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I Just Subbed for 2 Days After Not Teaching for 2 Years …

When I left the classroom after 11 years to become an editor at We Are Teachers, I was determined to stay connected to real teachers—their struggles, their triumphs, their experiences. So, I made regular classroom visits a part of my professional goals.

In the past two years, I’ve edited yearbooks with high school seniors and helped make DIY guitars with 3rd graders to study sound waves. I’ve visited private and public schools, charter schools and early childhood campuses. I’ve talked to teachers on the brink of tears from overwhelm, and a teacher who openly cried with gratitude for finding her dream school. It’s never easy to find time in my schedule for a school visit, but every time, I come away with a renewed sense of awe for teachers—and determination to amplify their voices.

When I reach out to schools, I always clarify that I’m ready to do whatever they need. And I mean whatever. I’ll tutor. Make bulletin boards. Clean. Laminate, sort, make copies, organize, sharpen pencils, alphabetize, sanitize—give me the dirty work.

But recently, when I reached out to a counselor I know to see if I could do two days back-to-back, she had a different idea in mind. What about subbing at two different schools—elementary and middle school—to give some of their teachers an extra conference period?

“YES!” I told her. “Put me in, coach!”

Oh, my friends. I got put in, all right.

Here are some of my thoughts, insights, and takeaways after being out of the classroom since 2022.

1. So much invisible work goes into being a teacher.

When I started planning to sub for two days, I made a list of some activities to have in my back pocket just in case we had downtime. Things like games, activities, “Would You Rather?” questions. I was ready.

Except … I wasn’t. A few minutes after a way-earlier-than-usual alarm went off the first morning, I realized I had to totally alter our morning routine in order to get my 2-year-old and myself ready simultaneously.

I hadn’t packed a lunch.

No idea where my travel tumbler was for my coffee.

Shoot. No time to walk my dog.

And I wouldn’t be able to go to my son’s soccer class demo at 9 a.m. or pick up the curbside order I had scheduled for 11 a.m.

How had I forgotten all of this?

Something I realized through this experience is all the invisible work that goes into being a teacher. Yes, it’s the workday—and the grading and planning that happens outside of the workday. But it’s also the myriad of ways teachers have to calculate, plan ahead, and adapt to a job that demands they be “on” all the time.

(Also, in all the commotion and frenzy, I forgot to put on deodorant. This will become important later.)

2. Kinder and 1st grade teachers, you are gods among men.

Of all the grades I subbed for over two days, I was least prepared for the kinder and 1st grade classes (this is even after my gigantic learning experience subbing for kindergarten years ago). What on earth.

Their teacher had such fabulous routines and expectations in place that the first 15 minutes were a dream. I read from a book of nature poems. They sat on their squares on the rug. They were attentive. Adorable.

I got to a poem about a coconut tree with, to be frank, what had an absolutely dope rhyme scheme. So, I thought I’d add in some fun!

“Do you want to dance to this song?” I asked. A primal expression flashed across their eyes.

It’s my fault for deviating from the routine, but that’s where I lost them. Utter madness. I thought maybe a benevolent student would intervene, calm everyone down, and help me out. But every last one of them was lost in the sauce.

We never recovered.

Teachers of littles: You continue to have my undying respect.

3. Yes, cell phone bans are the answer.

The population breakdown at this middle school was identical to my last school. But for some reason, these kids seemed remarkably more upbeat, social, and—I don’t know how to describe it—bouncier? This comfortable goofiness is unique to middle schoolers, especially toward the end of the year.

I told this to a receptionist, and without skipping a beat, she told me, “It’s the phones.”

I had totally forgotten this district made the move to ban student cell phones at all elementary and middle school campuses. And it wasn’t just the receptionist—every teacher I talked to told me the impact of getting rid of cell phones was immediate, positive, and, most of all, huge.

Until we figure out a more creative solution for the death grip phones have on students’ attention, health, and happiness, bans are the answer.

