I never thought to myself “Man, working a full time job is exhausting.” Not to say that I have that many years of experience, but from that experience, this was never a thought that crossed my mind. Sure, some days would be extremely tiring, especially working with kids every day, going outside to run, swim, play games, organize activities, etc. But I never felt as though the bigger picture was draining me.
This week, I got a call every morning to go work as a Substitute Educational Assistant. And every morning, stress would overwhelm me at the thought of going to work again. I kept thinking to myself “What’s wrong with me? I should be grateful that I’m getting this many calls!” Honestly, I think the biggest reason I become stressed is due to the fact that I never know what to expect when I get a new call, and I never have any idea what kind of kids I’m going to be working with. I keep wondering what it is that convinced that lady to hire me in the first place – I’m not even qualified to do this job! And speaking of which, one of the teachers I worked with this week did not seem impressed that I had never taken the EA course.
Let’s rewind and go back to the beginning of the week. I got a call on Monday to work at the same – and only – school I had been to since I got hired. That day, I was assigned to a 5th grade class that consisted solely of special needs students.
Ok. Take a deep breath.
You’re going to be fine…
You can imagine I was starting to feel anxious. I know I don’t have to feel that way, that no one is expecting me to perform miracles working with these kids, but I can’t help but want to thrive for greatness in everything I do – and it’s hard when you have no formal training and no idea what do in basically every new situation.
Turns out the homeroom teachers are always very understanding and they usually switch the EAs around so that the sub can work with one or some of the easiest students. What a relief!
My day consisted of supervising 1-3 students throughout their classes. I went to French with one girl and I was pretty stoked to be in a class where I felt very comfortable with the material, and I knew I would be able to help if my student needed any help. I also went to gym, and that went fine, and then it was off to music class with 3 girls. Although I loved the fact that they were doing choir, it was a more difficult period because they refused to participate and wanted to go back to homeroom. Luckily, another teacher saw us in the hall and helped me out by coaxing them to go back to music class.
OK, so that moment right there was specifically only difficult for one reason: nobody trains you or explains all the school rules to you when you’re a sub. No one tells you what kind of discipline is appropriate, especially in special ed, and often, no one tells you what is the best way to handle tough situations with specific students. I’m standing there in the hall with 2 of 3 girls and they are complaining that they want to go back to homeroom. I have no idea if they’re allowed to do that. I have no clue what kind of tactics will work best with them individually if I need to get them back to music class. All I know is how I’ve handled somewhat similar situations back at the daycare in Moncton. Except this isn’t daycare, it’s school. Nobody at school treats kids like we did at the daycare, and I get that, because it’s a completely different – and very structured – environment. Ok, maybe I use the word structured a bit loosely when it comes to special ed, but still, more structured than daycare would be.
In the end, that situation was resolved somewhat quickly, and so I was thankful for that. I tried singing alongside them, sight-reading the sheet music they had on their desks, but it didn’t really convince them to join along. Ah well.
Then it was lunch/recess. I was actually pretty relieved that I didn’t have to go outside. It’s not that I don’t like being outside with the kids, but it’s just more likely that the kids will get in trouble while they’re outside, and once again, I have no idea what the discipline policy is like.
After lunch, I was assigned to be with 2 boys for Language Arts, followed by Science. Unfortunately, I was unaware that they had swim between these 2 courses, so when they said they thought it was time to go to swim, I followed them back to homeroom only to find we had missed it. They were pretty disappointed about it, but it didn’t affect their work ethic so the afternoon went really well nevertheless.
As soon as the bell rang and I was free to go home, a wave of fatigue washed over me. Ouf. That was exhausting – and it’s only been one day! Luckily, I have the most amazing boyfriend who prepared and made supper all by himself so I could sit down and relax for a bit.
Then came Tuesday. Once again, my phone rang at 6:30AM. The calls are from an automatic dispatch system, so you never actually get to speak to the person you’re replacing. This particular message made me quite anxious.
“A new assignment is available at… [Something] High School.”
