Substitute teaching has long been seen as an easy job free of the hassles of the corporate world. You walk in, put on a video, and hang out until the day is done. This is a common misconception and any substitute that takes such a laid back attitude towards teaching may have a rude awakening the day their classroom plans go awry. The day the teacher is absent may just be the day an earthquake strikes or a student passes out. Substitutes, like teachers, must always be ready for the worst.
The worst way to start the day is walking into a room with no lesson plan. You've asked both teachers next door and they tell you they didn't know their team teacher was going to be out. It must have been an emergency. Some substitutes may celebrate a "free day" but if you're looking to keep your job you better make up something fast. In most school districts, a popular interview question for subs is, "What do you do if there are no plans?" This means that you are expected to come up with something. You can ask the team teachers if they have anything but you may find yourself at a loss of they are very busy. Your best bet is to come up with something grade-level appropriate for each subject. It doesn't have to be complicated, it just has to take up a good amount of time.
The Clock is Wrong
You would think keeping the clocks right on time would be essential to keep a school running smoothly but you'd be suprised how often I've been in a classroom with a clock that is several minutes off. Add daylight savings to the mix and you have a recipe for disaster. Always have a backup on you at all times, whether it's a watch or cell phone, and make sure it is set to the EXACT time - as close as you can get it. Several years ago I was in a classroom and I took a phone call during my lunch break. I looked at the clock and it showed that I had enough time to take the call before the bell rang. Unknowingly, the clock was ten minutes behind and when I heard loud knocks at the door I didn't answer, assuming it was a student. It was actually a noon aid trying to get my attention because the students had been waiting for ten minutes outside. Needless to say, I was visited by the principal later that day.
Some school districts that don't have absence management systems often have substitutes check in at the front office to see if they are returning for the next day. Other school districts have a bit of gray area when they have both an automated system and a live administrator. I think this is why more and more school districts are transitioning to fully automated systems that keep electronic records of which subs are filling absences. On one occasion, I walked into a classroom to find another sub already teaching. Although I had received the job electronically, she stated that the teacher had asked her to come in on that day. Upon returning to the office the secretary stated that teachers were no longer allowed to verbally request substitutes. The other sub was asked to go home and I was given the assignment. If it weren't for the electronic system, it would have been her word against mine.
This is a broad category that can cover anything from a nose bleed to a seizure. I've been lucky enough to have never witnessed anything too serious but it can (and does) happen. I highly recommend that substitutes get a CPR certification because of this. One of the scariest things to happen to me was actually a nosebleed. It was a kindergarten class and a student walked out of the bathroom pouring in blood. It was so much that I didn't know where it was coming from and I was sure he had hurt himself badly. He was terrified and crying but I had to think quickly without leaving the other students alone. I had a responsible student walk him to the office which was just a few steps away. I watched them from the doorway until they got there. It was probably the scariest moment I've had but I had no time to think and had to act very quickly.
Sometimes substitutes are needed because teachers have to attend meetings or mandatory observations. Coincidentally, some teachers are absent the day when they're scheduled to be observed. There's nothing like being in a room full of unruly first graders when four principals walk into the classroom to observe one of the best teachers in the district. This is defintely the ultimate test for a substitute. If you are always on your game, you have nothing to worry about. If anything, it can be to your advantage to have four principals walk in unexpectedly to a classroom full of quiet, hard-working first graders.
Typically, an organized school will let you know in advance if there is going to be a drill that day. Then again, they may just happen to forget to tell you and the absent teacher didn't know about it either. There you are, right in the middle of a lesson, when the screechingly loud alarm goes off. The class goes into a frenzy because they get to skip the lesson and go outside where their friends are waiting for them. To top it off, they have a sub who won't care whether they behave or not. It's tough to catch up with your day after an unexpected drill but the key is to be diligent and stay on top of the class, no matter where you are.