A Letter of Thanks to Substitute Teachers

Dear Colleagues,

In honor of Substitute Educators Day, I write this letter to you, the “guest teachers” who worked in my various classrooms over the years. First grade, second grade, computer lab – you covered them all, ably, at a moment’s notice, and to my eternal gratitude.

The reasons for my absences varied. As a teacher of young kids, I seemed to get knocked out every winter by strep throat and pink eye and bronchitis, and, well, you name it. From the depths of my illnesses, I would try to conjure up lesson plans and leave them for you. Sometimes, though, I couldn’t muster them for each day I was out. Despite that fact, you relied on your own teaching skills and in some cases your prior knowledge of the kids in my class to create your own learning experiences for the class. Sometimes you worked with my colleagues to figure out what should be taught.

And, always, you left me notes so that I knew what had been accomplished, what was left to do, who needed special attention, and who helped you in ways big and small. I’ve never had the chance to tell you, until now, how important those notes were to me. Not so much the academic progress portion, though of course that was good to know, but more so when you revealed your personal connections to the students, either during moments of academic support or when the children coalesced around something you did or said.

Apart from allowing me to take time to recover from colds, flus, and other illnesses, you also gave me a chance to get better as a professional. There were the various professional learning experiences I had in my school, at my district, and in the wider region. You made that possible. I also attended my very first national conference, in San Francisco (at the time I was teaching and living in Massachusetts), because you were available to cover for me the two days I was out of the classroom.

Though it may have seemed to you like an ordinary assignment, for me, it was a watershed moment. I was able to see myself as an educator who was part of a larger network of like-minded teachers. I was exposed to ideas from schools and districts around the country, and I myself was able to share innovative practices from my corner of the world. I saw and heard about a bigger educational picture, firsthand, as opposed to reading about it in newspapers and books. I loved it.

In retrospect, I can draw a straight line from that experience to my now long career working in nationally oriented, educational non-profits.

All because you were able and willing to be a guest teacher in my classroom.

Thank you for bringing your best self to my students and focusing on helping them stay engaged as learners. Thank you for being creative and thinking on your feet when you needed to. Thank you for answering the sub line calls, which often came in the wee hours of the morning. Thank you for making it possible for me to rest at home, and at other moments take flight outside the walls of my classroom.

Thank you for being the best guest teacher you could possibly be.

Paul Oh

A Case for Substitute Teacher PD

What do substitute teachers need to thrive?

If a recent West Contra Costa Unified School District professional development day is any indication, it’s: teaching resources, a chance to interact with other subs, and the space to try out new ideas.

Twelve new substitute teachers, all of whom started within the last year, came together at the invitation of WCCUSD and Substantial to learn and practice new strategies and mindsets. My colleague Cristin Quealy facilitated the event, and I helped out. As someone basically brand new to Substantial, this was my first opportunity to interact face to face with a group of subs and understand in an authentic way their needs, their personal contexts, their questions, and their desire to become better at what they do.

It was a tremendous experience! I’ve been involved in a lot of professional learning opportunities over the course of my time in education, but this was one of the most rewarding and the most unique.

First off, every participant was engaged. I realized over the course of the day that for these subs, this was the only professional development they’ve received about their craft (other than, I’m imagining, for the two retired teachers – although one said towards the end that the event was extremely helpful in allowing him to refresh his teacher toolkit). One after the other said they wished they’d gotten a chance to participate in something like this before they began working as a sub. They showed up on a day when the district was otherwise closed because they wanted to jump on any opportunity to improve.

The participants also brought their full selves to the workshop. By that, I mean, they all actively participated while also letting their guards down – even when we asked them to take part in activities like improv games to help lighten the atmosphere and to mimic the think-quick requirements of being a teacher in ever-changing circumstances. They all shared aspects of their lives beyond the classroom – a mom with a student in the district, retired teachers, aspiring educators. And they all shared their trials and tribulations.

This all led to connections made, moments of laughter, tips passed back and forth, problems uncovered, wishes left unresolved, and relief at the realization that, as one participant put it, “I’m not alone.”

