Learning From Substitute Teaching

After nine months, I can reflect on what experiences best prepared me for life and work in Korea.  One such experience would have to be the semester I spent substitute teaching.

On the surface, this seems obvious.

“Oh really?  Spending time teaching prepared you to be a teacher?  You don’t say…”

However, the mere act of teaching was only one small facet of the mindsets and lessons I gleaned from my experiences in Sacramento classrooms.

I taught in the San Juan Unified School District.  This district encompasses a diverse array of neighborhoods.  The eastern edge of the district includes middle-class neighborhoods like Fair Oaks and Orangevale.  The middle of the district serves middle-to-working class neighborhoods like Citrus Heights and Carmichael.  To the west, Arden-Arcade is home to many Title One schools. Some of these schools’ student bodies have upwards of 95% of students on free and reduced lunch programs.  In other words, San Juan Unified schools run the gamut from very well-off to very poor.

This socioeconomically broad sampling of classrooms provided important lessons that I took to Korea.

Don’t take students’ disrespect personally.

A student’s attitude often had nothing to do with me.  I was a substitute teacher – a person who generally gets little respect as it is.

“He’s only here for one day.  He has no real power. I don’t care what he thinks.”

This led many students to disrespect my authority.  Initially, this frustrated me.

“I hate it when students chat away while am giving instructions.”

“I must be a bad teacher.  The students don’t respect me.”

However, once I took a step back for some much-needed perspective, I reoriented myself.

Every student had pre-existing attitudes towards school and teachers long before I stepped into their classroom.  Those preconceptions remained when I left.

I believe many disrespectful students struggle through a vicious cycle of dismissive behavior from authority figures, frequent punishment, and negative experiences.  As a result, many students develop defiant attitudes towards school and teachers in general.

Their behavior had little to do with me.  I had to get over myself.

Second, students have lives outside of school.  In psychological terms, I initially fell for the fundamental attribution error.  This means I attributed students’ disrespect to a character flaw.

“They are just disrespectful people.”

Concurrently, social myopia clouded my understanding.

“They are acting disrespectfully because of me.”

I failed to consider the possibility of situational factors that may have led to students’ poor attitudes.  This was especially salient when I ventured into low-income communities. Maybe a student was coping with a parent’s incarceration.  Many students do not have food in their house and rely on school lunches for their nutrition (this made teaching class on Monday mornings especially difficult).  Other students came from abusive or negligent households. It’s hard to focus on math and reading if one’s home life and food security are unstable.

I will not say that a poor home life is an excuse for poor behavioral choices.  It is not a perfect correlation. Many children defy the odds and overcome difficult upbringings to achieve success.  All students should learn that the world owes them nothing and they will ultimately bear the consequences of their actions in adulthood.

However, taking the time to consider the students’ perspective did help me take disrespect less personally.  It is self-centered to assume that a student’s bad behavior is a result of ill-will towards me. To be honest, most students were indifferent towards me.  Their poor choices were more about themselves than about me.

How has this lesson helped me in Korea?

I often have to work with students who are at best indifferent to my lessons.  Some days I have more energy and push them to finish their work. On other days, fatigue compels me to grant students more leeway.  Regardless, I understand that a few students’ poor attitudes are not a reflection of my ability as a teacher. No lesson will ever have 100% engagement – especially in a class of 26-30.  Many of those “difficult” students had English apathy long before I was their Native English Teacher.

Instead, I pay attention to general trends.  Is a majority of my class engaged in the lesson?  Do most students maintain a respectful attitude? Do most students listen to my instructions?  Most of the time, the answer is “yes” and I breathe a sigh of relief.

Assume Students’ Best Intentions

I will never forget my first day at La Vista Center – a special education facility for emotionally disturbed children.

Emotional disturbed (ED) children are selected based on extreme classroom misbehavior and psychological assessment.  They are known to fight, cuss out teachers, and ignore authority on a regular basis.

One aide told me, “the district sends them here so their regular classrooms can function properly.”

I remember walking into a clearly overcrowded middle school classroom.  It was pure chaos.

“Who the fuck are you?”

“You better get your 7-foot-looking ass out of my classroom.”

I’ve witnessed students throw staplers, throw punches, and choke each other out.  These were met by specially-trained teachers who would perform judo-like takedowns to diffuse dangerous situations.

Later in the day, I casually chatted with one teacher – Mr. Slingsby.

“The students seem very rough, they are mostly good kids.”

Mr. Slingsby corrected me instantly.

“They’re all good kids.”

My attitude towards these emotionally-disturbed students and every other student thereafter changed.  I made the conscious decision to assume students’ good intentions.

Assuming students have good intentions does not imply being a pushover or allowing students to walk on you.  It does not mean one should excuse bad behavior. Instead, it implies a fundamental separation of character and behavior.

Bad behavior does not prove that a student is a bad person.

Every student is capable of adhering to behavioral expectations.

The truth of these assumptions is irrelevant.  What mattered was my shift in attitude. If a student proved difficult, I assumed that they needed help.  Rather than harangue a disrespectful student, I chose not to take it personally and instead approach them with compassion.  Not every student responded positively, but a few did. Those few victories validated Mr. Slingsby’s advice.

In Korea, I treat difficult students with the same kindness.  While I do not tolerate disruptive behavior, I do see great value in praising any kind of progress.

“You listened much better today.”

“I was impressed by your attitude today.”

“That’s an excellent idea.  I love your thought process.”

It’s not a perfect solution, but it sometimes kickstarts a student’s attitude change.  Moreover, it always allows me to positively cope with difficult classes.

Substitute teaching was difficult.  I found myself in new schools every day. I learned very few students’ names.  I never had the chance to build relationships with the people I taught. Mr. Slingsby and every other aide at the La Vista Center stressed the importance of building a positive rapport with students.

I am grateful for my job now because I can do just that.  Each wave, each smile, each re-gifted snack item, and each name I remember adds a grain of sand to a mountain of trust.  Trust is everything in the classroom. If I could think of one problem encompassing all classroom discipline issues it would be a deficit of trust – students who do not trust teachers, teachers who do not trust students, and students who do not trust each other.

If I learned anything from substitute teaching, its that good teaching is about more than just a good lesson plan.  It’s about building and maintaining positive relationships and fostering a classroom culture of trust and compassion.

Photo Corner

IMG_1450We were terrible workers, neglecting our tea-leaf-picking duties to take selfies in the fields.

IMG_1446I never thought a green tea foot jacuzzi could be so refreshing.  The truth is I never thought of a green tea foot jacuzzi at all before that day.

IMG_1458More mindless distractions and so little leaf picking.

IMG_1453IMG_1451I took the obligatory Boseong Tea Field shot from a couple different vantage points.


“Finish your beer, dear. “

“But Mom…it tastes yucky.”

“I said finish it!  Mommy needs you to take a nap.”


“I’ll trade you that disgusting bottle of green tea for my super delicious ice cream cone.”

“Don’t make me laugh.”


“Come on…”

drink it

“Drink it, you fool…”

do it

“Do it…”


“Are you going to help us or are you going to sit there and drink all day?”


7 thoughts on “Learning From Substitute Teaching

  1. I really loved your insight on substitute teaching and approach to students. I kind of feel like you can take that same approach out into the world at large. If we approach each person with that type of kindness and understanding what a better place we would all be in. Kindness is a lesson we could all learn.


  2. I really like this article man. As someone who has taught in Korea, I completely agree. it’s really hard to have a student you really dislike teaching but like as as kid, and their behavior can often be explained by other factors outside of character. Keep teaching and writing well!


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