Northview — When Barry Bryant learned this past fall that Northview Public Schools needed substitute teachers, “I was like, this is perfect,” he recalled.
Bryant, who retired in July as a Grand Rapids Police Department sergeant, currently is studying for a master’s degree in counseling education from Western Michigan University.
Working as a sub means the father of one Northview High graduate and a high school senior can choose when he wants to teach and when he needs to focus on his own learning.
Teaching runs in Bryant’s family. His mother started as a substitute teacher when he was in school in Flint and had a 30-year career as a seventh-grade math teacher, and his sister is a college professor.
And while he had never taught before this school year, he does have experience dealing with things on the fly.
“As a police officer, I don’t get flustered,” Bryant said. “Keeping things calm and orderly: I can do that.”
From when he started in November to mid-March he had already been in every school building. About kindergarten: “They eat (often), and it seems like you’re just trying to keep up with (winter) clothes on, clothes off … the day goes really quick,” Bryant said.
He stood in for a regular teacher at Field School, whose students impressed him with their scientist-like outdoor activities; oversaw a second-grade Valentine’s party where he witnessed “a surprising amount of heartbreak”; led a seventh-grade math class — “they do it totally different than how we learned it,” he observed; and has filled in for various teachers at the high school.
Aimee Rayborn, Northview human resources specialist, said finding substitute teachers can be rough in a typical year. “With COVID, that definitely made things more challenging.”
She also thinks people were wary in the beginning about being vulnerable to exposure, and said some newly graduated teaching students were unable at first to take certification tests.
But the fact was, Northview was pulling out all the stops to keep in-person learning happening.
A plea for subs went out to families in the district’s November newsletter:
“On Nov. 10, we had 20 teachers absent for COVID-related reasons. Paraprofessionals, administrators and student teachers are all stepping in to support classrooms while our certified staff Zoom in from their homes. All staff are working before and after school hours to leave themselves available for daytime classroom support. Our Director of Special Education and Deputy Superintendent are helping to cover administrative duties in school buildings when Principals are absent or in classrooms.”
Said Rayborn: “We really didn’t know what to expect” from the request. Like other districts, Northview’s sub pool is managed by EDUStaff. Applicants must have at least 60 college credits in any field, and must complete training.
The district itself does “very passive” advertising, Rayborn said, such as yard signs and online banner ads, “but this year we felt we needed to be more proactive. You just can’t predict what the impact of COVID is going to do to your teaching staff, how it will affect who is going to show up for work each day.”
The result of the newsletter plea: “phenomenal,” Rayborn said. “I was blown away by the amount of people who responded. It was so impressive to see the Northview community step up for students. We are beyond grateful to folks who answered that call.”
Of the dozen people who attended a sub signing event in late November, eight — including Bryant — are now subbing in district buildings.
They include recent college graduates with teaching certificates, stay-at-home mothers with students in the district, business owners with flexible schedules … “It really is across the board, which I think is awesome,” Rayborn said. “It’s a diverse group of people.”
And while Northview isn’t planning another substitute teacher signing event, “I wouldn’t hesitate to do it again,” said Rayborn, who encourages anyone interested in subbing to apply through EDUStaff.
Lesson Plans, Reps, Poignant Moments
Some tips from Bryant for those interested in becoming a substitute teacher:
- Be thankful when teachers leave lesson plans, “because so often they just don’t know when they’re going to be sick,” he said.
- When it comes to getting comfortable, it’s all about repetition. “School’s busy, and they don’t have time to give you too much guidance, but after you break the ice and get some reps in, it gets more natural,” he said.
And although substitutes can choose which open classroom slots to fill, he said he purposely has chosen subjects or grade levels with which he is not entirely comfortable. “I like to say ‘you’ve got to get the new off’ and then you’re fine. You can’t get yourself right unless you keep doing it. Gotta keep trying.”
- Bryant knows students don’t see enough faces like his at the front of their K-12 classrooms. “My first black male teacher was when I was in community college,” he said. He recognizes that as a different role model than their usual teacher, students may respond to him differently; he likes that some whom teachers note as quiet or shy often seem empowered when he is in charge. “Some kids just gravitate to you,” he said.
- He said it’s important to remember that even given new-teacher jitters, the work is rewarding, kids are often funny and there are eye-opening, lump-in-the-throat moments that go with the territory, such as why that one student never seems to remember her backpack, or that another would benefit from a second banana in the morning.
“Every day is going to be different,” he said.