Tidings of comfort & “Joy” – The gift of a great guest teacher

This post was originally published on Ed News Colorado

No disrespect to the pencil drawings, the scented candles, or the homemade sweets that land on my desk this time of year, but all I really want for Christmas is a substitute teacher. One who will love my students as much as I do on days I can’t be there with them.

Joy is proof that teacher wishes do come true.

I met Joy seven years ago. I was still a green, early-career teacher who had just transferred from a small reading clinic (where I worked one-on-one with students) to a large, diverse public middle school. That first year Joy knew the school better than I did. Her own children’s middle school careers had unfolded under that roof, and she had subbed for many of my students since they were kindergarteners. She not only knew their names–she knew their strengths and struggles.

To secure Joy as a sub, you had to know weeks in advance and protect a date on her calendar, or get really, really lucky on a last-minute sick day. Joy is that good.

Which is why seven years later, I’m still calling her.

And thankfully, she is still answering my calls. I work in a different school with different kids and a different culture. But I can count on Joy’s consistency and compassion. More importantly, so can my students.

Being a substitute can’t be easy. You are the “understudy,” the “plan B,” the “second string quarterback.” Your patience and personal parameters are put to the test–daily. You are following someone else’s lesson plans, rituals and routines. Teaching is hard work that requires flexibility and constant reflection. But substitute teaching, especially with middle schoolers, requires pure grit and an appreciation for a mixed bag of moodiness and possible mayhem.

Perhaps the best thing about knowing Joy–or any skilled substitute–is the opportunity to establish a relationship built on trust. This relationship forces  me to become a better teacher. I’m motivated to create engaging and explicit plans, even though I’m not going to be the one executing the plans. I push myself to provide detailed information on each student, a “seating chart on steroids,” to ensure each student’s needs are met by someone who doesn’t know their quirks. And I challenge myself to take risks with digital tools, because using them helps me provide students with feedback from remote locations.

I know it supports my students (and Joy) when I “check in” on them virtually. And I want to make Joy’s experience in the school and my classroom positive, because I want her to keep coming back. The consistency is good for  my students. I want my students to know that I care about them and am holding them accountable for learning, even when I’m not physically in the room.

Although it’s not easy to trust another person with the students I consider my ultimate (and precious) responsibility, I don’t want to pass up opportunities to become a better teacher. Often these opportunities conflict with the school day. When this happens, it is a personal and professional comfort to know I can count on my students receiving a little bit of Joy in my absence.

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