This summer marked the 10-year anniversary of the week I substitute-taught for a kindergarten class.
At the time, my best friend and roommate was a teacher’s assistant for an older grade at that school. She explained that their sub bailed at the last minute and asked if there was any way I could fill this weeklong position.
Though I typically hold myself to a strict no-work policy during the summer, something felt different about this. Maybe it was knowing my friend was in a bind. Perhaps it was one of the first years I’d begun to feel truly confident in my teaching. I loved my middle school students, but maybe on some level I was craving a change from the angst and indignation of my seventh graders.
And so, reader, I accepted the position.
In case I ever decide to substitute for kindergarten again, I made a handy list of steps to ensure my own success. I hope you find it helpful too.
How To Substitute for a Kindergarten Class in 47 Easy Steps
- Don’t do any preparation. You’ve taught middle school. You have nieces and nephews. How hard could this be?
- Look over lesson plans after you arrive. Thirty minutes for students’ bathroom breaks in the schedule? That seems excessive. What is a “morning meeting”?
- Greet children at the door.
- Immediately console two children who sob upon remembering their beloved teacher is absent the whole week. (“You mean she’s not coming back tomorrow?” one of them asks. “No, but we’ll have so much fun together!” I assure her, and she says, through choked sobs, “I won’t have any fun with you!”)
- Once all the children are in the classroom, ask, “Who can tell me how we do the morning meeting?”
- Jump reflexively at the collective screeches of, “WE TAKE ATTENDANCE BEFORE MORNING MEETING!!!”
- Find the attendance roster. Get a genius idea to tell students they can say “Here” like their favorite animal!
- Pause attendance to get the lion to stop pretend-eating the chicken and triceratops.
- Pause again to reassure students there can be multiple kittens. Infinite, even!
- Pause again because you need to quiet everyone to verify that a certain student is absent. “He’s here,” another student says, pointing at a little boy. “Why didn’t you say you’re here?” I ask. “I’m a fish,” he says. Touché.
- Recognize the dropping feeling in the pit of your stomach. This is when you realize you are woefully underprepared.
- Seven hours later, finish attendance.
- Guess your way through morning meeting, which you discover is the single most difficult and nuanced routine of your entire life. (“We do weather after date!” “The ‘partly cloudy’ cloud has a straight-across mouth, not a sad mouth!” “We can’t skip the Compliment Circle; Mrs. Wade never skips Compliment Circle!”)
- Make the mistake of letting everyone have a turn doing money-counting instead of that day’s Money Leader. Die a little inside at how long it takes.
- Begin stations. Be extremely pleased at how students immediately know where to go. Success!
- Realize two minutes in that everyone is asking to go to the bathroom. Look at the schedule. Due to your bad choices during attendance and morning meeting, you’re 45 minutes behind.
- Line up to go to the bathroom. Break up a minor skirmish over who is line leader.
- Spend a literal hour from start to finish doing bathroom break because you didn’t realize how smart and ruthless kindergartners are. They know you have no idea how this works. “Mrs. Wade always lets us put as much soap as we want on our hands!” “Mrs. Wade lets us take as long as we want!” “Mrs. Wade lets us scream in the bathroom!”
- Go back to stations. (Remind yourself that lunch—the halfway mark—is in 30 minutes from now. You can do this.)
- Console a student who begs you for Uncle Peter. You’re sad just thinking about it. Who is Uncle Peter? Does he miss Uncle Peter just from being at school, or did something happen to Uncle Peter? You’re at a loss.
- A student asks you to tie their shoelaces. You do. They are wet. You gasp. You decide not to ask why they are wet.
- Discover the student who was a fish during attendance has gone rogue and somehow cut a sizable chunk of hair off his head with scissors that barely cut paper.
- Ask Siri what to do (Spoiler alert: She doesn’t know either.)
- Help Uncle Peter’s nephew—who is now distressed—understand you know he wants Uncle Peter, but Uncle Peter’s just not here right now. With every mention of Uncle Peter, his agitation and your helplessness grow.
- Realize fish student has glued his hair onto a piece of construction paper. Where’d he get glue?!
- You didn’t want to admit your weakness, but you need help. Call your friend who assists in third. Whisper into the phone that you’re beginning to fear the power held by your charges.
