Lessons from a Substitute Teacher


I’m a professional writer, but when I don’t have writing work, I also substitute teach at the local grade school and middle school. I’ve found that I really enjoy teaching kids — although I have no formal training as a teacher for young students. My background has been in instructional design which focuses on training for adults.

Nevertheless, I have had the opportunity to make some observations solely as an outsider. I should mention that I’m very much pro public education. I think it’s a valuable experience to learn with a diverse group of students in a public domain, where a shared common knowledge is valued. That said, I think we could all agree that public K – 12 education could use a little help. And I think with some common sense, and also with the use of computers and technology, we could provide that help.

The easiest course that I substitute taught was Keyboarding. This is a class that is offered for a quarter of a year during each middle school grade, and it introduces students to typing and basic word processing – such as bolding, underlining, etc. The students used a program called Typing Tutor — free online. Students came in to class, I took attendance, and they went to work. The computerized lesson started at exactly the point they left off during the previous class two days before, based on their username. Everyone was busy; there was minimal talking, and everyone seemed to be really enjoying themselves, since the program was very hands on and engaging.

The most difficult course that I substitute taught by far was 7th grade math. We used a new common core math workbook, which didn’t bother me except that there sure was a lot of reading involved for a math class. Each problem was a word problem that attempted to tie the problem to the real world. As I made my way through the problems — the lesson was 5 pages long — I attempted to explain each one of the problems on the board. After which I told the students to do similar problems at their desks. I walked around the class to extensive talking, extensive getting up to sharpen pencils, get paper, get backpacks, etc. I ran from student to student to find some students already done — they completed the practice problems while I was at the board, to some students who didn’t even know what page we were on. When I told the students who had finished that they could start on their homework, some told me they had already done it. They found out what problems were assigned from students who had had the class earlier, and then they did the homework problems in their study halls. This made me wonder how students could do problems before they had had the lesson? — unless they were copying them.

All of this made me think that if the students had done the problems on computers, it could have been paced for each of them, and I could have had time to really help those that needed the help. There would have been no cheating either. I think it is really time to use computers for some classes such as Math and English that are practice heavy, in that students really need to practice the work to learn it — much like learning to type. I don’t think that every class needs to be computer driven but some should be.

Another substitute assignment that I’ve frequently had is as a special education substitute. I don’t really mind working in special ed. In fact, I think it is easier than regular classes. We usually only have 7 to 8 students at a time, with 2 or 3 teachers or aides working with those students. The lessons are individualized for each student, and we often use flash cards or learning games as additional practice. I love the one-on-one teaching. I love that I can direct a question to one student at a time, and then get a response. I love that I can help them and cue them with each question. All very valuable, which made me wonder what great things we could do with gifted students if we had the same resources for them.

While it may not be possible to have 1 teacher for 2 or 3 gifted students, we could give them distance learning or independent study work, that is monitored by a teacher for a more individualized learning experience, especially in the higher grades. It has always bothered my that we have to import gifted foreigners to take highly skilled jobs in this country, instead of trying to develop the talent ourselves. I believe we can use computers and technology to improve public education, while still also retaining the diverse classroom experience. Every student has a right to learn at their own level and also what is the most appropriate for them. We need to individualize learning to a greater extent, and computers can allow us to do that.


About chbernat

I am a technical writer and instructional designer. I have an intense interest in adult learning and instructional design principles. I greatly feel that adults need to take control of their own learning in order to advance their knowledge and skills throughout life.
This entry was posted in Individualized Learning, learning with technology, Public Education and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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