Substitute Teachers Share Experience, Tips

‘If You Give Me What I Want, I’ll Give You What You Want’

A former Spanish teacher, Mary Lun talks to Mavis Johnson while subbing for a Spanish class at Rockford Freshman Center

Despite not being five feet tall, Mary Lun’s unassuming ways and knowledge about teaching make her difficult to mess with when she works as a substitute teacher.

At a recent assignment at Rockford Freshman Center, she doesn’t raise her voice or get rattled, and is extremely patient. She rarely stops roaming around the room, sitting on desks, asking questions. Every now and then she throws her head back, laughing.

See Related Story: So You Think You Can Sub? Billboards and other advertisements have been seemingly everywhere for months seeking substitute teachers in an attempt to fill a serious shortage. It’s a situation being seen not only in Kent County, but around the state and nation. If those ads have made you curious about applying, here’s a primer on what to expect in Kent County…

Mary Lun’s Advice to Newbies

  • Never let multiple students leave the class at the same time. She did once, and two didn’t come back to class.
  • Circulate around the room if students are doing a test to see if they’re using their cell phones for help. Phones have made cheating fast and easy.
  • Never let students know you are new, because they are bound to take advantage of you. “Don’t say ‘Hi, it’s my first time subbing’ or you’re dead,” she says.
  • If you’re not comfortable being in new situations, forget it. You’ve got to be into meeting new people.
  • Don’t yell. “If you’re nice to kids, they’re going to be nice back.”
LaQuinn Adams’ Advice for a Newbie
  • Don’t try to be cool or be a friend. If you’re too nice, you can’t get students to focus.
  • Remember, they’re watching you. Even how you stand is being interpreted. If you stand with your arms crossed, for example, they can see you’re defensive.
  • Don’t stay behind the desk or look at your phone.
  • Always come in with a good attitude.
What advice do middle school and high school students students have for substitute teachers?
  • Be tougher. Some subs are way too nice.
  • Have fun with the students.
  • Be on the lookout for students who try to get away with things
  • Make sure you know the subject.

And she’s got a bit of a stink eye. When a boy tries to throw a paper airplane, a look from Lun stops the flight before takeoff.

Lun taught 30 years in Greenville and Lowell public schools before retiring in 2005. She’s back substitute teaching because she misses the students. The hours also appeal to her, since she can say “yes” or “no” to days when she has other plans. It isn’t as stressful as full-time teaching, she says, and if she is really unhappy somewhere, she doesn’t have to go back to that class.

“I’m so lucky to be able to do this at the end of my career,” says Lun, who subs about three days a week, usually at the Rockford, Forest Hills and East Grand Rapids school districts.

Her grade preference is high-schoolers. She doesn’t do elementary classes, especially kindergarten. The few times she did, “I thought I’d lose my mind. The little kids scare me.”

Over at Godwin Heights, substitute LaQuinn Adams is a familiar face pretty much every day. His 6-foot-four-inch frame makes the 36-year-old a little intimidating to some, but his big smile, friendly demeanor and ability to engage students make them quickly forget that. He’s gentle with students and never really raises his voice.

“I set my rules from the beginning,” he says. “If you give me what I want, I’ll give you what you want.”

He starts a recent day at the middle school, then goes to a high school art class for the rest of the day. During the art class, he asks the class random questions, like whether they play on sports teams or are thinking about college. “Kids want to think like they’re involved,” he says. “The more class participation, the better it goes for me.”

He’s subbed for all grades, but like Lun, he prefers middle and high school. “Changing diapers is not my thing,” he says of what happened during one kindergarten assignment.

Teachers usually leave instructions for substitutes when they know they’re going to be absent, but it’s hard to cover everything in a note. So Adams says it’s important to be confident, and not be afraid to ask questions, even of those you are leading. “Most of the time, students are more than willing to help you out,” he says.

In a recent middle school class, Adams noticed a girl crying at her desk and quietly took her out in the hall to see what was wrong. After a short talk, she returned to the room feeling better. This is an example of how teachers have to be approachable, Adams said. He feels he’s mastered this, and says students know they can talk to him about anything.

The Students

When asked whether her class tries to get away with breaking rules with substitutes, one high school student hesitated, then confessed: “Yes.”

Do other students speak up when it happens and let the sub know?

“No, no one says anything, ’cause, well … why say anything?”

Another ploy with subs, she noted: “Kids will say we aren’t supposed to be doing something, when we are.”

LaQuinn Adams likes to get students to tell him a little bit about themselves when he subs
LaQuinn Adams likes to get students to tell him a little bit about themselves when he subs

Many times, that “something” is being loud when the class is supposed to be quiet. During one of those “loud” classes, a substitute turned to a young girl in the class and asked if the class was usually so noisy. The girl paused, gave the substitute a sympathetic look, then said “no.”

Other interesting actions seen by this reporter while shadowing a substitute include a student coloring at her desk, a mysterious stream of students asking to go the bathroom and, after a loud noise in the hall, a student hopping out of his seat to ask “Can I go see what that is? I feel like it might be a ghost.”

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National Education Association Advice on Being a Successful Substitute

Linda Odette
Linda Odette is a freelance writer and editor with more than 30 years of experience in journalism. She’s worked primarily as an editor in feature departments at newspapers in West Michigan, including the Grand Rapids Press, the Muskegon Chronicle and the Holland Sentinel. She lives in East Grand Rapids near the Eastown edge, has a teenage son and a daughter in college. Read Linda's full bio

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