ingrained with character traits that will make them less likely to bully others or be bullied.

I feel that's one piece of the puzzle. Another piece that is easy to skirt under the rug is the increasingly complex social dynamic of classes as they move through the grades.

As children approach puberty, their social connections become ever more complicated and frankly, this is where bullying can be the most insidious. While it may not be as frank as physical forms of bullying, or name-calling, poor social skills like spreading rumors or intentionally leaving someone out of a game are forms of bullying.

Not every child has to be besties with one another, but good social skills are displayed in how well they treat one another even if they're not part of the other's circle of friends.

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While it technically falls outside the academic realm, social dynamic affects students' academic performance. Teachers need to pay attention to kids who have trouble making friends, as well as kids who seem very popular. Are they popular because they pit some kids against others? Kids, like adults, tend to be attracted to drama. Unfortunately, some kids learn early on how to get attention by creating social drama.

The teachers that seem more effective at managing their classrooms' social drama are those who monitor their classrooms' social dynamics and then proactively address issues. Ideas that I've admired were to adjust seating arrangements, pair lunch buddies from different friendship circles, and assign group projects that involve a lot of cooperation between children who don't typically spend a lot of time with one another.