Repurposing Substitute Teacher Skills

Substitute Teacher Monster at Desk
Substitute Teacher by Marty (2009) CC BY-NC-ND 2.0, via Flickr

As I job search and scan through requirements of posted positions, my heart sinks as I realize that my experiences don’t seem to fit the endless lists of necessary bullet points. Looking at my resume, I realize employers are not going to realize how “environmental educator” or “substitute teacher” or (my personal favorite) “freelance child wrangler” will be able to do the job they need to get done.

What they don’t know is that I have a clandestine skill set that I’ve developed in my years as a substitute teacher and informal educator, which can be useful in many situations, with adults and kids alike. It’s kind of like being a ninja, secret agent and game show host all rolled into one.

  • I am awesome at learning names within the first five minutes. When dealing with a new group of kids, knowing their names is essential for accountability. You need to be able to back up threats of negative reports with documented incidents involving specific students. Kids are also impressed with you taking the time to get to know things about them, as well as well as taking time to learn to pronounce their names correctly. This skill is great any time you meet new people at a mixer or presentation or other networking event, or if you’re trying to cultivate new donor relationships or sales. Addressing individuals by name also helps students and clients feel they are important to you.
  • Standing up in front of a new group of people daily can be an intimidating prospect. Substitute teachers have to cultivate confidence and an aura of authority to pull off their shtick in front of a group of students. You have to develop an optimistic can-do attitude. Some of my colleagues can channel a strict authoritarian stance to maintain order. As a small, white woman who smiles a lot, I instead rely on charisma and warmth to make a group want to cooperate. At the same time, I’m very conscious that kids want clear boundaries which I enforce to promote a safe space. Creating a collegial work environment and setting clear expectations is also useful in any office or collaborative work setting.
  • I know how to command an audience’s attention. In the classroom, the kids are already trained to at least initially pay attention to the person standing in front of the room. (Curiosity at the novelty of a new person also helps.) Gentle redirecting from distractions is necessary to keep the group focused on the lesson. in the workplace, theis skill comes in handy during meetings or discussions where tangents threaten to derail agenda items. It also helps to be highly entertaining and maintain a sense of humor.
  • While lesson plans are invaluable to a substitute teacher, you have to be able to improvise when things don’t go as planned. Being able to think on your feet and troubleshoot is also essential to success in the workplace, where unexpected challenges continually crop up. Also, being able to keep your cool in stressful and unfamiliar situations is also a great skill to bring into any workplace. Sometimes a little controlled chaos can actually be the most productive environment for creativity and innovation.
  • I have learned to delegate and get the kids to help me out. Kids love to help pass out items or erase the board, or be the line leader, or explain a classroom procedure. Learning to delegate and get your co-workers to assist you with tasks is important to managing workflow and getting tasks done.
  • While I am confident I can handle most situations on my own, I also know when to ask for help. When you’re the sole adult in charge of a room of kids, or leading a group out in the woods – know that you’re in charge. However, when the situation requires it (for the safety of the group), radio for backup. Sometimes this is asking for advice from other teachers on managing a class or a particularly challenging student. Other times, especially in when there is a safety issue, you need to get administrators or a medical professional involved. (Making a call on sending a kid to the nurse can take some judgment.) It doesn’t mean that you’re weak, it means that you make the safety of your team, or the end result of solving a problem, more important than your “control” of a situation.

So need an employee who can entertain a group of restless strangers?  Who can follow directions, but improvise if necessary?  Maintain a positive attitude and grace under fire?  Maybe you need a substitute teacher.


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