A Model Substitute

I sometimes substitute teach at the elementary level. I showed up to a classroom one day, adorned with my official substitute badge on a lanyard around my neck, to find an observer standing outside, waiting for me to arrive. Well, she was waiting for the actual, real, certified teacher to arrive, but she got me instead. She was a college student signed on to sit in the classroom for the day, observing how the class runs and what level of academics is appropriate for that age group. Probably she was also supposed to observe teaching strategies. Enter me.

Now, I’m a person who has written and edited educational curriculum for years. I have raised four kids and helped them with all kinds of homework. All. Kinds. I have substitute taught for, like, months, and I’ll admit, I know a few things. But the glaring truth, there in the hall, was that I am only a substitute for the real thing. I am not a certified public elementary school teacher. I just fill in for them for a day here and there. I follow their instructions. And because this teacher was absent due to a family emergency, the substitute plans left for me were understandably more rushed and vague than normal, and I had to figure some things out as I went along.

I knew that the young student would not get nearly the benefit from watching me as she would from an actual, real teacher. I tried to get her to visit another room, but I guess she had instructions to stay in the room to which she’d been assigned. She saw no reason to leave and come another day, either. So there I was—a substitute teacher as a role model for the future educators of America. Okay, one future educator of America. (Don’t worry. The day she spent with me was only one of about thirty required observation days. I checked.)

I muddled my way through the morning routine, the spelling test, the worksheets. I gave my best effort at explaining expository writing and breaking down a writing prompt. I tried to remember everyone’s name and make the classroom technology work correctly. There was a chaotic game of “writing terms jeopardy.” Through it all, the observer was super quiet though not visibly unhappy. I could tell she was a little shy. Or terribly amused. Who knows? I think it’s best not to speculate what she was thinking. During our break, she continued to sit silently so I tried to call out some random, helpful ideas.

“I like to make a seating chart if I don’t have one. It helps me remember names. Remembering their names is always helpful.”

“I like to read aloud to them as a reward for working hard.”

Because, you know, it’s imperative new teachers understand the importance of learning students’ names and reading. So glad I thought to mention those things. Goodness.

All this to say, I came away from the day hoping the teaching student’s next observation went way better than the one she had with me. I also realized there are so many times I take cues from how I should be in this world from people who are “substitutes”—people who are around and filling a role but maybe not the expert from whom I need to be learning. I thought about whether or not I ever “pose” as a certain type of Christian. Do I try on the truths of God’s word for a day, or are they really my life blood—an authentic part of my identity and not just a badge I wear around my neck when I’m around other church people?

May we seek out wise, tried and true mentors in life. May we be authentic in our faith when we share it with others. And may we never forget Jesus is our ultimate example, our best teacher, the wisest mentor. I’m going to pray I don’t seek to emulate or follow others as substitutes for my Jesus.

And maybe I should pray for that college student, too. 😉


You call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for so I am. –John 13:13

My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. –John 10:27