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Experience January/February 2024

How I Became a Substitute Teacher

Stephen M Terrell


  • It’s not what I expected, but I’m finding that teaching fills a need in me and my community.
How I Became a Substitute Teacher Zigic

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If you’re retired, sitting at home, and want to do something other than be a greeter at your local big box store, I have something for you to consider.

Yet another pandemic disruption

In the fall of 2022, I was approaching three years in retirement. I wasn’t lacking for things to do. I was writing this column and also working on a historical true crime book based on my great uncle’s murder of his scalawag son-in-law. I was reading, riding my motorcycle, and visiting my adult children scattered across the eastern United States.

I also thought about teaching. I taught for five years at a university earlier in my career, and I taught dozens of continuing legal education events on topics ranging from legal technology to the First Amendment to electronic evidence.

When I retired at the end of 2019, I thought I’d look into teaching law-related classes at a local community college. But the pandemic hit. By the time things began getting back to normal, my life had changed. My wife and I became snowbirds, spending much of the winter in Florida. Teaching even one semester no longer fit my schedule. So I was content to move forward with my other retirement activities, no longer considering teaching.

Begging for substitute teachers

Then last fall, I stumbled on a request from my local school system for substitute teachers. It was more like a plea—or maybe even begging. The local schools were desperately seeking substitute teachers, even bumping the pay by a small amount.

Now don’t get the wrong idea. Even at a bumped-up rate, no one will get rich serving as a substitute teacher. The going full-day rate they offered was less than one-third of my hourly rate when I retired.

But the flexibility of substitute teaching interested me. There were no minimum days required each week or each month. I could turn down classes any time for any reason—or no reason. It fit with my other obligations and activities, and it permitted my wife and I to head south to warming sun over the winter. I could do it only when I wanted, and the school was happy to have me.

Most importantly, it seemed a way to give back to the community. The local school system is the same tough, blue-collar one I attended through high school—the same high school that even back in the 1960s had cops in the hall for portions of each year.

In the decades since, the city and school district fell upon even more difficult times. The city’s economy was decimated by the loss of thousands of blue-collar industrial jobs. Population plummeted, and schools closed. The situation got so difficult that the state took over the school system and placed its management in the hands of the local university.

I gave it a go

I decided I’d try high school and, maybe, just maybe, middle school. I knew myself well enough to rule out subbing in grade-school classes.

I went through the rather cumbersome application process, including a background check. Then there was a one-morning training session, and that was it. I just waited for the first call.

When the call came a few days later, it was for social studies at a middle school with a reputation for being difficult. I had some insight into that because one of my cousins was a full-time teacher there.

I looked forward to the challenge. I watched several videos about teaching on YouTube. I looked up information on middle school social studies. I made a list of expectations for students I’d write on the board, along with my name.

I thought I was ready.

I wasn’t.

The reality of teaching today

The first surprise came before I even met my first student. Lessons were all on Chromebook computers. It was a disappointment. I wasn’t going to do real teaching. Just supervising. When you’re sitting in a classroom, how do you check if students are really working or just watching the latest videos? It’s not easy.

Then there are the attitudes of students. Substitutes always have had difficulty. Remember how some of your middle school classmates tried to take advantage of substitute teachers? Maybe it was even you. But some student attitudes go far beyond expectations of disruption and misbehavior. F-bombs were all too frequent. Disrespect at times was commonplace.

My first day in class wasn’t a disaster. Teachers complimented me that I wasn’t intimidated by the students (apparently, many substitutes are) and that I had a presence in the classroom. I responded that, after 40 years of standing before state and federal judges and fighting with some of the best lawyers across the state, I wasn’t going to be intimidated by seventh graders.

But I will admit, it was far more difficult than anticipated. Fortunately, there were wonderful teachers in each building where I was a substitute who were saints and helped me get through the day.

Boy, did they need me

Did I go back? After all, I was under no obligation to return. I didn’t need the money, certainly not at a third of my hourly rate for a full day. Why deal with the frustration?

But I did return.

So, why did I go back? I felt there was a need. And both teachers and administrators expressed their appreciation. Most importantly, I thought I could, in some small way, connect with some of those students. After all, I’d gone to those same schools. From seventh grade until my junior year, my grade cards frequently included Ds. I felt a bit like I’d walked in their shoes.

Throughout the school year, I added two suburban-rural school systems to the schools where I’d substitute. Honestly, those schools were much easier. It was rare that students were disrespectful, and never did I deal with significant class disruption. I also got more of an opportunity to actually teach, which I truly enjoyed.

By the end of the year, I learned a lot about being a substitute teacher. My approach was different than when I began. I found that, in many classes, I enjoyed the interchange with students. In others, it was still difficult.

I’m still game

As a new school year approached, I let the school systems know that I was still available to serve as a substitute. I don’t do this every day. Like last year, I teach only one or two days a week—and some weeks not at all.

But I still think it’s worthwhile—a way to help teachers and give back to the community. No, I don’t think I’m going to change lives. But maybe, just occasionally, I might touch a young life just a bit. And I think that’s worth it.