A HIGH SCHOOL?! THEY WANT ME TO SUB AS AN EA AT A HIGH SCHOOL?! I’ve only worked 2 and a half shifts, I have no business being sent to a high school!!
Honestly, I was hardly able to eat anything for breakfast I was so nervous.
What if I get assigned to a blind student?? I can’t read or write in Braille!!
What if i get assigned to a violent student?? They’re all taller and bigger than me, I’ll never be able to get control!
Obviously, I forced myself to calm down and tried to stay positive about the situation. I’m sure it won’t be that bad…
Luckily, when I get to the high school, there’s plenty of parking and the entrance is super easy to find. The inside of the school, however, is not so easy to make your way through. It’s probably the most confusing school I have been to in my life. And the worst part, the secretary at the entrance told me she couldn’t help me, that I had to go see the other secretary in the main office, smack in the middle of the school.
Did I mention I have a horrible sense of direction? Fortunately, all the male teachers at this school wear shirt and ties, so they were easy to pin point to ask directions.
I made it to the office and was redirected to another lady working in an office. This lady gave me a badge and told me to go see a teacher in room 204. Ok, it’s starting to feel like a game of ping pong now.
Nevertheless, I try to find the stairs and after three attempts of walking aimlessly down hallways, I found them. Unfortunately, this meant I now had no idea how to get back to the main office.
In the classroom, I was greeted by a very nice lady. She said she hadn’t had time to do up a schedule for me yet so she started making calls to different teachers.
This seems odd… no fixed schedule, no fixed students…
She got a hold of two teachers and they said they could use some help during Block A. She gave me instructions and sent a student with me so she could show me the Staff Room and where I would be working.
Now it gets weirder. I talk to the two teachers. Both have students missing. One teacher sends 3 students with me into an empty classroom. They have an assignment to do. I was not told what my job was, other than to supervise. Okie doke.
Twenty minutes or so went by. The teacher came back to get her students because they were already done the assignment in class so they were moving on to the next activity. The teacher told me she didn’t need my assistance anymore, so I went to see the other teacher. She also told me she didn’t need any help. Ok. So now I have absolutely nothing to do for the next hour and I have no idea how to find that lady to see if I can be reassigned. Great.
Well, I had two options: literally sit there and do nothing until the class was over and hope the lady would come downstairs to find me; or walk around aimlessly in the halls until I could find the stairs again and hope that lady was still in the same classroom to give me some guidance.
I didn’t know which to choose. I would definitely be more comfortable sitting here doing nothing, at least that way I didn’t have a responsibility that was overwhelming. But I didn’t want to get in trouble for not at least having tried to find my way back to room 204 so I started walking around. I ended up finding the Staff Room, where I thought maybe I could stop to use the washroom. Turns out the staff washroom is not located inside the staff room. So confusing. They weren’t too far away though and luckily someone left the ladies’ door unlocked. Afterwards, it was a 10-15 minutes adventure to find the stairs, and then find the right room only to be greeted by an unfamiliar face. Dammit! Just my luck. I didn’t even know the homeroom teacher’s name. I tried to explain who I was looking for and if she knew where I could find her. Turns out she has an office inside her classroom and she was in there doing some work while someone else taught English. I snuck to the end of the classroom to go knock on the office door. She answered, surprised to see me. I explained why I was back so early and that I wasn’t sure what to do. She was kind and understanding. She apologized that she hadn’t had time to find me other classes for the rest of the day, but she started making phone calls right away to see if anyone needed help.
I ended up being sent down to a class of 9th graders, and it was basically my worst nightmare. I’m still not sure what my job was supposed to be, but there were no special ed students, and all the students in class were loud, disrespectful, and CONSTANTLY on their cell phone. Some even had i-pads and were just playing games and talking with their classmates. The teacher didn’t seem to care.
When the period ended, new students filled the classroom. I was staying with the same teacher, but this time it was with a group of grade 11 students. Fortunately, they were much quieter and actually had some respect for the teacher, but they still all had their cellphones out while they did their work. The class went pretty well, although I was pretty useless once again.
