Photo by Kenny Eliason on Unsplash

By: Mr. Substitute

Do you remember substitute teachers? If you’ve been in a school, public or private, it is safe to assume you’ve had one or several substitute teachers throughout your schooling–and it was never easy or fun as a student walking into a room where you’re used to seeing one face and now you’re seeing another. You walk in, maybe your teacher told you they would be gone that day, maybe they didn’t, regardless, you sit down and the energy is off, your routine has been tampered with and you become obsessed with the clock, your only ally for the 55 minute period.

Now flip the perspective.

You’re an adult with a Bachelor’s degree in a subject that you might not be substituting for that day. You’re on-call–most calls come starting at 5AM and the anxiety of “Am I going to be called in to work today? Will it be the campus I like? Will it be an easy day?” comes creeping in. You show up to the classroom and pray to every God you can name that the teacher left you a lesson plan, the first indicator of how your day is going to go, ranging from “Well I guess I’m babysitting today” to “I have no idea how to graph inequalities, what am I going to do?” Slowly (and usually late) students come traipsing in with the all-too-familiar “Aw, we got a sub…” and they slouch and sit at their desks. Class sizes, energies, disciplinary actions–all of these vary. You can have a class of 34 of students where not a single soul utters a peep and you can have a class of 18 rowdy, restless and rude students who refuse to acknowledge your authority usually with a “You’re not my teacher!” Yes, substitute teaching is entirely based on luck and you feel like Doctor Strange falling through the multiverse of madness on a daily basis.

Substitute teaching then becomes this game of “What can I control?” Reminder: you’re in a stranger’s room, maybe you know the teacher, odds are you don’t. Some desks are neat and organized, others look like Charlie’s search for Pepe Silvia (a nod to “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia”). But what every classroom has is a computer with (hopefully) good enough speakers. And my friends, music is universal.

Whenever I enter a classroom and get the lay of the land, I immediately start playing music and I keep music playing all day. Over the 5 years that I have been substitute teaching I’ve had a lot of trial-and-error when it comes to what music works for certain times/scenarios. Here is what is playing whenever I’m in a classroom:

Upon entry: You have to start the classes off with a good energy. When students enter the room and see that it is a substitute teacher, no good feeling arises and so I always start each class period with–you guessed it–ska. I actually made a Spotify playlist called “Ska for the Students” and it is filled with easy-listening, cursing-free, and recognizable tunes. Lots of Skatune Network (students love Skatune Network so that’s been so nice to just play their catalog and not worry about it) a few Five Iron Frenzy songs (minus the religious songs) definitely the Aquabats, a lot of bands from Moon Ska records. The energy is always upbeat (pun intended) and the song that usually catches the students’ attention is Skatune Networks’ cover of “Toxic” sung by the incredible Get Tuff. Bottom line: if ska is playing, I’m happy and the energy is usually good.

During class: Believe it or not, I’ve found one of my most invaluable skills is being able to read a room and that is crucial for being a substitute because it becomes an almost chemical and physical reaction when you play the wrong music. During class as a substitute I’ve found there are varying degrees of 3 types of classes: quiet and doing work, talkative and doing work, or talkative and not doing work (occasionally you’ll get the quiet and not doing work but it’s rare). Quiet classes always get Frédéric Chopin. I’ve heard countless times that it’s Mozart that is best to encourage learning but as someone who actually played Mozart in a very good orchestra, Mozart is for dancing, cleaning, anything being active–not sitting down and studying/reading/writing. Chopin always brings this peace and serenity to the room. Trust me. When it comes to a louder, more active room, I was shown by someone in the ska community (shout out to Rose) the absolute wonder, joy, and master of guitar that is Masayoshi Takanaka.

Again, Masayoshi Takanaka. Specifically his 1979 album “All of Me” that is a wonderful hour and 11 minutes (perfectly long enough for classes). I have played this album almost every day that I have substituted. I am literally listening to it right now as I write this article sitting in a US History class after telling the third person to ask me to use the restroom that they will have to wait for the others to go (we’ve been in class for 10 minutes).

Upon leaving: My best advice for “exit” music is to use the American Bandstand guidelines: as long as it has a good beat and you can dance to it. Pharrell is honestly the first person that comes to mind and obviously he has some bangers, but lately it’s been the Drums with their songs “Money” and “Let’s Go Surfing” or occasionally Catbite’s covers of “Bidi Bidi Bom Bom” or “Everybody Talks.”

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