There was also, of course, content. We practiced teaching strategies and strong teaching techniques, role-played scenarios, studied and revised lesson plans, and considered how substitute teachers might imbue a growth mindset into their work – both for themselves and the students they teach.

As I took it all in – or at least as much of it as I could – I realized that, as Substantial’s founder Jill Vialet is fond of saying, we all, each and every one of us, desire meaning, mastery, and community in our lives. This was made abundantly clear over the course of that day. Cristin established the framework for those three arenas to emerge and grow. And the subs themselves, in all the ways in which they threw themselves into the day’s activities, were the living embodiment of that idea.

Interested in learning more about Substantial’s approach to substitute teacher PD? Send us a note: substitute-pd@substantialclassrooms.org

Joining the Substantial Team

“I remember what you taught me today!”

I looked around and saw a sixth grade boy sitting in the back of an idling pickup truck. He shouted it again: “I remember what you taught me today!” I waved to him and he waved back as the light changed and the truck zoomed off.

That day, many years ago, I had been the sub in his classroom. At the time, I was taking classes to get certified as a classroom teacher and subbed occasionally to make money and to get a better sense of different grade levels prior to seeking a full-time position. On that particular day, I had led a science activity that involved dropping books and other objects as a way to understand acceleration. Something I’d picked up in my science methods class and thought would be interesting for the students during a time in the sub plans where I had discretion. The loud boom of books hitting the floor, the out-of-seat work, the teamwork, clearly resonated.

I didn’t know how much until that boy called to me as I walked down the sidewalk. His response made me understand in a visceral way the potential for positive impact that teachers can have, even if your time with students is limited to one day.

Fast forward and I’ve joined the amazing team at Substantial as we reimagine, with your help, the sub experience for everyone involved, from the district sub coordinator to the substitute teacher to students themselves. I’ve taken on the role of Director of Teaching and Learning, and along with my colleagues, I hope to be a good listener for what works, a strong advocate for spreading great practices, and a co-creator of innovative resources and supports.

I come to this work after having been a classroom teacher for over a decade, and after different stints in the educational non-profit world, including building robust online professional development for hundreds of thousands of teachers. Over time, I’ve come to embrace the critical importance of a learning ecosystem – in other words, that all people, young and old, learn from many different people, in many different places. And that we all have a critical role to play in that learning, whether you’re a librarian, a museum educator, an aunt or uncle, a mentor, or, yes, a substitute teacher.

In the coming year, I hope to hear from you about your experiences as a sub or working with subs, and your motivations for doing what you do, whether you’re a retired teacher subbing because you can’t get enough of the profession, a pre-service teacher like I was, a retiree who wants to share your expertise, or any of the myriad of other possibilities. I’m also looking forward to rolling out learning opportunities that support subs in the challenging but rewarding task of teaching young people, and to imagining a learning community that will allow us all to grow together.

I knew so little about the art and craft of teaching when I subbed in that sixth grade classroom years ago. But each time I stepped in front of students, from substitute teaching, to my practicum, to my regular teaching gigs, I got better. Or at the very least I understood something a little bit more clearly about myself and what I believed about teaching and learning.

And that day, when I saw the student in the back of the pickup truck, I learned that I had done something right for at least one person. That’s the possibility in front of all of us every time we walk into a room and introduce ourselves to a class of young people as the sub for the day.

Please reach out to tell your story about your professional learning experiences as a substitute teacher and to let us know what you’re working on or thinking about.

Paul Oh

Paul Oh

Director of Teaching and Learning

Paul is Substantial’s newest team member and serves as our Director of Teaching and Learning. He believes in the power of networks to generate positive change, and for the last 12 years has worked at educational organizations with that purpose in mind. Most recently, he oversaw all content development at Teaching Channel, which aims to open classroom doors for educators through video. Prior to his work there, he oversaw digital literacy initiatives at the National Writing Project, a network of teachers across the U.S. who believe in the transformational power of writing. A former classroom teacher, Paul taught in Massachusetts and New York for over a decade.