From high school to 3rd grade: A teacher’s sub experience

Elementary school is a whole different world. I'm finding this by subbing for third grade. It's an experience I wish others could have. (Public domain image via Pixabay)

Elementary school is a whole different world. I’m finding this by subbing for third grade. It’s an experience I wish others could have. (Public domain image via Pixabay)

As I stood at the door, I greeted 29 eight-year-olds and nine-year-olds. They were going to be my companions for the day, so I wanted to start the day on the right foot.

Twenty nine, I thought. Wow.

I’m a high school teacher. I don’t know if I can survive a day with 29 third graders.

I was signed up, though. Signed my name on the paper in the office and got the key and the lanyard with my key and my substitute ID badge.

This was going to be a new experience.

Really, it’s the kind of experience I want to immerse myself in as much as possible this year. After teaching for 11 years, this year I’m on a one-year sabbatical as I present professional development at schools, districts and conferences all over the country.

If this ends up being just a one-year leave of absence, I want to use it to experience what I never had for 11 years as a high school Spanish teacher. I want to see first-hand what life is like in other lobes of this expansive educational system.

One step I was sure of: I wanted to serve as a substitute teacher, and I wanted some experience in elementary school.

I now officially have four days of experience as a sub — two with this third grade class of 29 kids, one with a junior-high English class and one with a high school social studies class.

Here are some reflections from my two days filling in as a third-grade teacher, and I would love to hear your take on any of this in a comment below:

1. Consistency is huge in elementary school. At least it seems that way to me, a high school teacher stepping into this world momentarily. I’ve struggled being consistent with my grading policies and handling student behavior as a teacher. I always admired teachers who excelled in this area, who didn’t give special treatment to anyone and were aware of their unconscious biases.

It seemed like these third graders were really developing their sense of right and wrong, fair and unfair. My high school kids are starting to understand that other factors go into “fair” and “unfair.” I felt a responsibility to explain to the third graders why I did what I did or why certain things happen as they do.

2. I felt like they were still young enough that I could help them change. That’s not to say that I don’t think I can help my high school students change. But they’re clearly in a different phase of life and are starting to establish their identities, their morals and their assumptions about the world.

These third graders felt like a brand new jar of Play-Doh. Their “doh” is still in a freshly cut cylinder in the jar and didn’t have other colors smushed in from lots and lots of play. Some of my high school students’ Play-Doh, on the other hand, has dirt and rocks in it from being dropped on the floor. Some still have pristine Play-Doh. Both the third graders and the high schoolers need help working with the Play-Doh of their lives … just in different ways.

3. Little things took the most work. One of the most complicated parts of my day was bathroom break time. That was never an issue with me on the high school

4. Sub jobs are way different in elementary school than in high school. This stands to reason because, in many ways, teaching is way different in elementary school compared to high school. In high school, it’s a lot of “here’s your work … do it during class.” In elementary school, there’s some of that, but you’re actually teaching more there.

For example, I taught math during my most recent third grade sub job. I taught math. Me, who has taught high schoolers how to speak Spanish for years. I’m not a math person (if a “math person” exists). But I know how to subtract three-digit numbers from other three-digit numbers, even if the first number is something like 600 with all those tricky zeroes. Teaching material I’m not as comfortable with was taxing … I felt a little like I had been wrestling a bear all day when I was done. But it did really make me feel like an elementary school teacher in a way.

My experience as a sub is one I wish more teachers could have. I have spent so much of my career in my own classroom, my own little kingdom where I’m the king (sort of, in a way). I’ve had assumptions about what students go through in elementary school and in junior high. I’ve even had assumptions about what happens next door in my colleagues’ classes.

I’m finding that my assumptions are often way off what reality really is. The only way for me to really see that has been to step inside a classroom and experience it.

With all 29 of those third graders.

[reminder]What are your experiences in working with different levels of school? Do you find that you have assumptions, too? What are your reactions to my reflections above?[/reminder]

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