The Story of the Substitute

A few weeks ago I stepped into a second-grade public classroom for my inaugural attempt at substitute teaching.

The majority of the twenty-one children were wild from the start, and completely undisciplined.

My lesson plans, left by the teacher and deposited in a blue folder atop my desk, were suspiciously scant, and nearly void of actual teaching. The instructions were geared toward busy-work, and would keep things rolling for two hours, max.

I stared at the wall clock and wondered how on earth I might survive the next seven hours.

After attendance and introductions, I began with the script for geography, as given by the teacher. We were supposed to review the world’s main bodies of water, followed by an exam. Problem number one? I was reviewing something that had not been taught.

Not one of the eight-year-olds could tell me where the Pacific Ocean was located.

Confusion erupted, as everyone began talking over me.

Shhhhhhh, I said. No speaking while I am talking. You must raise your hands. We are going to begin all over again. Okay?

A few nodded.

What planet do we live on?

The United States, a small boy said.

Raise your hand, Jimmy. No, the United States is our country. Earth. We live on planet Earth.

I tried again. What continent do we dwell?

What does dwell mean? A girl giggled as she stretched, sprawling across her desk.

It means “live.” What continent do we live in?

Virginia, hollered the little linebacker in the front row.

Charlie. Raise your hand. And no. Our continent is North America.

What is our state? was my next question.

In unison, they shouted the name of our town.

I was losing all footing, and quickly.

No. That is our town. Our state is Virginia.

I scrapped the lesson plan before me and headed directly for the gigantic world map.

Children, this is our continent called North America. And this is our country tucked within the continent, called The United States of America. And this is our State of Virginia inside of the United States. Tucked inside Virginia are many towns and ours is right here. I pointed to the speck.

They stared at me.

What is this body of water? I pointed toward the azure coastline hugging our state.

The beach! Charlie hollered again. I went to the beach once and we ate ice cream! He rubbed his belly.

Charlie, please raise your hand. This is the Atlantic Ocean. My hand swung left until it reached the California border. And this is the Pacific Ocean.

I longed to add that God had created the entire world, and isn’t he the Perfect Master Artist, painting the east coast so differently from the Midwest and the deserts and the west coast? How creative! How beautiful!

But alas, I am not permitted to speak the greatest truths in public school.

Rather than teaching geography and math facts and phonics, I discovered that this school teaches children that their emotions rule everything. Feel all of the feelings and obey them is the unwritten ideology. One of the teachers told me as much with a winning smile, and Isn’t this wonderful?

I was soon to be the recipient of such chaos.

We segued from geography to science. After reviewing the stages of metamorphosis, I asked the children to cut, paste, and color the egg, larva, pupa, and adult stages of a butterfly. It was simple and it was straightforward.

All was going swimmingly until I heard a gasp from the far corner. There stood David, standing by his table, mouth opened in a silent cry.

Whatever is wrong, David? I made my way over to his seat.

I am having a meltdown! he cried, unleashing a wail. The children glanced at him, nonplussed.

He does this every day, a girl nearby yawned.

I am super-sensitive! yelled David as I told him to calm down.

I have meltdowns every day because school is stressing me out. I want to learn something different. I want to pick the worksheets! He stomped his foot. I hate metamorphosis! His face was hot.

Well, you cannot choose, I said calmly. We are studying metamorphosis which is wonderfully fascinating. He yelled even louder and covered his ears.

I asked the children to put down their scissors and give me their full attention.

Just then another girl began sniffling, tears streaming.

What is wrong, Julia?

Amelia told me I am stupid and that I should be homeschooled.

Amelia, apologize to Julia.

She refused.

Apologize to Julia, now please. No one is stupid, and homeschooling is fantastic. In fact, I homeschooled all four of my children.

That got their attention.

Did your kids eat lunch at home? asked Charlie, who had already asked me for lunch three times over. It was now 9:30 am.

Children. Pay attention while I tell you something. Do you know that getting good grades is not the most important thing?

My mom says it is! shrieked David.

Children, what is more important than good grades?

A boy raised his hand. To get all straight A’s all of the time, he hollered.


Emma raised her hand. My parents say the most important thing is that I am happy.

Oh boy. This day was tanking. Quickly.

No, your happiness is not the most important thing. Being kind is far more important than good grades, I said.

I longed to explain to them that loving God was the most important thing of all.

Charlie wandered up to the front and gave me a hug. I like being kind, he said. And I am hungry.

I squeezed his shoulder as a girl chirped: Hey! He is not allowed to hug you!

I could not believe how this day was unfolding.

No one ever hugs me, he lowered his head and plunked down in his chair.

David began wailing again.

I feel another meltdown! I have lots and lots of feelings!

David. Stop crying. Please. We are going to finish metamorphosis and then I have a surprise book I will read to all of you.

He dropped into a heap on the carpet as everyone else ignored him and finished cutting, and scraps of paper began to litter the floor. I collected their work, and instructed everyone to place their heads on their tables.

No one makes a peep for five minutes. If you do, you will miss recess.

Instantaneously David began crying even louder and another boy challenged me by speaking out so as to test me. I told them both they would sit out during recess.

