5 things I Learned as a Long-Term Sub

By Nicki Thompson — Different districts have different titles for the same position. You might be a “guest teacher,” you might be a “replacement teacher,” you might be a “long-term sub.” They generally mean the same thing.

You’re taking over at some point in the year for another teacher. As a December 2011 graduate of the College of Education, I was fortunate enough to find not one, but two (yes, two!) long-term substitute positions for the second half of the school year. Here’s a list of five things I learned during my journey.

1. Every school culture is different. I student taught in MPS and was hired in Muskego for my first long-term sub position. It was a maternity leave for a Spanish 1 and 2 teacher. My second position was in St. Francis, to replace a teacher who replaced a teacher who was diagnosed with leukemia. Every single school culture is different. Where are the teacher bathrooms? Where do teachers eat lunch? Do I make copies? Does someone else make copies? When is it okay to send a kid to the office for misbehaving? What constitutes a suspension? It’s important to try and figure out how all this works right away.

2. Become friends with the teachers next door right away. My colleagues saved me at both schools. My department chair in Muskego was phenomenal – she helped me with everything. In St. Francis, the teachers near me invited me to lunch during our In-Service Day and made me feel like a true part of the team. In both schools, being able to walk in and ask questions and complain about cranky students and nasty parent phone calls was the key to my success.

3. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. I remember asking a secretary at Muskego where the bathroom was. I asked a Spanish teacher how to find the teacher’s lounge. I asked if I could come in on weekends. I asked if I could hang things on the wall with those 3M poster strips, or if I had to use painter’s tape. I asked a LOT of questions. You have to do that as a long-term sub, because there is zero orientation. They tell you a starting date, and you start that morning.

4. Do your very best to make the transition easiest for your students. I found out as much as I possibly could about the previous teacher’s rules. Do they get bathroom passes? Is late homework accepted? How often does she assign homework? How often are the quizzes given? Does she do a Warm-Up? How often does she collect in-class work? These little things are what make a classroom run smoothly, and learning about the last teacher’s routine makes it so much easier for the students.

5. Learn student’s names. Quickly.

Muskego: 5 sections of Spanish; 20-25 students each.
St. Francis: 6 sections of Spanish; 20-25 students each.

That’s a lot of names. Oh, and because I teach Spanish, my students also have two names, their “regular” name and their “Spanish” name. How do you learn them all? Asking “¿Cómo te llamas?” anytime a student answers a question can get annoying. One piece of advice? I had my students make name cards and handed them out and collected them every day. This made the name process a little easier.

I am so, so fortunate to have found two jobs during second semester. I literally haven’t gone a day without teaching this entire year! Everything lined up perfectly, and I finish this year feeling so very fortunate. On top of walking away with five big things that I learned, I have a lot of pride. I’ve taught three different levels of Spanish from three different textbooks, worked with approximately 450 students, and worked in three completely different schools. I didn’t collapse from exhaustion, and that’s enough success for me as a first-year teacher.


Nicki Thompson is a December 2011 Marquette University College of Education graduate (BS in Middle/Secondary Education and Spanish) and she is currently teaching Spanish at St. Francis High School. She is working as a counselor for Concordia Language Villages Lago del Bosque, a Spanish language immersion camp in Minnesota this summer. In January she is moving to Bolivia with a Rotary Ambassadorial Scholarship to pursue a Master’s in Bilingual Education.

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