I literally spent all day walking around each class, keeping an eye on students to see if they were getting their work done. I hardly spoke a word except in math grade 9, where some students asked me a few questions, most of which I knew the answer to. Last period I was sent to grade 10 science, and that was a bit different. There was a deaf student, but he had an EA that would do sign language for him all class. I didn’t know whether or not it was my job to help him specifically, or just walk around class like I had been doing all day. The teacher was a bit more helpful in guiding me/explaining what I should do during the class, but I was still pretty much useless given the fact that they were doing a test for half the class, and working on computers by themselves for 15 minutes.
As uneventful as that day was, it was absolutely exhausting to have been on my feet all day. I was used to working with young children with special needs, most of the time sitting with them and helping when they needed motivation or guidance. I was definitely not used to standing, surrounded by teenagers twice my height, most of whom had very little respect for authority.
As I went to bed that night, I was praying not to get another call to work in a high school. To be honest, I was hoping not to get a call at all. I was drained, physically and mentally, and I desperately wanted to stay home and get back into my unemployed routine.
No such luck. On Wednesday, the phone rang at 7:24AM. Side note: this is actually a pretty late call, because I have to leave the house at 7:50 if I want to get to school on time.
I was actually kind of happy as I listened the details of the assignment. I was going to be working with the same class as Monday!
The day was pretty similar, since they switched the schedule around again so I could be in most of the same classes as Monday. I also offered to go to music class, because it’s by far my favourite class to sit in on. Oh, and we all went to swim together on that day, although turns out it’s not mandatory for me to go swimming. I ended up sitting on a bench beside the pool with one of the students who doesn’t participate in group swim.
Honestly, the day went super well. Sure, there were hiccups here and there, but I felt a lot more comfortable with the students and the environment so I wasn’t as nervous or hesitant about interacting with them. I was even told later on that the teacher thought I did a pretty good job and would be happy to have me sub again. Oh, and turns out that EAs are allowed to request a specific substitute, so one of the employees from that class asked me if I would like to sub for her next week!
And then came Thursday. Once again, I was hoping not to get called, out of pure exhaustion. But the phone rang, as it does.
Come on, you can do this. You just need to back in the saddle.
I can’t believe I’ve gotten used to this routine of staying home. Not that I stay home and do nothing, I always have plenty to do. But all of a sudden, I realized that going to work every day was harder than it used to be. I had to change my routine again.
I’m proud that I could at least stay motivated enough to accept every assignment that week. I still said yes even though I was not in the best shape. I still got up and I went to work, and it almost always turned out to be a good day despite the fatigue. And now was the last day of the school week, so I could definitely tough just one more day. Side note: there’s no school today.
Even though I was feeling nervous again Thursday morning, I was starting to feel like it was more bearable, and easier to cope with the fact that I was saying yes to the unknown. It definitely helps that it was at the same school again.
I got to school earlier than usual so I took my time signing in and whatnot. When the secretary told me where the class was located though, stress propagated quickly through my body. She pointed down the hall way labelled “Therapy Wing.” Oh dear.
It’s gonna be OK. It will be a HUGE challenge, but it’s going to be OK.
I walked down to the classroom and was greeted by the teacher and another EA. The teacher greeted me and explained that the student I was supposed to be working with is sick and won’t be coming to school. She said she might have to reassign me to another class.
A few moments later, another EA sub walked in. I took her in. She was dressed all in black, wearing gym-type clothing, her hair loosely and messily tied back. She looked impatient and cranky. She didn’t even say a word when she came in, just sat down. Regardless, the teacher went to greet her and that’s when I learned that she was also a sub. She quickly and sharply added that she was only going to be here for half the day, as she had other things to do.
This is when it hit me: I’m not in Moncton anymore. Not everyone is polite and friendly and trying to keep a positive attitude. I’m in a big city on the West Coast, and things are different here, people are different here. I had almost forgotten that, being in school all week, working with such great teachers and assistants.
I shook it off and told myself to stop being so judgmental. It was certainly not the time nor the place.
