Dreaded Substitute Teacher Assignment

John Thomas


All of us who have worked as substitute teachers have experienced a phone call for a dreaded assignment. When I was substitute teaching, I got such a phone call, and it would change my attitude about teaching forever.

Many years ago, I was working full time at a market research firm while occasionally substitute teaching. I was not sure if I wanted to make the transition into full time teaching. I loved education. I loved learning and believed that I could share that passion for learning with students. However, I worried about the drama of middle and high schools. I worried that perhaps I was unfit to connect with students who had a different background than me. And I worried about maintaining discipline. (I remembered how I would sometimes be unkind to teachers, and did not want to ever taste my own medicine.)

When a school called me to substitute for an AP English course, or for an honors government course, I would eagerly accept. But one morning, I got a call asking if I could come in for several days for a teacher who worked with behavioral and emotional support students. I don’t know if I misheard the assignment, or if it was such an early morning call that I wasn’t fully awake yet, but I agreed to do it.

Driving down the country roads leading to the rural school, I considered everything that could go wrong. I wasn’t sure I wanted to keep going. Thoughts were running through my head. “I have a fulltime job. I don’t need to keep substitute teaching. What if I don’t show up?”

I kept driving.

The other side of my conscience chimed in, “You committed to this. It’s too late. Just do it. It’s only for a few days. You’re not a quitter.”

Even the good side of my conscience wasn’t trying to convince me that I would enjoy it. I was merely telling myself that I could get through it. And that won out. I made it to school. Small victory.

I walked into the school and checked into the office. At that point I was told that as part of my assignment, I would be taking the students on a field trip to the University of Pittsburgh. “Oh, no,” I thought, “I can’t take these kids from a rural school who have emotional and behavioral problems to downtown Pittsburgh!” But I did. I went.

Over the next several days, I talked with the students. We celebrated some successes together. We had to deal with some frustrations together. But, at the end of that assignment, I was thankful for it.

Several weeks later, I was in the same building for another assignment. I was walking down the hall, and I saw one of the students from the behavioral support class in the hallway, having a talk with his teacher. The teacher spotted me and called me over. “Tell Mr. Thomas what you did to the substitute yesterday,” she said.

The student replied, “I crumbled up my paper, and threw it in his face and I told him he could . . .” I will just leave it there. Just know it is not the type of thing I would have ever said to an adult.

She then said, “You would never treat Mr. Thomas that way, would you?”

“No. Mr. Thomas respects us,” came the reply.

And it was true. I did respect them. (Years later, I saw the same student at a bar, and I played a game of pool with him. He bought me a drink, thanking me for treating him with dignity.)

Following that experience, I knew that I did indeed want to be a full time educator. I wanted to embrace diversity, rather than avoid it. I wanted to learn from my students, rather than simply sharing with them my love of learning.

I could wrap up this story with a lesson about how respecting all your students is important. And it is. But that’s not where I’m going with this. The lesson I will leave you with is to step outside of your comfort zone. Say yes when asked to do things that you usually would not do. Be willing to grow. Do not let fear stop you from being the greatest educator you can be. You may find a deeper passion for education than you ever had before.


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