Why a Degree, a Beard, & a Humanist Viewpoint are Excellent Tools for the Substitute Teacher

Hell of a title, isn’t it? I’ll try not to let the tail wag the dog.

This week marks my return to substitute teaching [I'm also reviewing portfolio pieces on days that they don't need me in a classroom, which is neat]. For those curious, I’m teaching high-school aged kids in various subjects, and I actually enjoy it. Sure, every now and then you get the problem kids, but if you can gain and keep control of the classroom, and keep all eyes and ears on you for most of the lecture period, you’re gonna be fine. The trick is doing it, all damn day. So, every day, when I go to teach, I keep three things in mind to help me talk to and deal with the kids.

My degree. That’s right, babies, my degree. I introduce myself to each class, and then I give a quick bio, which usually consists of my name, the year I graduated from the very same high school, the college I attended and date of graduation, and a fun fact (usually, my shoe size, because this causes all the kids to look at my feet and say things like, “Woooooow….”). Usually, after the kids do their intros (name and fun fact) I’ll get a couple of questions about the college I attended—basic stuff like “Did you like it?” and “How big is the campus?” to more detailed stuff like “How did you decide what you wanted to study?” and “Could you recommend any professors?” This allows me to talk about something I know, and give the kids a bit of real information. They get so much state-issued bullshit, I feel bad if I can’t be real with them.

My beard. Okay, so not all substitutes can get away with this one. I’ll admit, all this really does is give me an excuse to throw one of my nicknames out there, “Treebeard.” Inevitably, I’ll have a student who knows the LotR reference and wants to know the connection, and off I go. I talk to them about getting the nickname during my tenure with a local summer program, and encourage them to apply for it. The program did wonders for me, so I feel the need to give back. The beard, it helps me.

My humanist viewpoint. [For the sake of this post, we'll stick with the "be good to others" definition of humanism, not the "there isn't necessarily a god" definition.] I believe that everyone deserves a fair shake. As such, I go into each class assuming, for better or worse, that the kids are going to behave. I know this is unrealistic, and often there are classes that do get incredibly noisy, but I’d rather go in with a positive mindset than to assume I’ll be locked in a room with devil children for an hour. When some classes get noisy, I simply ask them to be quiet, then inform them of the difference between ignorance and stupidity—the point being that, as nobody likes to be called stupid, they’re more likely to keep the noise level down after this initial request (EDIT: I realize I’ll probably have to clarify this at some point, maybe another post).

I also don’t tolerate racial, gender, or any other sort of slurs in my classes. It’s the thing that gets me boiling quicker than anything else a child could do. Why? Because it further displays the ignorance of some of the people in this area. Hate (and that’s what this language is, folks) is not an inate behavior, in my opinion. I refuse to believe that we come out of the womb hating people simply because they aren’t like us. That being said, when a student says that another student is “gay” in a derogatory manner, I jump their ass. I make sure the entire class can hear me, and I begin to give a short lecture on why people who are different aren’t bad, and how no matter your belief system tells you to think (it’s really hard not to go off on the religious right here, but I contain myself) all people are created equal, and treated fairly.
And there you have it. Sure, there are other things to consider when teaching a large group of students, but for my purposes, these three things are always at the forefront. Any other twenty-somethings have experience with substitute teaching, or more broadly, with speaking in public? If so, what tricks do you find to be most helpful?

2 responses to “Why a Degree, a Beard, & a Humanist Viewpoint are Excellent Tools for the Substitute Teacher

  1. When you say your shoe size do all the girls giggle?

  2. It is important for substitute teachers to create a positive, risk free environment. It sounds like you do that. If you want more suggestions about substitute teaching, look at STEDI.org, there are several free resources for substitute teachers.

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