The homeroom teacher ended up sending the other sub to get reassigned, and I ended up staying with the class. Ruh-roh…
Ok, just to give you a brief explanation, in comparison to the other students I worked with, these kids were on a different level of special needs. I had absolutely zero experience working with kids like these, so you can only imagine my level of anxiety when the teacher told me I had to be in charge of 6 of them throughout the day, and that at times, I would be alone with all these students.
I tried not to let myself think about it. We had lots to do, so we got right to it. First class was gym, so the students led me there. There were also two other EAs with us in the class, although one had to take her student back to class for misbehaviour, and the other had a different schedule so she also left with her student. Bam. I am now alone with all the other students in gym class, at the very first period. I tried to coax them all into playing tag and it wasn’t too bad. That’s pretty much all we did until the teacher came back to get us so we could go back to class.
Important info: we now had twice as many kids in the class because one teacher slipped and fell on the ice outside of school and had to be picked up by her husband so she could go home. Anxiety levels started rising a bit.
Shortly thereafter, the teacher explained the class would be divided in two, and I would be with my students on her side, as well as another EA. The class was actually pretty fun. I sat down and coloured with them for a while, and then it was time to work on pronunciation of vowels and how to identify the different pronunciations of the same vowel. We sang songs and did a little test, and then I helped correct them. The group’s attitude was great throughout the whole thing.
I was actually having a really good time with them.
Recess time was up next. They would bring their snack outside to eat, and I was warned that one student usually took a long time to get ready because she didn’t want to go outside. If that was the case, I was to continue on and just let the teacher know about it after recess. Fortunately, I had no problems whatsoever, they were all on best behaviour!
The day just kept going well. I was assigned to go with one student to do Work Experience. Her job that day was to put the laundry in, clean tables in the staff room, and clean tables in the courtyard. She knew exactly what to do and didn’t need help at all. She enjoyed my company and we were actually joined by a sub teacher because she hadn’t received any sub plans from the teacher who had slipped and hurt her back.
We walked back to homeroom after the student had finished her tasks and had been rewarded with a little free time on the i-pad, and it was already time for lunch. I was assigned to supervise the courtyard while the students ate, and then to supervise outside for recess. I was so surprised to see how respectful and understanding all the students were with me. One student kept asking if he could run outside before the group, and I didn’t know if he was allowed to do so. Another student calmly talked to the first boy and explained that I was new and that I didn’t know all the rules yet, so it would be better if we all just stayed in one group and listened so it would be easier. I almost cried.
The whole day just went so well! After I took my lunch break, it was time to head to math class with the same student who did Work Experience. There, we worked on additions the whole time, and I could tell she was getting frustrated/bored of doing math around the end. Luckily, it was time for group swim so her mood stayed pretty positive and we walked back to class together to get ready.
This time, I did have to go swimming because one student was working on treading water and needed assistance while in the pool – or so that’s what they told me. She seemed great and was a pretty good swimmer too, although we were only allowed in the shallow end, of course. It was at this point though that I was told I wasn’t allowed to wear a bikini to go swimming. Crap!! I don’t own anything else! The lifeguard asked if I had a T-shirt, and I said yes, but only the one I would be wearing again to class. She gave me a spare T-shirt from the lost and found and said it would be fine if I swam with that on to cover up. It was something that had crossed my mind, but in Moncton, it had never been an issue.
Anyway, the student I was with did a great job practicing treading water, taking breaks to show me all kinds of tricks she could do in the water. And then it was time to hit the hot tub! Side note: it wasn’t like a really hot one, just warmer water to relax in.
All of a sudden, it was almost 3 o’clock and it was time to get changed and head home! I couldn’t believe how fast the day had gone by. As I said goodbye to all the students, it hit me that despite the fact that I was most nervous about working with this level of special need students, it was the best group I had worked with and it was the most fun I had had since I started working as an EA.
Maybe this job isn’t so bad after all.
PS: Following this link to read about great tips for returning to work and coping with the stress.