Despite having 5 years of experience as a special needs paraprofessional and a teaching degree with a high GPA, my mom was stuck substitute teaching last fall. She then switched to a paraprofessional position before finally getting a maternity leave spot. Unfortunately, she’ll be on the job hunt again for this fall.
Meanwhile, I found a teaching position as an Interventionist. I was still compensated as a teacher, but I helped to run a Lead Teacher’s classroom and taught a lot of small groups. In some ways, it has been wonderful, but in other ways I feel as though I am stuck on the bench while someone else gets a chance to really play.
Both my mom and I were lucky to have jobs, but it’s still unsettling to finish student teaching wanting to be a real teacher and then feel like you aren’t given the chance.
And as I watch and read the news, I can’t help but feel sorry for new graduates in education. The economy makes now a challenging time to graduate in any field, but state budget cuts have caused rampant loss of teaching jobs. The few available jobs are swarmed with applicants who have experience but were RIF’ed. New graduates are fighting a tough market, and I imagine that the chances of finding a teaching job, particularly if you are tied to a particular geographical area, are not good.
I am here to tell you that it’s okay to sit “on the sidelines” for a year, like my mom and me. If you do get into an alternate position like substitute teaching, working as a paraprofessional, or taking over a maternity leave, there are ways to make it work for you.
Collect extra copies of everything
This is honestly excellent advice for student teaching, as well. If you are making copies (and are allowed), make one extra and slide it into a file or basket. You can file it away in the correct place later- just collect as much as you can! If someone leaves excellent sub plans, ask if the office would make you a copy! I didn’t do this enough in student teaching, and it would have really paid off.
Have a notebook for “My Classroom” ideas
When I see rules that work, procedures that don’t, or really, anything- I write it in a notebook. One notebook keeps my ideas together, and I start pages with broad topics like Rules, Discipline, Centers, Supplies, Classroom Setup, Classroom Management, Homework, Units/ Themes, Classroom Helpers, Books I Want… anything that I see I need, and I usually leave a few pages blank after each one. That way, I can write down any ideas I have, and sort through them later to pick my favorites. This also helps me keep track of things like organizational styles that might not work for everyone, but do for me.
Keep looking for classroom supplies!
Library book sales, back-to-school sales, and garage sales can be treasure troves for a new teacher, and the more you spread out the buying, the better you’ll be. Sometimes you don’t know what you’ll need (a kindergarten classroom is drastically different than a fifth grade one), but chances are, every class could use a set of folders in the same color, or gluesticks, paper trays, or informational books. Also keep an eye out in the schools where you are. One of my colleagues was cleaning out her closets this summer and found a stack of posters that she didn’t need anymore, and gave them to me for nothing!
Be sociable and friendly
Many teachers recommend steering clear of the teachers’ lounge, but I don’t always agree. The teachers’ lounge is not necessarily an evil place, and usually there are at least a few good apples in with the bad. Meeting teachers and asking questions can be a great way to not only learn more, but also to establish yourself in a school system. I know some substitutes ensure they work more days at schools they like by doing this, and it also helps them to get “in the door” at that school for future positions. If nothing else, chat with other teachers while you wait for the kids after recess, and SMILE!
Make it clear that you are certified
At my school this year, some interventionists were certified teachers, and others were not. When a job opening came up, I asked the principal about it in part as a reminder that I DID have my license. I just said something along the lines of, “I heard there is a third-grade job opening, and I just wanted to let you know that I would love to be considered!” When another position opened, our principal talked first to the other teachers on that grade level to see if they had any suggestions- so it’s not a bad idea to casually (without bragging) let your closest co-workers know, too. Mentioning student teaching might be a way to do this.
As a substitute, my mom always had a bag with a few essentials, like a couple of engaging read-alouds that would work for older or younger kids, a copied word search that kids could do in a pinch, a beanbag that could be tossed to make answering questions more fun, lots of stickers, and a bag of candy, for just a few ideas. It’s also good as a sub to leave a note for the teacher saying what you did and didn’t get done, who was and wasn’t trying their best, and that you enjoyed subbing for their class. For any job, if you come in unprepared, it looks unprofessional. Even if you are a sub and the teacher should have done the preparation.
Work well with others
Most of these positions require an incredible amount of flexibility. You never know what might be flown your way but it’s best to handle it with grace. (Being prepared helps!) Always treat everyone in the building kindly and with respect, especially the secretary and custodians, and do what you’re asked (even if sometimes it’s above and beyond the job description) without a lot of complaining. Ask how you can help, or volunteer to help out, even after school. As a para, my mom would be asked to fill in as a sub sometimes- not her job, but it put her in prime position for a maternity leave slot! Besides making your work life easier and more pleasant, cooperation can also earn you a letter of recommendation or an unofficial mentor.
Be punctual and positive
This of course applies to you coming in each morning, but you should also try to keep the class or kids you work with on time. Make sure they will get to lunch, or out the door, on time- it looks good, and makes sure that no one misses the bus or important classroom instruction. If you do visit the teachers’ lounge, keep your tone positive and don’t be afraid to humbly mention successes you have had. Most teachers will celebrate them with you and it makes you look good, too!
When you feel stressed, take the time to remember how stressed out you might be if you were in your own classroom
Some days, you will feel down on yourself for not being a “real” teacher yet. You’ll wish you had control of your own room. But keep in mind that subs, paras, and assistants often don’t have to spend as much money getting a classroom ready or as much time getting everything done. Plus, I learned so much this year and improved as a teacher. As a result, I think my “first year”- a phrase that makes many veterans shudder- won’t be nearly as miserable!
For those of you who have just graduated, good luck and stay positive. You will have a classroom someday. If that doesn’t pan out this year, an alternative education position can give you precious experience and an edge for when a position comes up later.