A Day in the Life of a Substitute Teacher

5:55 am:  I wake up to the organ blast of Phantom of the Opera coming from my phone.  I wish for my husband’s sake that I could pick a quieter ringtone, but anything subtler won’t jolt me awake enough to coherently answer.  I know who it is, but I glance at the name anyway.  For a fraction of a second, I’m tempted not to answer.  I wasn’t planning on taking a job today because my dog has a vet appointment, but last night my husband’s externship adviser texted him and unexpectedly gave him the day off.  So he can take the dog to her appointment, and I’m free to take a job.  I’m still tempted not to answer, but who am I kidding?  I never say no.  I pick up.

“Hello?”  I try not to sound too groggy.

“Hi, it’s Carol.  Are you free to come in today?”  She gives me the teacher’s name and classroom number, which I quickly commit to memory.  (I forgot to put paper by the bed last night.)  Then she informs me that this teacher has 1st period prep.  Normally that wouldn’t make a difference since my husband and I only have one car, but today that means an extra 45 minutes of sleep.  Oh, thank goodness!  

8:01 am:  I’m dressed, coffee’s made, and I’m stuffing my sack lunch into my teacher bag.  I take the dog for a quick walk, and then my husband drives me to the school.  On the way I enter the the vet’s address in the GPS for my husband.

8:38 am:  What was that room number?  A-232?  A-242?  Ah, I see the teacher’s name on a door.  A-241.  Well, I was close.  I find the sub folder sitting on the desk, but before I have a chance to read it, another teacher pops his head in, asking if I have any questions.  At first glance everything seems pretty straightforward, so I tell him I’m good, but I’ll let him know if anything comes up.  After he leaves, I take a few minutes to process my surroundings.

It’s a science classroom, with lab tables in the back and student desks in the front.  The teacher’s desk stands flush with another lab table at the front of the room, probably for demonstrations.  It’s one of those classrooms with too much going on.  Aquariums, cages, and fish tanks hold a wide range of critters.  I’m slightly creeped out by the large eel in the fish tank to the left of the teacher’s desk.  Every inch of wallspace is covered by posters of famous scientists, cell diagrams, a periodic table, and student work.  A bulletin board holds a collection of plushy microbes.  Huge paper mache fish and butterflies hang from the ceiling above the student desks.  Random stuffed animals and figurines line the tops of counters, tables, and filing cabinets.  There’s barely any work space left on the teacher’s desk.  Everywhere I look I notice another random detail, and I wonder how easily the students get distracted by their own classroom walls.

This image shows a close-up photo of a bearded...

Bearded dragon. This definitely was not the creepiest critter in the classroom! (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

8:52 am:  The bell rings, signalling the end of first period.  A few students begin filtering the room, and one young lady makes a bee-line for a mouse cage.  It’s not until after she’s cuddling the little rodent in her hand that she looks up and exclaims, “oh, we have a sub?”  A boy begins walking around with a bearded dragon sitting on his shoulder.  Their casual handling of the animals implies that the teacher generally allows it, but a mental image forms in my mind of a mouse escaping and teenage girls running around screaming, trying to catch it.  That’s more chaos than this sub wants to handle, so I smile and ask the students to put the animals back.

8:58 am:  2nd period (my first class) officially begins.  I make my typical introduction speech, take roll, and begin handing out the articles and worksheets.  Students are to read two articles and then answer the questions on their own.  No partners or group work.  In less than five minutes it becomes clear that the teacher made a copying mistake and one of the articles doesn’t match the questions.  Time to improvise!  I tell the students to read both articles anyway, answer as many questions as they can, and then fill in specific information about both articles on the back of the worksheet.  Fortunately, this works and the most of the students are working quietly until the end of class.  Maybe it wasn’t the right information, but at least they stayed busy.

