One of the layers of hell: subbing someone else’s class

Ok, maybe it’s not a layer of hell, but it’s really uncomfortable.

If you’ve ever subbed someone else’s class, you know what I’m talking about.

Not that long ago I subbed for a friend of mine’s class, I sat down in the spot that she normally sits in and I suddenly felt like a dazed deer. The thought, “this is her spot” went through my head, and I had a surreal moment when I felt like I was in a spotlight.

Not in the “Oooh, look at me! I’m in the spotlight!” kind of way. But the kind where I’m trying to quietly sneak out of somewhere and all of a sudden thwak, the spotlight goes on and I’m frozen in my tracks, exposed.

The truth is, a subbed class is an awkward and potentially triggering event for sub and students alike. As a teacher, you’re unfamiliar with the students and maybe it’s not a class time or style that you normally teach, so you’re completely out of your comfort zone.

As a student, it’s not the warm fuzzy blanket of what’s familiar, so you’re also out of your comfort zone. And when everyone in the room is out of their comfort zone, you get a whole room full of triggered people. The tendency is to not even notice that you’re triggered or to pretend that you’re not triggered.

Having been a student in a class where my teacher has a sub, I know that being triggered for me means being ornery or being inwardly judgmental of the new teacher, or (yes, I’ve done this, too) just deciding to leave when I see that it’s not my teacher who is teaching.

Given that I know that students must feel some of the same things that I’ve experienced as a student, when I’m a sub and I’m triggered because I’m uncomfortable, my tendency is to try to make the students feel comfortable.

In the past I’ve done this in different ways—I’ve tried to teach more aligned with how their usual teacher teaches than with how I teach, I’ve taught a very vanilla class so as not to offend anyone or I’ve tried to throw the kitchen sink of what I know about yoga at them so they see how smart I am as a teacher.

The common theme of all of those above techniques is of trying to please the students so they’ll like me, and doing it in a way that abandons who I am as a teacher. I know when I’m doing that because the general flavor of the class is either lifeless and robotic or kind of spastic and hasty. And during it I feel disconnected from the students and from myself. Most of all, I know when I’m teaching that way because it’s just not fun. It can feel like hell.

Not to say that the class that I subbed for my friend felt like hell—hardly. But it definitely was not as fun as I normally have when I teach. So I came home and sat with why that was and what I could have done differently. I came up with an idea, and the next time I had to sub a class I tried it out, and it worked beautifully.

It has to do with expectations—mine and the students’. When a student shows up for a class and finds that her teacher isn’t there, one of her big expectations has already not been met. And if her tendency is to want to compare me to her teacher throughout the entire class I will continue to fail to meet her expectations. Guaranteed. Even if I’m a great teacher, I can never be someone else.

This I’ve recognized before, and simply spoken to it at the beginning of class. Essentially saying “release your expectations and be open to what I have to offer.” But I’ve found this isn’t enough.

Because I’ve realized that I have expectations of my students. There are ways that I’m accustomed to interacting with students that fits my style of teaching and that is different than the way others teach. For example, I really like class to be collaborative. I almost always ask what people want to work on that day, and I often ask questions throughout that aren’t rhetorical—I really want people to respond and to find a bit of dialogue to enhance the learning environment.

When those expectations weren’t met when I subbed a class—people not interacting as much as I’m used to—I felt more and more uncomfortable. I left feeling ornery, just like I had been a student who was irritated by having a sub.

What I realized is: it’s not my job to meet their expectations in relationship to being like their teacher, nor should I expect them to let go of their expectations. In fact, I shouldn’t let go of mine either. Instead, it’s my job as the teacher to set new expectations.

So that’s what I did the most recent time I subbed my friend’s class. I started class by briefly saying how my approach to teaching differs a bit from hers, and then I asked for what I needed from the students so that I could offer them my best teaching. Then I just dropped in and did what I do.

The result: no dazed deer, no sense of being trapped by a spotlight or enduring 90 minutes in hellish discomfort.

It doesn’t mean that everyone loved how I taught, but everyone did know what to expect. And with all of us having shared expectations there was more comfort all around, and class flowed with ease. I had fun because I got to be me, and I left feeling good that I had given them the best class I could.

So though subbing someone else’s class might not be a layer of hell, expecting someone else to meet your expectations without having conveyed what your expectations are just might be.