Career Advice

Substitute Teacher Gave Up Six-figure Job For the Sake of Family

This working professional quit a six-figure job to have more time with her children. She then pursued an opportunity as a substitute teacher. In this flexible and unpredictable role, she finds the opportunity to teach others and build relationships.

What is your job title and what industry do you work in? How many years of experience do you have in that field?
I am an Associate Teacher, with 3 years of experience.

Would you describe what you do on a typical day?
I help teach the class assigned for the day. It might be Kindergarten through 12 grade, any subject. I also teach children with disabilities. First, I arrive at the school and pick up lesson plans. I review them as well as I can while trying to remember the front desk’s instruction. I wait for students to arrive and greet them. I take attendance as often as needed. I execute lesson plans and make sure that students know and FEEL that I am willing to help them one-on-one.

What is your ethnicity? How has it hurt or helped you?
I am Hispanic. People tend not to think of me as Hispanic when they see me, because of my name and my looks. This bothers me sometimes that people automatically assume I am just white. I was brought up in South America, spoke Spanish first, and still speak it fluently, and was educated in that language. Being Hispanic has helped me because not only can I understand Latino culture, but I also think it makes me more tolerant of other ethnicities and cultures. Additionally, speaking Spanish opens so many doors of trust with students. I have seen many Latino students instantly brighten up when I pronounce their names correctly or when, for example, I sing to them in Spanish.

If you’ve experienced discrimination, in what ways have you responded and what response worked best?
I have experienced discrimination from people who knew I was Latina, and have also seen it happen to other Latinos. For me, I have been looked down on by a fellow Latina because I did not “look” like her and her version of what Hispanics should look like. I have also endured derisive remarks about Latinos from a few non-Latinos.

I responded to these people by explaining my Latino background and my love of my Latino side. I try to convince others of the value of diversity and the importance of looking at people’s hearts instead of automatically making assumptions because of their looks. Explaining the facts, showing empathy yet standing firm to defend Hispanic values and culture works best for me.

What languages do you speak? How has speaking another language helped you?
I speak Spanish and it has helped me tremendously. I have been able to help Spanish speaking parents navigate the intimidating process of enrolling their child in school. I have also been able to translate documents in Spanish and read and interpret them into English. The biggest advantage is the feeling of trust generated when a Spanish speaking person realizes that you are reaching out to them by speaking their language. That is priceless!

What did you learn the hard way in this job and how did that happen?
I learned that politics exist in EVERY job and that it is important to safely navigate the political waters in order to attain one’s objectives, such as empathy and assistance to Latino immigrant families.

What don’t they teach in school that would’ve been helpful to you?
They don’t teach the importance of identifying early on those who are powerful enough to make the changes one desires and how to go about befriending them. I was very naive until I actually worked for a couple of big organizations with hierarchies.

How did you get started in this line of work? If you could go back and do it differently, what would you change?
I left a six-figure salary to stay home with my children. I wanted a flexible job, and also wanted to learn new techniques for educating and managing my four children (three teenagers and a child). If I could change things, I would have researched substitute teacher opportunities and applied much earlier!

On a good day, when things are going well, can you give an example of something that really makes you feel good?
The most important thing is to realize that a student suddenly “gets” the lesson I am imparting. I live for these moments especially since I am not a teacher by training and am not as gifted as some of my peers.

When nothing seems to go right, what kind of snafus do you handle and what do you dislike the most?
Sometimes I will arrive at a school and another substitute is already there for the same job. I stay calm, offer myself for another opportunity, and if all else fails, graciously go home. Aside from trying to remain polite, I want them to invite me back!

One of the things I dislike the most are administrators who offer to help with a potential discipline problem and then resent it when I actually have to call him or her.

How stressful is your job? Are you able to maintain a comfortable or healthy work-life balance?
Some days are stressful and others are not at all. I try to remember that I am only there for the day or two, try to focus on what I helped the kids learn that day, and try to look forward to something fun I will do later.

What’s a rough salary range for the position you hold? Are you paid enough considering your responsibilities?
I earn about $12.64 an hour. If I worked full time, this would equate to about $25,000 a year minus about three months of summer and holidays that no work is available. Substitutes’ salaries were cut ten percent last year in my district; I feel we should be paid at least what we earned last year. We not only have the responsibility of teaching the kids, but we also ensure that teachers can take time off for emergencies and vacations.

What’s the most rewarding moment you’ve experienced in this position? Of all the things you’ve done at work, what are you most proud of?
The most rewarding moments are those when the students have thanked me for helping them learn something. It’s an unbelievable feeling. These moments taught me that expressed gratitude is so rewarding to the recipient, and it’s so cheap! It doesn’t cost anything to say thank you. I am most proud of my perseverance and struggle to become at least an effective (if not, superlative) teacher. When I started the job, I was literally petrified for about a week. I had to force myself to calm down, to patiently read handwritten plans, and to manage my time adequately so I could absorb the lesson plans in time for class.

What’s the most challenging moment you’ve experienced? What would you prefer to forget?
I worked in one class for three days where students were swearing and trying to engage in a physical fight. This was very stressful and I would love to forget it!

What education and skills do you need to get hired and succeed in this field?
You need a four year degree and teaching experience (not necessarily in a traditional classroom). A love of children and learning is also essential.

What would you tell a friend considering your line of work?
That it’s tough but rewarding, and you learn skills that will help you manage your own children.

How much vacation do you take? Is it enough?
Very little. I don’t work certain days because I am a single parent with four children. I keep thinking of future vacation plans and that keeps me going.

Are there any common myths you want to correct about what you do?
That teaching is a grind and is very rigid. Teaching can be exhausting but there are many things one can do to ameliorate any stressful situations that come up. There are so many new ways to learn; it’s amazing! Kids can learn through the computer, the Internet, in a garden. Current students are so fortunate to learn in the current environment.

If you could write your own ticket, what would you like to be doingin five years?
I would be an immigration rights lawyer/advocate.

Is there anything unique about your situation that readers should know when considering your experiences or accomplishments?
I am a parent of three teenagers and an eleven year old. I was single for many years until I recently married, yet my husband lives in Chicago, so I am still on my own a lot. I try to give the best I have in my job. I believe every job, even if it is not earning you gobs of money, can teach you something that you will find useful now and forever. For me, teaching taught me how to be more patient with my children, how to discipline them more effectively and foremost, how to help them grasp learning concepts.