9:52 am:  Class ends, and I immediately head down the hallway to find the teacher that I’d spoken to at the beginning of the day.  I find his classroom and show him the mistake in the lesson plan.  He apologizes profusely (apparently he made the copies), and hands me a stack of red, spiral-bound books.  All the articles are in here, he says.  Just hand these out to the next class and tell them which pages to read.  Then they’ll be able to answer all the worksheet questions that way.  Back in the classroom, I recognize several of the students filling the room for 3rd period.  Some of them have given me trouble before, but I smile and greet them by name.  I can be friendly and keep a close eye on them at the same time.  I also realize I need to use the restroom.  Awesome.  No time now, though!

9:58 am:  3rd period begins.  The more squirrelly students take a few minutes to settle down as I try to take roll, but once they get going on the assignment, they are focused and quietly working.  These students know me, so they know I take notes when they misbehave.  Many have learned by experience, and they’ve decided not to give me any trouble.

10:07 am:  I notice a text from my husband.  (Thank goodness I remembered to put my phone on silent!)  The vet visit cost more than we expected.  Ugh.  Really?  I’m suddenly very glad I took this job today.  I take a look at the day’s schedule and discover my next break begins at 12:17.  So much for the restroom.  *sigh*

10:20 am:  Two students are convinced they’ve broken the pencil sharpener.  No, you just need to empty it.  A few minutes later, my hands are covered in the pencil shavings that were jammed tightly into the sharpener, and the students are back to work.  At least this classroom has a sink so I can wash my hands.  Overall, the lesson is flowing smoothly.  The students don’t seem confused by the red books, and they are working quietly.  I write a good report about them in the sub notes.

10:50 am:  Between periods, the classroom phone rings, and I pick up.  It’s Carol, asking me if I can come in next Monday.  That’s Veterans Day and I know my husband will be off again, but I say yes anyway.  We need the paycheck.

English: Galileo Thermometer

Galileo Thermometer (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

10:56 am:  4th period.  A polite young lady approaches the desk and asks a question.  As she turns to leave, her elbow bumps the Galileo thermometer sitting on the corner of the front lab table, and CRASH!  Thankfully, most of the glass lands in the sink, but a few pieces scatter, and clear oil spills all over the corner of the desk, right where the printer and speaker sit.  Great.  The poor girl tells me over and over again how sorry she is as a classmate finds us some paper towels.  We spend the first five minutes of class sopping up the oil and trying to save the printer.

11:02 am:  I’m finally able to take roll and hand out the assignment.  After the students begin working, I finishing cleaning up as well as I can, and then write a note for the teacher, explaining the broken thermometer.

11:48 am:  The class works quietly until the bell rings, but they stay in the room for a short study hall before lunch.  (By now I’m counting down the minutes until 12:17).  They are suddenly much more talkative, though.  When I ask them to get out something to work on, they respond with a casual “Oh, she lets us talk during study hall.”  Instinct and their open manner tell me they aren’t lying, and they aren’t being loud or obnoxious, so I decide to let them talk.  I make a note for the teacher, though, just in case.

12:17 pm:  Finally!  I don’t leave right away, though.  I’ve held it this long; I can wait a few more minutes.  Students still crowd the hallways, and I’m also kind of secretly hoping one of the other teachers will stop in and offer to show me to the A-Building teachers’ lounge.  I packed a cold lunch so I don’t need a microwave, but if given the choice, I’d prefer not to eat alone.  However, no one comes in, so after a few bites of my sandwich, I head out in search of the restroom.  When I come back, I finish my lunch in the company of my nook Simple Touch.

12:50 pm:  Students begin filling in, with the usual exclamations.  “Oh, we have a sub?”  “Aw, man!” “YES!  You’re my favorite sub!”  (Of course those comments make me smile.)  This class is more of the same.  The students settle in quietly and begin their work.  I haven’t had to write any names down yet today, which is surprising.  I am friendly and personable with the students, but I don’t hesitate to write down the names of those who aren’t behaving.  I guess they know me well enough by now and just don’t give me any trouble.

