For two very stressful years, I was a substitute teacher. I taught all grades, all classes, including specials like gym, health, and art, which apparently made me a rarity. I taught gym, health, and art a lot. It turns out there’s a reason substitute teachers especially don’t like refereeing dodge ball. And there was that art class where one tool at the students’ disposal was box cutters. And the day I arrived at 7th grade health class to see that the day’s topic was the male reproductive system. No joke. There were transparencies to project the male bits on the wall and label the parts and everything. I don’t think the timing of that health teacher’s absence was an accident, just sayin’.
It took me awhile to learn classroom management, and before I did, it was a mess. Did you know that if you ask a classroom of 25 five-year-olds a question, you will then have 25 five-year-olds talking at the same time? I learned to preface my questions with “Raise your hand if you know…”. And did you know that if you have to walk 25 five-year-olds up two flights of stairs for library time, they should hold hands or have a buddy or something so you don’t lose a few? And if you let 25 students free on the playground, you should have some agreed upon plan for getting their attention when it’s time to line up?
If there is one word to describe how it felt being a sub, it would be behind. From the moment I walked in the building, I felt behind. Where was my room, where were the restrooms, where were the specials rooms? Where were the lesson plans, the attendance sheets, the teacher’s manuals, the worksheets, all the supplies? The worst was the unplanned absences, where I would be quickly gathering materials, making photocopies, searching the desk for the day’s schedule and seating chart.
Everyone else knew everything and I knew nothing, and had virtually no time to prepare. The momentum of the day was coming, and I was going to be carried along no matter what state of readiness I was in.
Sometimes I sat behind the desk fighting panic before the opening bell and said to myself, “I can do this. I can do this. I can do this” until I sort of believed it.
Today I felt like a substitute parent. The day started before I was ready. Isaac woke up laughing about a funny dream and just had to wake me up to tell me about it, at 5:30am. It was adorable and something I will always remember, but all the same, I got up feeling sleep deprived, disoriented, and frustrated. Everything came too fast. Kids are hungry, kids are fighting, kids are throwing things for fun, kids are screaming at squirrels outside when I’m sure the neighbors are still asleep, kids are back inside. And now it’s 7:30am. Repeat.
It was one of those days where I felt perpetually behind, unable to clean up one meal before it’s time for the next, unable to calm myself down from the last squabble before the next one happens, unable to feed myself or drink my coffee or take a shower before it’s too late and I have a migraine and we’re late to our meeting and I’m just. so. tired.
When you’re a sub, the worst possible thing you can do is appear flustered. If your students are young, you will immediately have 25 helpers who will tell you everything you need to know for the next 7 hours. If your students are older, they will sense weakness and have a field day with you.
I think the same is true for parenting on these days. If I get flustered and start ranting about how “you are the oldest and should be a good example” and “you are being unkind to mommy when you spit food on the floor because I have to clean it up” and on and on, we all get out of whack. The kids sense my lack of calm and start to act out more because they feel unsettled.
On these days I tell myself, “I can do this. I can do this. I can do this” until I sort of believe it. And I tell myself, “Don’t think, do. Don’t think, do.” Because my mind becomes a maze of self-judgment, frustration, and wishful thinking on these days. Better to just put one foot in front of the other and trudge through the day.
And trudge we did. As with subbing, I’m not sure anyone learned anything today or had a particularly fantastically fun day, but we got through it with no huge crises or damage done. And that, my friends, is a wildly successful substitute parenting day.