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Comparable to roofing on a scorching July afternoon, substitute teaching is assumed to be one of the world’s most unpleasant jobs. Remember the pranks you played on “subs” during your school days?

Searching for a breather from my profession, I stumbled into substitute teaching.

I quickly learned the ABC’s of subbing. “A”: substitute teachers are ALWAYS needed. “B”: BECOMING a sub is easier than you suspect; in Illinois, you don’t need an education degree or the same certificate that regular teachers have. “C”: CHOOSING when and where you’ll work is one of the perks of subbing.

Explaining a math lesson to a student and hearing them respond “Oh, now I get it!” is what kept me subbing for more years than most.

My first day of subbing, circa 2001, I was assigned a seventh-grade health class. Imagine the topic of that day’s lesson. What a way to start a late-in-life career!

Getting up to speed with the classroom technology was perhaps my biggest challenge. During a kindergarten music class, I requested assistance from with the CD player from a 5-year-old.

One of my favorite parts of subbing was reading stories to children. In another music class, I was reading about Mozart, celebrating his 250th birthday. Before reading, I asked my first-graders if they knew anything about the old days when Mozart was born. One boy quickly raised his hand: “They didn’t used to have arms.” He’d noticed the busts of several composers in the room, none of which had arms. Very observant!

You can’t take yourself too seriously while subbing. Once, while teaching second grade, I became annoyed at a girl who was at my desk, repeatedly asking a question. It wasn’t until lunchtime, while lining up students alphabetically by last name, that I discovered the girl wasn’t one student, but two identical twins wearing the same outfit.

There was the day subbing in middle school. Last class of the day, an eighth-grader with some attitude mouthed off to me, shouting “And your shirt’s on inside out”! I looked down and, sure enough, my shirt was on inside out. Had I really walked around all day dressed this way? Why hadn’t one of the teachers said something to me in the teacher’s lounge during lunchtime? Not the first time I’ve had egg on my face!

Once, I was asked to sub for a grade-school principal. I started this sub-zero February morning outside, doing bus duty. Once inside, I welcomed a new sub and showed her where to hang her coat. I don’t think she had a clue I was a sub just like her.

Seated inside the principal’s office, a student came in with a cupcake she wanted me to have since it was her birthday. I had lunch duty and helped the little ones open milk and ketchup containers. Later, I paced the hallways, making sure things were orderly. I heard a ruckus in the bathroom and chased a couple of fifth-graders out of there for throwing paper towels and splashing water. At the end of the day, the school secretary told me I did a great job.

Subbing for high school French, I started the day stating “Je m’appelle Madame K”. I told the kids I’d been to France once, but just for lunch. They insisted I must be lying. But yes, it’s true: While vacationing in Germany, we drove to Strasbourg, France, for lunch, not unlike Champaign-Urbana folks driving to The Beef House in Covington, Ind., for dinner.

I’ve subbed for high school cooking classes, something I’m totally unqualified to teach, but fortunately I just had to show a video about butter.

I’ve subbed for high school marching band; thankfully, one of the students helped conduct those musicians.

I thought I might enjoy subbing for physical education, but the only exercise I got was blowing my whistle!

As a sub, I participated in some field trips, including a Krannert concert.

I especially enjoy high school kids, hearing their thoughts about college and careers and offering my input when asked.

I’d probably still be subbing if, as a retiree, I didn’t have so many distractions such as enjoying lifelong learning classes and playing Mahjong.

Subbing’s a terrific retirement job, especially if you weren’t previously a classroom teacher; it’s a great stint if you’re between jobs. Substitute teachers are often highly educated, overqualified adults looking for something to do where they can make a difference.

Most days, I found substitute teaching to be a rewarding experience.

Debra Karplus is an occupational therapist and freelance writer living in Champaign-Urbana. Learn more at

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