Becoming a Substitute Teacher Improved My Teaching Skills

First Person features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others reflecting on public education.

My path to becoming a teacher took an unexpected turn when COVID forced me to complete my student teaching online. I had to adapt on the job and make the most of the situation, which turned out to be valuable experience for the future.

After graduating, I couldn’t immediately find a full-time teaching position, so I turned to substitute teaching. It wasn’t my first choice, but I’m grateful for the opportunity it gave me.

Headshot of a blonde person wearing a black shirt and a tan blazer
Torrey BarlowTorrey Barlow(Courtesy photo)

Substitute teaching has a negative reputation, as substitutes often face inconsistent assignments and pay, and they frequently encounter challenging student behaviors that permanent teachers don’t have to deal with.

However, despite its drawbacks, substitute teaching allowed me to explore and experiment more than I would have as a new teacher. It was like sharing a dessert platter with friends! In just a couple of years, I’ve taught various grade levels and subjects in different school environments. It also exposed me to different lesson plans created by permanent teachers.

Sometimes, I served as a classroom aide, which gave me the chance to observe different teaching styles. I still remember the first time I saw a teacher use a “think-pair-share” activity, where students were asked a question, had time to think and write their answers, and then shared their ideas with a partner. I also witnessed how teachers used humor to connect with their students. These moments showed me the importance of teamwork in translating theory into practice for new teachers.

Exposing myself to a variety of experiences helped me discover which grade level resonates with me. Initially, I imagined myself teaching second grade, where students are curious and undergo significant developmental milestones. I was particularly excited about helping them learn to read during that stage of their lives.

Substitute teaching has been more than just a tour of classrooms. It has provided me with insights into the unique cultures of different schools.

That changed last year when I had a long-term substitute position as a sixth-grade teacher. Initially, I felt intimidated because students at that age go through various physical and emotional changes. However, I ended up falling in love with teaching sixth grade because it allowed me to engage with students and the content on a deeper level. My sixth graders even helped me realize my love for teaching math, a subject I had disliked as a student. Being honest about my own struggles with math helped me quickly build connections with my students.

Substitute teaching has provided me with not only exposure to different classrooms but also a glimpse into the unique cultures of various schools. Prior to becoming a teacher, I didn’t give much thought to finding a school that aligns with my personality, but now I understand why it’s crucial for success in the first year of teaching.

My years as a substitute have taught me that I thrive in collaborative environments, and that’s something I’ll actively seek in a full-time teaching position. With my master’s in education soon to be completed, I believe I’ll be an even stronger candidate. I want to find a job where teachers spend time together in shared spaces, eat lunch as a community, and where administrators actively engage with classrooms by walking around the campus.

If it weren’t for my experiences as a substitute teacher, I don’t think I would appreciate teaching as much as I do now. Instead of potentially burning out and quitting in my early years like many new teachers, I feel an even stronger sense of dedication to my students and the teaching profession.

Schools should invest in better support for substitute teachers, providing opportunities for them to learn from and collaborate with permanent teachers, and establishing pathways for subs like me to transition into full-time teaching roles.

Subbing wasn’t the initial path I envisioned, but it has been the best training ground for me. I eagerly look forward to what lies ahead.

Torrey Barlow is a full-time credentialed teacher at the North County Coastal Substitute Consortium in San Diego, California.

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