This past year, a member of our second-grade team of three teachers experienced a major illness and could not work at the start of the school year. Our school was able at the last minute to secure one of our frequent substitute teachers to take over the position long term. So, what is the problem you ask? This person has been subbing for years and therefore was the perfect person to join the team long term, or so we thought. She quickly found out what we already knew: teaching is hard. This experience provided a valuable reminder of the nuances that go along with teaching, the ones you have to learn through trial and error.
As a teacher of 26 years, I’ve generally come across two kinds of people: those who think that teaching is easy and anyone can do it, and those who think that teaching is difficult work deserving of much more credit. I am always amazed when I hear the former point of view. Of course, anyone can stand in front of a class and deliver information to the students. But, is that really teaching? It can be hard for the layperson to understand what NBCTs know so well: teaching requires knowledge of students as people and as learners, knowledge of content and pedagogy, and the skill to bring all three together strategically to ensure students are learning.
Our team’s substitute teacher learned the hard way just how difficult things could be. First, she had to deal with irate parents that were not happy that their child had to start the school year with a substitute teacher, and with no idea of when the main teacher would return. While some might dismiss the parents’ concerns and focus on the classroom, the substitute learned that parents are essential stakeholders when it comes to dealing with their child’s education. Therefore, frequent and varied communication with parents was key. This effort can be taxing; the email correspondence alone can really add up over the course of a day. Some of the emails may be short and trivial, but not all. Responding to these emails – some which can be pages in length – can be quite time consuming.
Next, the substitute had to learn how to set ground rules and classroom expectations with the students. Again, some might assume it’s easy to simply give out the rules. What’s not so easy is having the children buy in to a system and follow those rules. Classroom behavior is one of the hardest things to get right. As a seasoned teacher I have a bag of tricks that I use to motivate and engage my students, which also helps with setting the right tone for the classroom and regulating student behavior, which ultimately affects student learning. However, choosing the right strategy at the right time for a given class takes trial and error. A substitute teacher who is not in the classroom all the time may never fully develop those skills.
Then, the substitute teacher had to do lesson plans. This was the easiest part for her to do. Being the team of teachers that we are, my colleague and I worked with her every day on the lesson plans, so she was never alone with this. However, her planning had to account for an engaging classroom environment and differentiated instruction for a class of twenty-five second graders with a variety of academic challenges.
Lastly, the substitute teacher had to learn how to tailor instruction to meet the needs of the individual students, twenty-five little people with different academic and social/emotional needs that need to be addressed. Differentiated and scaffolded instruction is the key to address those needs. But as all teachers soon come to understand, differentiating instruction is something that takes time to learn how to do correctly. Teachers must learn how to differentiate content, process, products, or the learning environment. Then the teachers must appropriately use ongoing assessment and flexible grouping to make differentiation successful for students. Once she had figured out the process, she then had to scaffold the learning to move students towards progressively stronger understanding and, ultimately, greater independence in the learning process. This substitute was just used to standing in front of the classroom and reading whatever the teacher had given her to do. There was never any thought or actual skill involved, and most people think that is enough.
Teaching is hard, which is something only a portion of the population really understands. This story illustrates some of the many nuances in the practice of our profession. It is a science and an art. This seasoned substitute teacher worked hard and struggled for eight weeks, each day begging to be released from duty. All educators need education and motivation to do their job, and even with those at their disposal, it might be impossible for some to excel in a profession that most might consider “easy” or commonplace.