- Friend comes in and, in three swift moves, reestablishes order, calls the mom of armchair barber (who fortunately has a great sense of humor), and returns baskets of glue and scissors students have taken from their designated places.
- Begin escorting your students in a line down to the cafeteria.
- Stop the line for a student who needs their shoes tied. Make a mental note to remove everyone’s shoelaces and throw them away before dismissal.
- Stop again for student who wants a drink from the water fountain.
- Gasp in amazement as suddenly every single student needs a drink from the water fountain.
- Get to the cafeteria and realize seven students don’t have lunch. Ask them where their lunch is. They tell you it’s in the classroom. “Why didn’t you bring your lunches?” you ask. “You didn’t tell us to.” Feel your brain begin to crumble.
- Ask another teacher to cover your class in the cafeteria while you run back with the students who left their lunches. “Why did they leave their lunches in the classroom?” she asks. You pretend to not hear her.
- When you return to the cafeteria, open 2.5 million Go-Gurts, string cheese packages, Capri Suns, and ketchup packets.
- Open a fruit cup for a student and end up with sticky fingers.
- Next, summon the strength of a demogorgon to open a thermos of soup only to get splashes of red soup on your shirt.
- Head back to the room.
- It’s time for recess. You are the Recess Ranger. You settle kickball disputes. You hug mulch-covered children who fell from the playground’s rock wall. You accept a bundle of twigs and flowers tied together with scraps of indeterminate garbage. You are told if you put this in a glass of water and put it under the moon tonight, it’s a potion. You’re intrigued.
- After coming back in from recess, wait 1,792 seconds for students to quench their thirst at the water fountain (we’re in the middle of a Houston summer, after all).
- After recess, it’s story time. The kids trick you into reading what they know is the longest book on the bookshelf, but it doesn’t matter. They’re cuddly, engaged in the story, and quiet. You love kindergartners now.
- Somehow, there’s only an hour left after story time. You can do this, you tell yourself with the same desperation and weakness of a marathoner in their 19th mile.
- By some miracle, you get the whole class practicing consonant blends from their workbooks. Well, most of the class. One student is under her desk chanting a strange, alternate version of “The Ants Go Marching One by One,” and another appears to have fallen asleep standing up at his desk with a crayon in his hand, but you’ll take it.
- Uncle Peter’s nephew is at it again, now tearful and approaching his limit with missing his uncle. After taking the rest of class to music, you sit in the hall with the student. You take a deep breath. Compassion first. “You know what? Let’s make a list of all the things we like best about Uncle Peter. Then maybe you can give the list to him the next time you see him.” The child looks at you funny, but after some cajoling, dries his tears and agrees. “What are some things you love about your Uncle Peter?” you ask. “Fun,” he says. You write it on your list. “I like playing games.” Aww. You add it to the list. “It’s fun to click it.” What? That’s when you finally understand. He hasn’t been saying Uncle Peter all day. He’s been saying a computer. You recall the teacher’s notes that she put away the computers while she’s out. You almost combust.
- After walking the class back from music, you have 15 minutes left until dismissal. First, you ask everyone their favorite part of the day. Best response: student silently pulling dead cicada out of his pocket met with blood-curdling screams. Yours included.
- Five-minute dance party. It’s not in the lesson plans, but it seems crucial.
- Alone in your classroom, whisper “Uncle Peter” out loud to yourself. Shake your head in disbelief.
After the exhaustion I felt on day one, it’s an actual miracle that I made it through the next four days. That Friday afternoon, my friend rewarded me with dinner at our favorite local Tex-Mex spot. (Obviously this included a giant strawberry-swirl margarita to aid in my recovery.)
At the next table over, I spied a sullen teenager, with people I assumed were his family, texting under the table.
“Aiden, I already asked once. Put your phone away,” one of the grown-ups said.
Aiden rolled his eyes dramatically, sighed, and mumbled something I couldn’t hear.
I smiled. Teenagers had never seemed more beautiful to me.
Kindergarten teachers—really, all elementary teachers—I’m in awe. I want to use words like “magicians” or “superheroes,” but I know better. You are talented, skilled professionals who, like all teachers, aren’t paid anywhere near what you deserve for the work you do. I will never substitute for you again as long as I live (unless it’s for story time).
On behalf of everyone, including Uncle Peter, thank you.
What’s your most memorable moment working with this age group? Let us know in the comments!
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