Substitute Teaching: Making it a Win for Everyone

Mike Lawson • • June 9, 2018

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As a quick introduction, I retired from the U.S. Army a few years ago after 37 plus years culminating as Leader and Commander of The United States Army Band “Pershing’s Own.”

While I was privileged to conduct our nation’s finest musicians in many of the world’s greatest venues, my roots were in music education and it remains my true passion. Since leaving the Army, I’ve had a busy schedule of honors ensembles, clinics, adjudicating, and all-state bands and orchestras. I often do clinics for school music educators and felt it was vitally important to regularly spend time in all types of classrooms, so I started doing substitute teaching in several districts. What I learned is there are many opportunities for students and teachers (current, former, and prospective) to mutually benefit each other.

We can all list the many challenges to music programs in the schools. Declining funding, block scheduling, proliferation of other electives, and cuts to everything that isn’t STEM or testing related (except for sports!), are all traditionally mentioned as causes for a decline in arts education. But there is another crisis in public education that is rarely mentioned – a shortage of qualified substitute teachers. Many school districts require less than an associate degree to be a substitute, and there is little to no effort to ensure that a sub is actually qualified to teach a class. Imagine my surprise when I arrived at my first assignment, subbing for a high school band director, only to find a Disney video and instructions to play the video and to let the students, sleep, talk, read, or play on their phones if they wished. So much for making a difference!

Following that unpromising start, I have had many successful and productive substitute teaching experiences. All it takes is for subs and the permanent teacher to follow a few simple guidelines.

First, why be a substitute teacher? It’s not for the money (typically $10-$12/hour). But for a semi-retired teacher or professional musician, it’s a fantastically rewarding way to “pay it forward” and contribute to the next generation. After many years of working 60 to 80 hours each week, “doing nothing” sounds great, but guess what? It doesn’t take very long to do it! Working “when you feel like it” as a substitute teacher can be a wonderful way to transition after years of work. Once you have completed the process to qualify to be a sub (background check, half day training, lots of paperwork, etc.) send a note to the music supervisor and teachers introducing yourself.

They will be thrilled to know you are available! When you accept an assignment (often done online), there’s usually contact information for the teacher. Immediately write or call and tell them your qualifications and willingness to teach music instead of babysitting. Get to the classroom early so you can familiarize yourself with the layout, the scores, and other materials you’ll be using, and (this is really important) be ready to greet the students at the door. Upon seeing a sub, most will assume they won’t be making music, so tell them to get their materials and equipment out, begin warming up, and get ready for rehearsal. There is nothing more gratifying than to hear them cheer when they find out they’ll be playing! At the end of the day, leave the teacher notes (or email them) about what you accomplished, any problems, and any suggestions you have for what the students may need. Be sure to follow the school’s practices for reporting attendance and have the main office phone number handy in case you have a question. Giving the students a great musical experience may be your first priority, but to the school, their safety, security, and accountability are paramount.

The benefits for the substitute teacher are clear: a master musician who has much to share gets to pass on their knowledge and remain engaged and relevant while not teaching full-time (no paperwork, no faculty meetings, no angry calls from parents!). A recent music education graduate still looking for a position can gain valuable experience, improve their skills, and greatly enhance their chances of getting a full-time position.

One of the challenges of being a sub is not knowing the students’ names. The students know they probably won’t be held accountable, so instrument switching and other pranks are common. The permanent teacher should make up a seating chart for each class. Recently I subbed, and the chart was pictures of the kids – brilliant! Leave a rehearsal plan with a description of the warm-up and tuning practices and what you’d like worked on. I had one teacher who left me several detailed pages, and included some areas where they were having problems and that he didn’t know how to fix.

We cleaned those up in rehearsal and then I left him a “how to” guide describing the fix. It’s also helpful to leave them notes on students who were helpful and those who may have been “challenging.” The students will then quickly learn that the sub and the permanent teacher are working together as a team. One quick aside, avoid him/her, she/he if possible.

During their early teen years, it can sometimes be difficult to correctly identify a student’s gender and getting it wrong will embarrass them terribly. There may also be students who are currently gender indeterminate.

Many music educators come to work ill and do anything to avoid taking a sick day because they know they’ll be losing valuable rehearsal and instruction time. Imagine their joy (and relief ) knowing they can take a day off and still have their students progress. Indeed, I had one teacher take a personal day, line me up as a sub, and then came to school for the entire day. He said, “How else could I get a day of clinics for free?” During his planning periods, we had private lessons on conducting and score study.

This spring, I was called by a teacher who was barely able to speak on the phone. Their contest/assessment was in four days and she was desperately ill. I was able to work those selections for two days and she returned feeling much better and she led them to a superior rating.

While the benefits for the substitute teacher and the permanent teacher are many, what about the students? Imagine if you are a middle school or high school musician and you hear that your music teacher (probably your favorite teacher!) will be absent. Instead of it being the best class of your day, you are now going to watch “Frozen” for the 100th time. Now you walk in and are greeted by a master educator or an enthusiastic recent music education graduate. You experience a different approach to things, hopefully learn some different techniques, and most importantly you get to make music!

This column serves as a bit of an introduction of a new monthly SBO feature to be called “In Service.” Each month, I will highlight examples of the way musicians, music educators, music industry, and professional organizations serve their students, their communities, and the nation. I would love to hear any ideas that SBO readers may have such as examples of ways we can serve, highlighting the contributions of the best of our profession, or suggesting an area you’d like to know more about. I will also share some of my experiences in uniform that took me to all 50 states and to 54 countries.

To contact me, please visit I am excited to be part of the SBO Magazine team and look forward to sharing our experiences.

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