Redwood Valley substitute teacher Chris Bebeau uses the phrase “chameleon myself in” to describe how he sees his job.

What is life like for a substitute teacher?
Chris Bebeau uses the phrase “chameleon myself in” to describe how he sees his job.
“I’m not there to impose a certain style on the classroom,” he said.
Bebeau earned a teaching degree in college. However, after graduation he went on to a career in business management instead. He has been substitute teaching for area schools for the past two years.
Bebeau is licenced to teach everything from kindergarten through 12th grade, so he has to radically adjust his teaching style from day to day.
“Kindergarteners are very literal minded, and very schedule oriented,” he said. “If you change the schedule around, they’re always quick to call you on it. They know exactly what’s going on in their room.”
The older the students get, the more conversational the teaching style gets.
Jan Ellingworth knows all about teaching high schoolers. She taught ninth grade English at RVHS until she retired due to a medical condition.
“I had carpel tunnel from all the writing and correcting I had to do 24/7. They told me I had to stop if I wanted to keep full use of my arm,” she said.
“I knew I would miss the students, and wasn’t ready to leave the classroom,” she said. “I missed the atmosphere of the school — it’s very energizing.”
Currently the RV school district has 24 substitute teachers on call. Most are retired teachers, while a few have other jobs they’re trying to juggle.
Lisa Hildebrandt, in the main office of RVMS, is responsible for finding each day’s substitute teachers.
“Finding subs is the worst part of my job,” she said. “The more people we can get on the lists, the better.”
If a teacher is ill and needs a sub with no warning, Hildebrandt generally gets the phone call by 7 a.m. She keeps a copy of the call sheet at home, and makes calls to subs while she’s getting ready to head out to the school herself.
Many substitute teachers are also on the call lists for schools in Wabasso, Morgan, Sleepy Eye, Franklin, and other communities.
If there’s a wave of sickness going around, it’s not unusual for school to compete for subs, frantically trying to get the best ones before someone else grabs them.
“The state of Minnesota knows rural schools have a difficult time finding substitutes, so they’ll grant short-term sub licenses,” said RV district payroll clerk Sandy MacHolda. “There’s a district hardship form designed for schools in rural areas.”
Most of the Redwood Valley district’s subs are from Redwood Falls, but some have come from as far as Renville and Marshall.
Since Ellingworth lives only a few blocks away from the schools, and only subs for the RV district, she can be available at a moment’s notice.
Substitute teachers have to be licenced by the state. Depending on the license, they can teach either short term (up to 15 consecutive days in one classroom), or long term.
If Hildebrandt can’t find a substitute on short notice, she’ll check to see if a teacher already in the building can step in for an hour or two.
“If it’s a really bad day, I’ll get called in,” joked middle school principal Wade Mathers.
“Some of our subs are college kids, earning a few dollars while home on break,” said MacHolda. “It depends on how many teachers are ill that day. If there’s five teachers sick at each site, it could get tricky. There’s only a limited number of good subs.”
Bebeau likes doing long-term subbing since he can plan his schedule several weeks in advance.
“I average four days a week, but many many weeks I get five, often for all day,” he said.
When prospective subs are called for the day — or partial day — they are told what classes they’re needed for.
“Substitutes tell us what assignments they’re willing to accept,” said MacHolda. “For example, some might not want to teach special ed., phy. ed, or music.”
What if Ellingworth has to teach a subject she’s not as familiar with?
“I go in there and pretend to know what I’m doing,” she said. “I can still do math better than a fifth grader.”
“This school district does a really good job of setting up subs with good backup, and has extra work for the students available,” said Bebeau. “There’s usually always someone you can go to.”
“My goal isn’t to just go in and babysit,” said Ellingworth. “I want to be active with the lesson plan, so the kids don’t miss a beat. Most teachers are very organized. They’ll spend two or three hours putting together a lesson plan for a substitute.”
“Depending on the subject, I have the opportunity to actually teach curriculum,” said Bebeau, whose teaching degree is in social science. He said one of his best resources is the students themselves.
“There are usually one or two go-to kids the teacher entrusts to help,” he said.
“The students are very helpful,” said Ellingworth. “If I look confused, they’ll be very happy to show me the technology, like how to use the smart board.”
Bebeau sometimes uses his days to let students work on homework. He’ll go check in with the students’ other teachers to see what homework they could be working on.
“I do a lot of improvising,” said Bebeau. “If the kids get through the work required for that day, I need to have a good Plan B ready.”
Ellingworth says, “Substitute teaching is different, and wonderful. There’s no meetings, you don’t prepare lessons, you don’t correct papers. You’re a lot more rested when you go into the classroom.”
Bebeau said he hasn’t had too many problems with discipline.
“You have to set some basic guidelines. When students get to know how you operate as a sub, when they get to know your boundaries, it helps,” he said.
“There are always some kids who have to test boundaries, but once you set the rules, they’re usually not any trouble.
Generally, middle-schoolers (grades 5-8) are the greatest discipline challenge.
Bebeau said, “In grade school the students are a little more in-line with the authority of the teacher, and in high school the students have a little more motivation because they can see the light at the end of the tunnel.”
“Ninety-eight percent of the student body is made up of wonderful kids who don’t want to be in trouble,” said Ellingworth. “I love being back with the students, but not having to do the 24/7 paper correcting.”
She continued, “Right now I can still relate to these students, but I won’t sub anymore when I feel too much of an age difference. I still know their music and slang, but if I start to feel out-of-touch I’ll probably do more volunteer work in some other capacity.”
Bebeau said, “Substitute teaching isn’t something you make a living at, but it’s a great opportunity to get to know a school district, especially if you’re a parent. I find it really enjoyable.”