4. Kids are still the best thing ever.

I realized during my time in the classroom how much I’ve missed working with kids. The students at these two schools cracked me up, helped me work out a plot kink in the book I’m working on(!), amazed me with their kindness and silliness, and definitely made me miss the gift of working with kids every day.

A kindergartner told me, “You smell like the beach,” which is how I realized I didn’t put on deodorant. (“Like, coconut sunscreen?” I asked hopefully. “No,” he said shaking his head. “Like, bad.”)

A 3rd grader whispered nervously in my ear, “I think I found a can of beer,” then pointed to the energy drink (unopened) I had waiting on my desk.

A 5th grader heard me say I used to teach at a local middle school and asked if I knew his cousin. “No, I haven’t heard that name. When did he go there?” I asked. “Oh, he doesn’t,” he said. “He lives in Ohio.” WHY ARE KIDS SO FUNNY.

I got to sit in on a high school writing workshop, which brought inexplicable joy to my English teacher heart.

Also, two middle schoolers liked my shoes and a high schooler complimented my hair bandanna, so I will be living off that teenage generosity for the next, oh, I don’t know, decade.

5. Attacks on literacy are still devastating to teachers—regardless of their political affiliation.

Pivoting to the very serious here, but in Texas there is very much still an active attack on literacy. Many districts across the state—including this one—have fired their librarians. Classroom libraries are under the microscope. (This collective attack on literacy was a big part of why I left in 2021.)

But talking to teachers, I was surprised to hear that the aftermath continues to be devastating. Even more surprising to me is that, despite the attack on literacy being politically motivated, teachers on both sides of the political spectrum agreed that the bans on books, the demonization of librarians, and the unnecessary oversight on classroom reading was having dire, cruel effects on their students.

6. Using a bathroom on a schedule is NOT an ability that’s “just like riding a bike.”

Have you seen the science experiment where an empty can of Coke crumples under pressure? That’s what I was convinced was going to happen to my lower half if I held in a fart in a middle school classroom any longer. At one point, my stomach was so close to breaking I involuntarily shot down into my rolly chair so low I almost fell out.

I thought my body might be, I don’t know, permanently altered from my time in the classroom and that I’d just fall back in step with not being able to use a bathroom for four hours at a time.

Nope. It’s a skill you can definitely lose.

7. Teaching is uniquely exhausting—and brave as hell.

People think the most exhausting thing about teaching is the kids, but it’s not. It’s mentally being on your A-game all day. Teachers can’t duck out and put someone else in charge. They can’t take 20 minutes whenever to take a breather, meditate, process, or unpack a situation. That mental demand is unreal—plus the physical exhaustion of being on your feet, a humid Houston fire drill, recess duty, not to mention waking up at the crack of dawn.

8. Schools are sacred places.

This is something I didn’t begin to grasp until I was out of the classroom, but there is a very special energy in a school building that’s just not there in other workplaces. Is it the people who work in schools? The students themselves? Maybe a special alchemy when you combine the smell of oil pastels, the shaky first notes of a middle school orchestra, the screech of sneakers on vinyl flooring?

I’m not sure. But if it’s not holy, it’s pretty dang close.

My two days back in the classroom were many things. Depressing, like when a teacher pointed out to me the librarian, pregnant with her first child, who was told recently along with all the other district librarians that her contract would be renewed. Perplexing, as in, “How did I do that for 11 years?” And deeply, deeply exhausting.

But it was also hopeful—seeing how reducing cell phone time revived an entire school. It was inspiring to watch teachers at the end of a school year reach into their reserves to continue to have kindness and patience for their students (and me).

But I think the best word for my two days back in classrooms is “validating.” Subbing reminded me that one of the best ways I can advocate for teachers and the magic they create on a daily basis is to make sure they’re getting their voices heard. I’m honored I get to do this—and I hope every classroom visit reminds me of this privilege.

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