What’s one way Christian parents can engage with the public school system?

An interview with two substitute teachers

February 12, 2020

I began substitute teaching in our school district last fall, having been encouraged by two friends to try it out. Like many who work as substitutes, I pursued it because it allowed me to be home with my children and to work a flexible schedule. It has been both more challenging and more rewarding than I had imagined. Walking into a new classroom, I never know what I will encounter. Are the kids going to be respectful? Will we have safety drills? What discipline issues will crop up? What heartbreaking information will a child share with me? 

Over time, I have grown to see this job as a ministry to my community. And, as with any ministry, I need mentors who will share from their own experience and help me do this job well. To that end, I have asked my friends who have been subbing for several years to share about their experience substitute teaching and why they believe more Christians should consider taking on this role. Melanie Coppenger is married to Jed and has three children. They live in Franklin, Tennessee, where Jed pastors Redemption City Church. Jen Brewer is married to Jeff and has four daughters. They live in Wheaton, Illinois, where Jeff pastors Hope Fellowship Church. 

Catherine Parks: Will you share about one of your most rewarding days as a sub?

Melanie Coppenger: I wouldn’t say there is a day that stands out above the rest, but it’s more certain moments. Like when I am subbing in the elementary school and I walk in to start the day, it means so much to me to have all kinds of little kiddos running up to me and giving me a hug and being so excited to see “Mrs. C!” Or it’s having a breakthrough with a kid whom I have spent so much time discipling, seeing them be respectful or look me in the eye or have self control in an area they struggle in. Or it’s having the kids come in the class, see that I’m their sub, and say, “Oh yay, it’s you!”

CP: Will you share about one of your most challenging days?

Jen Brewer: I don’t have a specific day, but there are a few things that can make a day a challenge. When students are unmotivated and don’t care to participate or do their assignments, that can be frustrating. There is also a lack of respect for adults and authority figures, as well as fellow classmates. Because of these challenges, I sometimes feel like I have overlooked many capable and/or quiet students because they didn’t require much attention or oversight during the day.

MC: I’ve had a handful of challenging days. Some have been challenges with other staff and not feeling welcomed in the school. Some have been particular children. But one in particular happened recently. I was in a classroom that I’ve subbed in several times and knew all the students and teacher very well. That day, there was a boy who just had zero self control over his emotions. Another boy in the class took it upon himself to make sure he irritated him the whole day, despite all my efforts to separate them from one another. Some kids in the classroom were getting so stressed that they started crying. I don’t think I effectively made it through any of the teaching instructions for the day. And then I ended the day with bus duty for the bus that arrived last. I’ve yet to return to that classroom!

CP: How do you view substitute teaching as a ministry? 

MC: I signed up as a substitute teacher when my youngest child went to kindergarten. I was wanting some type of work outside of the home, but needed it to be flexible and work with my kids' school schedules. When I first started subbing, I approached it as a way to make money that didn’t require a lot of commitment. When I took my first sub job it was working with two children with special needs. I wasn’t given a lot of background information on them, just their schedules for the day. I quickly realized I had no idea the depths of their needs and that I had taken a job way above my skill set. I decided that while I was caring for them that day, I would love on them the best I could because they are made in the image of God and that if I did that, the day was a success. 

Subbing will call you to continually praise God for teachers, aides, and staff, and to pray for them without ceasing.

Each job I took in my early days showed me more and more how most kids have a low level of respect for authority, don’t know how to look an adult in the eyes when they’re being spoken to, and some have a home life that would bring you to tears. I do approach my responsibility as a sub as a ministry. I pray for the jobs I take. I try and get to know the kids in each class I have. 

One of my goals each time I sub is that kids would understand better how to show respect to authority as well as to their friends and classmates. I try my best to be an encouragement to the other teachers who are working in the school I am in. And I try and leave the classroom in a place that will be helpful for the teacher when he or she returns to school. 

JB: Everything we do unto the Lord is a ministry, or at least worship unto him.  What a blessed privilege to be permitted to enter the schools and honorably serve these faithful, hardworking educators who show up each day, year after year.  What a joy to get to know the staff and to be able to show an interest in their lives as we interact with them each week. What a treasure to encourage, support, guide, and engage with the students as they do the job God has called them to do every Monday through Friday.  What a humbling, enlightening opportunity to understand what our own children experience so many hours every month. 

CP: How has substitute teaching changed you and changed the way you view schools, teachers, and students?

MC: Before substitute teaching, I had zero experience as a teacher. I volunteered as much as I could in my kids’ schools, so I had a pulse on their schools. I had frustrations and didn’t understand certain procedures. It’s safe to say my low view of teachers and how schools make decisions quickly changed! I spent most of the first few months subbing coming home super exhausted. Teachers work so hard and have some extremely complex issues they face with their students. They have standards to meet, plans to make, emails to answer, issues to deal with. Their jobs do not end when the last bell rings. I have greater compassion for them and try my best to be a source of encouragement and not frustration for them.

I also was enlightened to the strenuous pace of my kids’ school day. Whew. There is not a lot of social time for them, so I now understand why they are so chatty when I pick them up. I understand why my boys need to have play time when they get home. I try to be more sensitive to letting them unwind after school is over. 

JB: Subbing will call you to continually praise God for teachers, aides, and staff, and to pray for them without ceasing. They not only serve and love the children, but must also stay updated on all state standards, attend countless meetings, interact with families, and maintain their own home lives. I don’t know how they do it all. 

CP: What advice would you give to a new substitute teacher?

JB: Here are a few things:

My ongoing motto is “I can do anything for a day . . . or half a day.” Feel free to try any assignment in any school, and know that you can always decline it the next time if it doesn’t appeal to you.  

Remember that there are always many facets to each person and every situation. You can’t know what’s going on in each of their lives and can’t solve all their problems or heal all their wounds. Therefore, simply seek to be the light of Christ to each one with a comforting smile, an encouraging word, and a caring attitude. You can’t save the world (or a classroom) in a day, but you can be a beautiful representative of a loving Savior

Pray on the way to the school and in the classroom, especially before the students enter.  Don’t forget to reconnect in prayer with the Lord over lunch or during a break. 

CP: What would you say to a fellow Christian considering substitute teaching?

MC: I am always encouraging friends to start subbing at their local schools. It is a great way to work while being sensitive to your family schedule and needs. It definitely takes work while you are there subbing, but man, so many moments have been so worth it. And getting to see my kids throughout the day is such a gift. 

There is such a need for bright lights in the public school system. Kids are so hungry for adult attention, interaction, praise, and even instruction. You will definitely be sanctified in this role, but I know I would say it’s made me a better person.  

Catherine Parks

Catherine Parks writes and lives in Nashville, Tennessee, with her husband, two children, and a cute dog named Ollie. She's the author of Empowered and Strong, collections of biographies for middle-grade readers. You can find more of her writing at Read More