Ever think about making extra money by working as a substitute teacher, but aren’t sure you’ve got the moxie to lead and control a classroom of 22 students?
For the serious or the curious, the school of continuing education at Mercer County Community College offers an eight-week course, “Becoming a Substitute Teacher,” starting on Monday, April 17, at 7 p.m. Cost: $180. Call 609-586-9446.
Julia Larkin, who has taught the substitute teaching course for four years, also taught literacy in Ethiopia with the Peace Corps, as well as in a public school in the Bronx. “I love teaching this course,” she says. “I think it’s a great class, and it seems like the people who take it really enjoy it. I get wonderful people from many walks of life who are really interested in teaching.”
Some of her students are pursuing a degree in education, while others are considering it. Some stay-at-home moms who enjoyed helping out in their child’s classroom develop an interest in substituting, while others are either changing careers or questioning their present job’s security. Some are childcare professionals or nannies. Others are retired seniors hankering for a new career. Few people are doing it for the money — the pay scale for substitutes varies by district but usually is in the $75 to $100 a day range.
Having earned a dual master’s degree in 2001 from Columbia University in international educational development and in specialized curriculum and teaching, Larkin shows the influence of both disciplines when she points out that “in Ethiopia, it’s the same as it was here for most of the 20th century — autocratic. But here we’ve changed culturally over the past few decades. In my opinion, it is not necessarily the best approach to teaching to rule with an iron fist.”
Larkin and her three brothers grew up in Hamilton with their father, Jack Larkin, a state employee, and their mother, Barbara, a first grade teacher currently on leave in West Windsor. Larkin met her husband, Seamus Dowling, in Ethiopia, where he was also stationed with the Peace Corps. Together they taught in the Bronx for four years before moving to Hamilton in 2002, where they live with their daughter Jillian, and son, Shane. Dowling teaches sixth grade social studies at the Thomas R. Grover middle school in West Windsor.
Perhaps the most valuable part of Larkin’s course is the mental preparation for what the substitutes will encounter, and an awareness of how things are done.
“Today we try to work with the students, instead of disciplining them,” says Larkin. “The days of ‘Do as I say and be quiet,’ that we remember from our childhood are over. That is not the way it’s done these days. We now know the benefit of allowing children to be at the center of their own learning. As the saying goes: ‘they are not a vessel to be filled, but a lamp to be lit.’ We encourage students to question, make decisions, and explore. The responsibility of the substitute is to facilitate, organize, keep to the routine, and be vibrant and engaging.”
The course introduces students to changes in the classroom, including diversity, accommodations for special needs students, and the need to manage by walking around.
“We require everyone to create and lead a 10-minute lesson in front of the group,” says Larkin. “If they come from a background of public speaking or making presentations, they’re fine. But some of my students don’t have that experience, and it’s daunting. People are reluctant at first, but it increases their self-confidence.”
The only prerequisite for taking the course is proof of 60 college credits, the equivalent of two years of college. The state also requires those 60 credits before awarding certification, so it’s best to know that up-front.
While Mercer County requires very specific documentation before certifying substitutes, once granted, the substitute is qualified in each of the county’s school districts. To get that certification, the county expects a completed application, a form permitting a criminal history/background check, fingerprinting, an official college transcript, and a $75 money order.
In addition some, but not all, schools require a physical exam, provided at no cost by the district medical doctor.
Larkin says that the biggest challenge for substitutes is the class management aspect, because management is more difficult than discipline. “I get many requests to teach a course focused solely on management techniques,” she says. “It’s hard to walk into someone else’s classroom where you don’t know the routine, don’t know names, and don’t know who leaves for reading, but stays for math. You also don’t know which students will assist you, and which will sabotage you, although teachers usually leave a note relaying this information.
“I liken it to the Mommy Swap show,” she continues. “It’s as if you were dropped into someone else’s house and expected to keep everything running smoothly. You don’t know the routines and patterns of the classroom, and how everything goes. On top of that, today’s classroom can be loud and messy, and some people equate loud with out of control. It could mean that the students are energetic and excited about what they’re learning. It doesn’t necessarily mean the classroom is disorganized.”
Here are some tips for the classroom newbie:
Get there early and set everything up. Carry the schedule on a clipboard to keep from being tethered to the desk.
Review the lesson plan and teacher’s instructions. Most teachers leave explicit instructions such as start and end times for lessons. They specify page numbers, and provide piles of handouts and work books.
Stick to the routine. If math comes before science every day, there’s a reason.
Praise positive behavior. Use a student’s good behavior as an example. Work at “catching” someone doing well, and point out the behavior.
Keep things moving. “Teachers leave very specific lesson plans, and since students will have had substitutes approximately 10 percent of their school life, it’s important to keep the lessons moving.”
Larkin shares actual lesson plans to prepare the students for the real world. “I tell them no one walks in as a perfect substitute,” she says. “I use my own past mistakes as examples. If you make a mistake it’s okay. Just do the best you can. I can only prepare them up to a point, after that it’s the on-the-job experience that counts.”