Aside from a little lesson confusion 2nd period and broken thermometer 4th period, it’s been a really easy day.  Kind of boring, actually.  I miss teaching – really teaching.  I miss the organized chaos of guiding a roomful of teenagers to brilliant insights.  I miss the discussions and discoveries.  I miss getting to know the teens and having an opportunity to make a difference in their lives.  What I’m doing now – this isn’t teaching.  This is sitting and watching.  I glance at the clock. Seriously?  I’m already bored, and I still have 30 more minutes in this period?  But then I remember the more expensive vet bill, and I quit my mental whining.

This isn’t a bad way to make money.  Not all days are boring like this, and really, boring is probably a good thing.  It means class is going well.  Plus, they really like me at this school.  In what other job can you say to your potential employer, “Hey, I’d like to work for you, but I’m moving away in a couple months”?  One day in the classroom here, and they just told me that they’ll take me as long as they can have me.  Not a bad deal for a nomad.  I remind myself of all this as I once again glance at the clock.  I take out my notebook and begin writing, glancing up every couple of minutes to make sure the students are still on task.

1:48 pm:  As 5th period leaves and 6th period files in, the mood shifts from quiet to slightly crazy.  It’s the last period of the day, and the teens can feel it.   The idea of working quietly on packet all class at the end of the day sounds nearly impossible to them.  I’m actually smiling, though.  This is a little of the chaos I enjoy, because I can manage it and I’m back in my element.  I fall back into the habits and nuances of classroom management developed during my years as a full-time teacher.  It feels right.  As I call the class to order, one boy in the middle of the room just keeps talking and talking.  The rest of the class is giving me their attention except this one boy and his one listener.  Finally, a kid in the back corner raises his hand.

“Hey, just so you know,” he points to the kid who won’t shut up, “he’s a dickhead.”

He says it as though he’s commiserating with me, and I give him a slight chuckle combined with a shake of my head.  You know, the “I’m amused, but that still wasn’t appropriate” look.  Finally the motor-mouth figures out we’re waiting for him, and I take roll.  But it takes a while due to a mix-up in the roster, so the motor-mouth begins talking again.  The boy in the corner repeats his “dickhead” comment, and this time I verbally reprimand him, telling him that comments like that don’t actually help me keep order.  It’s clear that these kids are just antsy, not maliciously bad, so as long as I get them going on their work, I’m not too concerned.  And I do.  They get the packet and settle in quietly to their work without any real problems, despite their pent-up energy.  I’m good at my job.

2:42 pm:  The bell rings, and I write my final comments in the sub notes as the students leave the room.  I organize the collected worksheets, staple my notes together, and leave my card on the desk for the teacher, with a note saying she can call me if she has any questions about the day.  Another successful day, complete.

Well, not quite.  I still have to make sure my cell phone is with me the rest of the afternoon and evening.  I still don’t have a job lined up for tomorrow, and maybe Carol will call me in the evening this time, instead of waking me up at 6am.  Maybe.  Or maybe she won’t call me at all.  Such is the life of a substitute teacher.


10 thoughts on “A Day in the Life of a Substitute Teacher

      • No kidding! Nothing hones those classroom management skills like subbing! I really do enjoy it, because it helps build my teaching career without having to take a full-time teaching job right now. Plus, I end up with some good stories. 🙂


  1. Hello! I enjoyed reading this blog post! I am in my first year of college and I am seriously thinking about becoming a substitute teacher! Your blog really appealed to me because of the word “nomad” in the title. Part of the reason why I want to sub is not only because I love teaching, but also I plan to live abroad for several months of the year and I want to be able to have a job upon returning home! I think that subbing would allow that type of lifestyle, what path would you recommend for me to take course wise? I know that requirements vary by state but would you suggest getting an Associate in Arts first or to do an early childhood education program? Also, which bachelors degree is recommended? Thank you!


  2. I could relate to much of what you wrote, but I sub both in high school and elementary. They’d need to double the pay to get me to do middle school! The elem sub coordinator (who is now a friend) is also named Carol. After about 5 years of 6 a.m. calls we discovered we were born nine days apart. Three years ago, my county went to an online substitute scheduling system, and it’s wonderful! I’d say 80% of my sub days are scheduled more than 24 hrs in advance, plus it allows me to schedule “non-work” days when I work my other parttime position or need dr. appt.


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