The Parable of the Untrained Sub

ParableSub days can be scary days for why do so many teachers insist on making the same mistakes that substitutes do on a regular basis?Suppose for a second that you could not be in your classroom for an extended period of time. The district made every effort to secure you a qualified long-term substitute, one with content knowledge and a background in education; however they were unable to do so. Due to a shortage of qualified substitutes, the district was forced to hire someone who is seemingly not qualified to do your job, however they have a good heart and have expressed interest in teaching. They’ve passed a background check and are deemed trustworthy enough for the position.  Despite no formal education, your district decides this person will be your long-term substitute.

Most of us know many of these types of people in our lives - great people, supportive of education and good with kids. Perhaps they could have made a good teacher, but as it is, they lack any education beyond high school and lack the academic qualifications for the position. They’re our family members and friends, the people who say “I could never do what you do” but we love them nonetheless.


If we were to place such a person in control of your classroom, what sorts of rules would they establish? What types of lessons or activities would they plan? Or would they lesson plan at all?

What would the classroom look like after a day? A week? A year?

Would it be different in this person didn’t have a high school diploma? What if they only had a high school diploma? Or a bachelor’s degree, with no education training? Who would be successful in this classroom? Who would not?

In the event that we placed this person in your classroom, this person would very likely:

This person would very likely default to behaviors similar to that of their most influential teacher, whether that be from Elementary School, Middle School, High School or College. Whatever their education level, their behaviors would parallel that. Furthermore, they would very likely cling to the textbook, afraid to deviate outside of it. They would lesson plan minimally, with no real concept of where the instruction was going beyond the next week. They would require students to be predominately quiet and likely never establish set procedures or behavioral expectations. Certainly, they wouldn’t bother explain “Why” these procedures are important, instead falling back on “Because I said so” when pressed by students. They would punish students who did not adhere to whatever expectations they did set.

They would never change the course of instruction based on what students do or do not understand, instead electing to “move on” when the unit of instruction has been “taught” regardless of the students level of understanding. This would likely be the result of their never having established clear learning targets in the first place – unaware of what’s appropriate for this age level or content area. They would not allow re-do’s on assignments that students failed, instead believing that students should have gotten it the first time, or perhaps telling students they’ll have a chance to do better on the next assessment. Late work would not be allowed, or would only be allowed with a harsh grading penalty – the untrained sub believing that they were teaching responsibility and that the student “has to do their part”.

They would assign book work and worksheets because they’re easy to find and reproduce, although the learning from them is at best short term memorization that will be quickly forgotten. When attempts at direct instruction fail, they would assign massively long projects that take up lots of time and require a lot of effort. These assignments would be worth a lot of points, to ensure students spend a lot of time and effort on them, however no rubric or scoring guide would be given as the teacher isn’t sure what the final project needs to look like, instead just saying they want kids to “be creative” (meaning independent).  If there is a rubric or scoring guide provided, it would likely ONLY include cosmetic details and not relate directly to a learning objective –certainly not one a student could easily identify and relate to.

Their would grade without giving constructive feedback, instead simply assigning a letter or a number and handing work back to students, likely in an untimely manner. They would attempt to use their gradebook to control the escalating student behavior, giving completion grades to “make students do it” and taking off huge amounts of points for late or incomplete work “to teach them responsibility” and because these assignments are much harder to grade.

When the realize there is an inordinate number of students failing the class, they would offer bonus points as a way of making up grades, rather than simply allowing students to re-do work that was not satisfactory. These bonus points mask the fact that students aren’t learning, but make the grades look more acceptable to an outsider looking in. Furthermore, extra credit can “reward positive behaviors” as they would say, never mind that their grades now reflect “effort” or “behavior” and not content knowledge. Extra credit  gives students something else to work on and helps control the crowd.

Finally, this person would likely avoid making parent contacts for fear of having to tell the parent what is so obvious to them…the parent clearly failed as this kid is hopeless. They would similarly avoid administrators, who they would view as a “boss” or enemy of some kind, constantly questioning their techniques. Surely this isn’t to help them improve, but rather to provide evidence when they need to fire the untrained substitute, or so they would believe. Instead, they would opt to spend their free time in the teachers workroom, or the parking lot afterschool, complaining to colleagues about how “kids today are different” and how “it was never like this when I was in school”.

Every one of the described behaviors would be the result of somebody with no educational training. If just anybody off the street could handle being a professional educator, then why do states require the time and money spent on college education? What is the purpose then of any education class? Why is professional development required?

Friends and colleagues, we do not want to teach like this person! This is NOT a job for amateurs! We are paid to educate children, not determine which ones are already educated! Don’t think of yourself as a judge, think of yourself as a lawyer. The students are your client!

School districts don’t pay you just to educate the “smart” kids, the “smart” kids probably don’t need us anyway. They’ll be successful in life no matter what. The one’s who need us the most are the ones we often avoid working with. Yet, we are paid to ensure ALL students are educated!

Use the tools provided to you by your years in college and time spent in Professional Development. Formative Assessment, Differentiated Instruction, Brain-Based Learning, Project Based Learning, Cooperative Learning – these are the weapons of choice for the true “Edunator”. Response to Intervention programs, Positive Behavior Support Programs, Professional Learning Communities – these are structures put in place to ensure we work together to guarantee the success of ALL students. Do not waste this opportunity to do what’s best for kids, do not waste the education you’ve spent your life collecting by teaching like an untrained substitute.

Engage your students and your career. Accept responsibility for student learning and guarantee the success of all of your students. Become the Edunator!