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How to Deal: Substitute Teachers

We all have our favorite instructors – the ones whose classes we seek out and never miss if we can help it. I’m willing to bet most of us have had a moment where we look at the schedule and find out that our favorite teacher as a sub for their class…and we cancel. I’ve done it. I’ll admit it.

Sometimes, it’s simply that I was looking forward to a specific thing from a specific teacher, and I’m not in the mood to be open minded (terrible, I know). I want what I want. The sub may be great, and I may know that already, but I just…wanted that other thing. Other times, I know the sub and know that they are not my cup of tea. Maybe their style is not like mine, or they focus on moves that aren’t traditionally for me (i.e. anything overly bendy). Or…and this has happened…maybe I just don’t like them. As a person. That happens. And, I’m not about to drop money to spend 60 to 90 minutes with someone I don’t like.

Canceling class because of a sub is the right of any student. I would venture to bet that most studios expect some cancellations for subbed classes when there is a regular, much-beloved teacher who is out. But, I would also venture to say that a lot of the time, those students who do cancel because they want their favorite teacher are maybe missing out on the chance to learn something new, or even find some gem in the instruction that they didn’t think they’d find.

I recently went to a class, expecting a teacher that I really like to be there, and found a sub. I was a little let down, but happy to just be in a class and getting a chance to exercise. All of the students were polite, but a little reserved, as I think tends to happen with a sub. I think there’s a definite tendency to sit back a bit and take measure of the teacher, but also of what they intend to teach. And nobody wants to step on any toes at the outset (unless you’re a bratty student), so there’s also that tendency to hold back initially.

For students, I think dealing with a sub requires some measure of getting over yourself and being open. Maybe they aren’t teaching what you wanted to learn, but that does not mean that you won’t get something out of it. Maybe they’re a new teacher, or new to you, but either way, it doesn’t matter. What does matter? That you give them the same attention and respect that you would give to your regular teacher, and that you make an effort to follow their lesson plan, even if it’s different than what you are accustomed to. Because, truly, you never know what might click for you. Maybe that teacher will spot some bad habit you have that is keeping you from nailing something – a habit your regular teacher may accidentally overlook because they know you better. Maybe they’ll have another way of explaining something that makes more sense to you, for whatever reason. You never really know!

Nancy helps me out as I finish a complicated tumble. She's an awesome spotter!

Nancy helps me out as I finish a complicated tumble. She’s an awesome spotter!

On the flip side, if you are subbing someone else’s class, you have to expect some amount of dissention or discomfort from the group, but there are some things you can do to prepare. One suggestion I like is to approach each of the students and ask them individually what level they are at – what are tricks they are working on, what are they comfortable with (giving them examples, like shoulder mount, invert, etc.) – most teachers ask the class as a whole, which can work, but in classes with mixed levels, that can be tricky. And some students may be too shy to be honest in front of the group. While this suggestion does take more time, it may also allow the sub a moment to connect with each student and personalize the experience – that is, to be less of a stranger.

Another technique is to ask what the regular instructor has been teaching them – this can give you a good idea as to what the class may be looking to learn and where they are in terms of level. This does not mean you have to teach the same curriculum, unless it is required by your individual studio. But, it may give you the advantages I listed above, as well as the chance to add on. What I mean is: perhaps the regular teacher taught an Extended Butterfly to Flatline recently, but you can rock an Extended Butterfly to Reverse Poisson – that means that you can review a trick they know or have been working on, and add something really cool to it that they may not know. It’s a little familiar, but has a fun twist.

I think it’s also good to see if you can chat with the studio manager or the teacher for whom you are subbing and get a measure on the class: are they shy? Are they unruly? Do they have a tendency to go off the reservation and try stuff they shouldn’t? Are some at a higher level than others? How long is the usual warm up? How long is the actual class? (Sounds funny, but I once had a sub end a class 30 minutes early by mistake.) It’s also good to ask the teacher what has been on the agenda, too.

Having been on both sides of this issue, it’s an interesting and delicate one to me. I am generally averse to subs as a student, as I find that I tend to have some needs as a student that not all instructors can handle well (i.e. I ask A LOT of questions about small things within the technique, as it helps me to break down tricks better and make adjustments based on my own body – and not every teacher knows how to deal with that). I’m not fluid, bendy, or strong enough to just roll with any teacher, either – if I come in and there’s some back bending trick, I effectively just lost a class. And, I tend to feel bad about working on my own stuff in someone else’s class, so it’s a double fail.

That being said, I HAVE totally gotten stuff out of classes with subs. And, I always think it’s an excellent lesson to shut up and be open. In a recent class with a sub, the instructor had planned curriculum for a class that was far less advanced than the level of the students present (it was mixed level). As such, it was a lot of review on conditioning, which was a really good workout, although a little dull. Still, there were one or two things I hadn’t done before, so I got a chance to at least try those things, even if they weren’t really what I was hoping to do that day.

And, as someone who has subbed classes, I know it’s tough to do, especially if the teacher you are subbing for teaches in a completely different way than you do (which was the case for me). As much as I might pout about not getting to see my favorite teacher, I do have empathy for the person subbing – it’s not easy! As a sub, you’re generally trying their best to do right by the class. Ultimately, while it’s good to know and understand someone else’s way of teaching, you must be comfortable in order to be effective. If someone’s style is completely different than yours, don’t sweat it! Just let the class know ahead of time what to expect: how the warm up will run and how you teach. It won’t guarantee that they’ll be totally into it, but at least they won’t be surprised.

So, the next time you have a sub, consider attending class and being open to what they have to offer – you’ll probably get something out of it! And, if you’ve got a class to sub coming up, do your research and remember to have fun!

Update: A friend of mine mentioned that she’s seen students go as far as to arrive to class, change into their clothes, then leave as soon as they see there is a sub…or leave right after warm up…or even ask if there is another class going on they can take instead while IN FRONT of the sub. All of those things are rude. Just flat out rude. If you arrive and find a sub you weren’t expecting, it can be a disappointment, but you’re there already. Commit and make the best of it, especially since you’re going to lose the class credit if you don’t. If you haven’t gone into the class yet and want to inquire about switching, do so in a discreet manner and only involve the front desk. But once you are in that door, honor the instructor and be present. Don’t be a douche.

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