The class looked at me wide-eyed, and Charlie pretended to zip his lips. I was told later that no teacher ever does that.

The room was quiet, and I located the classroom broom and dustpan, and swept the scraps of paper and nubs of crayon off of the floor. I spritzed cleaning spray on the white board, and with circular motions removed all notes and words–a jumbled mess–from the previous day. Next I placed notebooks back in the cubbies and straightened the mound of papers on my desk into a neat stack. Lastly, I walked around the classroom offering every child a swirl of hand sanitizer.

With the room (and students) now tidied and hushed, I invited them over to the rug.

They sat cross legged and I pulled Miss Rumphius from my bag, waiting for complete silence before I began reading. We paused and lingered over the pictures, and this was our sweet spot in a day of bedlam.

They were mesmerized by such an exquisite book.

Did you enjoy that read aloud? I smiled as I completed the last sentence.

What’s a read aloud? asked a girl.

A book read out loud.

No one reads to me, ever, she said, and others nodded.

One student’s eyes sparkled. I am going to write books just like that someday, he said, shyly.

Charlie was also inspired, this boy who stood a whole head taller with thirty plus pounds on his classmates. A teddy bear of a boy.

I want to make something beautiful too, he said. Just like the book said.

What are some ways we can create beauty and kindness today? I asked. They had all sorts of interesting ideas.

So we turned over many stones–considering kind words spoken and kind deeds done. We also discussed the goodness of thinking of others before ourselves.

It was a magical time that carried me throughout the remaining hours.


The rest of the day was filled with meltdowns, phonics, recess, and gym class. The Phys Ed teacher told me the children were terribly unruly, but she used other words that were neither kind nor beautiful.

She also mentioned that she was ready to go home.

We had one thing in common.

And then finally, with five minutes to spare before lining up for their buses, I asked them again.

What planet do we live on?

Planet Earth!

What is our continent?

The United States!

Ah. I see how it is.

Substitute teaching is interesting. The key is to recognize the small victories.

Like read alouds.

Someone remind me to pack a suitcase full of them next time.

16 thoughts on “The Story of the Substitute

  1. I have always said children need structure and discipline AND love. What a sad sad world that teachers are not allowed to hug our children. Knowing you, I know how much energy it took for you NOT to share the good news of Jesus to these poor souls who need it the most. I am so glad you found your peace to stay calm and bring the energy down to read a book and talk about a simple subject of kindness that relates to everyone. ..and costs nothing. The real question is would you do it again 🤔

    Liked by 1 person

  2. This!! Perfect timing as I begin counseling outside the church, which I have been doing for the past 8 years. I have taken a job with a city agency and will enter into the homes of children and families who do not follow Jesus.
    I have been in much prayer. The Lord has directed my steps to go into the world, therefore, He will equip me, I am certain. However, I do expect and anticipate many walls to stop me in my tracks as I enter into the “feelings” dominated culture, rather than the obedience and submission truth of our Lord’s teachings.
    I absolutely adore your writing! You have greatly encouraged me to bear the abundant Spiritual Fruit the Lord has grown in me and “show” them Jesus by my actions. Philippians 4:13!!🙌🏽💕

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Thank you, Kristin.

    I have been interning as a speech therapist at a public school, and some of what you describe is familiar. “The Phys Ed teacher told me the children were terribly unruly, but she used other words that were neither kind nor beautiful.” I hear that sort of thing a lot, and sometimes I get caught up in it myself. It is one thing to be honest about students, and not verbally tiptoe around challenges they have, but it is entirely another to be unkind. And yet it’s so easy to stray from the kind and beautiful and true.

    And some children are so starved for reading. I try to incorporate books into speech therapy upon occasion.

    This was quite encouraging. Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Thank you for being an ambassador for Christ in that classroom and for sharing your story with us. Your story brought so many thoughts to mind. How behind the statistics and news stories about public school there are precious hearts-people made in God’s image, hurting and in darkness. It spurred me on to lament and to pray for people like you who are seeking to shine the light of love into these lives. I also am amazed afresh at God’s grace toward me—at the undeserved blessing of a loving family and parents who taught me so much. Again, thank you so much for writing this.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Kristin,

    I now have *Miss Rumphius *in my shopping cart because of your story. I will take any other children’s book recommendations you may have! We are book fans, and Amy and Drew both encourage them as gifts. Violet is 5, Zoe will be 2 in January, and Drew and his wife are expecting a boy in early February. I know that you now are also enjoying the huge blessing of grandparenting!

    I’ve recently purchased and am saving for Christmas/birthdays: The Awesome Super Fantastic Forever Party, by Joni Eareckson Tada Mrs Piggle Wiggle, by Betty MacDonald Queen Elizabeth II The Queen Who Chose to Serve, by Alison Mitchell Near: Psalm 139, by Sally Lloyd-Jones

    I enjoy your blog posts so much! The Lord bless you, Meg

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Congratulations on more grandchildren!💛I include children’s book recommendations each month in my free newsletter… you can sign up on the sidebar of the blog. “Who is Coming to our House” is my favorite Christmas book for little ones. I just bought the board book edition for our grandson as a Thanksgiving gift. ◡̈


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