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Dear Mitch,

My oldest sister, Daryn, owned a stationary store and a plant store in our town (it's a small town and some people say it's sort of "old-fashioned", so there are still a lot of little stores like my sister's.) Anyway, she always wanted to be a teacher and so she took the courses at night and got her diploma for teaching. So now she is getting ready to really "go for it" but someone she knows from her plant store suggested that before she sells the stores she should try out the teaching in a real school to make sure that it's going to be as fun for her as she thinks. She told my sister that in the schools around here it's very different from what my sister probably remembers of the olden days when she was a kid. But she also told her there are still a lot of nice kids around, but some kids can be very different from what my sister probably thinks. (I guess they can act up more.) Also, her friend said, it's the kind of job that until you actually do it for real your own in a real class of kids you won't know if you're going to really like it, because there's just no way to anyway even though my sister's pretty sure about it, I want to tell her what you think of trying to be a substitute teacher for a while first.


W.B. Mc.

Seattle, WA


Dear W.B.,

Devoting some time to substitute teaching before totally parting with a business that she enjoys is an excellent idea!

I have often believed that "substitute teaching" (which in England is called 'supply teaching') is an often overlooked, underestimated but important opportunity for a person who either wishes to teach or wishes to learn about teaching. I cannot think of a better way for a relatively inexperienced teacher (or a seasoned veteran, for that matter) to explore the field. In a single term, one is likely to  encounter a wide range of students, subjects, schools, and administrations. Also, of course, it is one of the most efficient ways to meet colleagues and mentors, and to become part of a school community. This last part can be particularly important for one new to a town or city.

I did it myself; in fact, for a brief period I worked as a substitute  teacher and I did so for reasons similar to the ones we're discussing. I had long believed that I was built to be a teacher, and even to this day I can recall that as a child I admired teachers and appreciated the impact they had on me.

So I pursued my dream. From the day I began my first education class I knew I was on the right path. Still, for one year of my course-load I "subbed". At that time there was a simple but effective system for such teachers. You simply gave your name and contact info to the administrative secretary in the office of a nearby school or district. A brief interview with a few principals followed, and then, if all that went or "without incident" (no arguments, etc.), it wouldn't be long before the morning calls would begin. It was winter, and it was cold and windy and wet and foggy and snow-packed. So teachers with long commutes in old cars would sometimes stop halfway and turn their vehicle around to begin the slide home.

The calls would come early and loud., and the 5 o'clock ones seemed the loudest. And since there was no way to predict the weather or the impact of that year's flu, there was no way to know when the telephone calls would begin or end.

Following a school's procedure, if no student under your auspices vanished during recess or had an eye poked out, you could count on your phone ringing every morning. Sometimes it would happen at 3:30 a.m.

The final mixed blessing is when the person making 5 a.m. calls decides it's time to expand your areas of expertise...I was called to "teach" 11th Grade French. "I don't even speak French," I explained, "And never did." "Neither does their teacher," the woman assured me as if that would somehow give me the confidence to make the drive. Once, I umbrellaed from a very high shelf a French cook book to my briefcase, which I thought would turn out to be among my better ideas of the week, but as it turned out the book contained less than a dozen French terms. (One was soufflé, which I mispronounced.) But enough about me.

Here is the thing: I discovered that there is a weird but wonderful force which I think of as the "power of the new".  It simply means that one typically encounters a brief opportunity to be heard in a way that students often will not hear a person whose voice is already familiar to them. This intense moment cannot be relied upon to last long, so the idea is to speak fast and make your communication engaging.

There is a truly a window of opportunity through which you can inspire a person to at least think of something he might never have considered, but if you hesitate too long or mess it up, you might want to think about running for cover. Many students -- including those who are gifted, appear to be capable of great accuracy with spitballs.

Good Luck to your sister! I hope she enjoys!


NOTE: In some places, such as London, England, substitute teachers currently receive higher pay than regular "teachers" that may strike you as odd and it is a bit odd. But it is not very odd. After all, it's an important job, and tends not to become easy until the 3 o'clock bell rings.