How to survive as a substitute teacher

January 21 2016 | Guest post by Mary B.
Mug by Etsy seller PhotoCeramics
Mug by Etsy seller PhotoCeramics

Supply teacher. Occasional teacher. Substitute teacher. Guest teacher… Whatever the term, the job is the same: replacing permanent classroom teachers when they are away.

For some people, it's a temp job. Other folk are what I refer to as "career supply teachers," as the job is flexible enough to allow for balance in a busy life. In my case, supply teaching is an entry-level position, the first step to obtaining a permanent contract and a classroom to call home.

I'm now in the thick of my third year, and thought I would share a few tips and tricks to those just starting their education careers, or those considering this vocational path. My experience comes from the public system, but these tips could easily be applied to private schools.

Step one: Get organized

It can get a little complicated because I'm on both the elementary and secondary supply lists for my board: elementary jobs are distributed via a call-out system, whereas secondary jobs are usually booked by the individual teacher or administrator. Organization is the key to my sanity, given multiple schools, random hours, and everything else I have to track.

  • Every single school is a contact on my phone, in case I need to connect with admin in a hurry.
  • Develop a working knowledge of how to get to school: I use public transit or walk/bike to work, but also have driving routes in mind in case someone offers me a ride.
  • Keep track of jobs on multiple calendars: my wall calendar, personal agenda, an online calendar, and the wall calendar at my mum's house because she cares for my daughter on my teaching days.

Step two: Get ready

I aim to dress in a manner appropriate for the subject area — clothes that can withstand mess for kindergarten, outfits that facilitate movement for drama, etc.

  • My wardrobe is a streamlined ones: lots of sweaters, blouses, and cardigans that can be paired with neutral bottoms.
  • I have three pairs of black work shoes: sneakers with non-marking soles, flats, and low-heels (there are days when I need the confidence boost that only the click-clack of heels can provide).
  • Layers help, as I have taught in everything from frosty portables to tropical kindergartens.
  • If you are an elementary school teacher, you'll want to consider outdoor clothing for yard duty. (I'm Canadian, so winter wear is a must! Last year marked the first time I have worn snowpants to school since the sixth grade.)

I usually try to eat a decent breakfast before teaching, but it's not always possible with last-minute calls. My giant lunch bag is the solution to that problem.

  • Bring food — bring more food than you think you will need.
  • A typical lunch includes: leftovers (or a microwave dinner in a pinch), fruit, veggies, dairy, a couple snacks, and a giant bottle of water.
  • You may or may not have access to a fridge, so an insulated lunch bag with cool packs is a good idea.
  • Not all staff rooms are created equal: microwaveable containers and cutlery is a must as far as I'm concerned.
  • Eat well. Teaching is a difficult job, and it becomes even more challenging when hangry.

The final part of getting ready is packing your bag. My supply teacher toolkit contains all the things I need to survive and thrive. Get these items, and add your own:

  • Lanyard and whistle
  • Water bottle (get one with a distinctive design so you're less likely to lose it!)
  • Lip balm
  • Unscented hand sanitizer and hand lotion
  • Tissues
  • Cliff bars for food emergencies (opt for nut-free)
  • Cough drops, antacids, painkillers, and other meds as needed
  • Gum, mints, travel oral hygiene stuff. Do not be the supply teacher with garlic breath!
  • Period stuff if necessary
  • A journal or log book to track your assignments
  • A binder full of lined, blank, and grid paper. This is optional, but it helps to reduce the "I can't do my assignment, I don't have any paper" excuse.
  • More pens, pencils, erasers, and sharpeners than you know what to do with. They will be used, borrowed, and lost.
  • A book to read during prep, lunch, commutes, or other downtime.
  • Emergency lesson plans and activities. Shit happens: teachers have emergencies, technology can and will fail, rooms get double booked. Have a backup plan in place.

Step four: Let's do this thing!

Know your rights and responsibilities as a supply teacher. I cannot stress this enough. What does your school/board/district expect of you? What about your union? Your regulatory body or professional organization? Knowing these rights and responsibilities (when to refuse work, when to fill out an incident report, etc) is key to success as a supply teacher.

Get to know your school. Supply teaching can be incredibly stressful, and incredibly isolating. Introduce yourself to your neighbours, connect with the principal. Don't spend lunch eating alone in your class — go to the staff room and join a table. Get on the good side of office administrators and custodians: they hold the figurative and literal keys to the kingdom.

Think about professional development. Your board or union may offer PD sessions specifically geared towards supply teachers, so take advantage of it. Develop your skills related to classroom management, differentiated instruction, special education, and integrating technology and the arts. If your board is following certain learning programs or goals, learn the lingo and what it looks like in the classroom and in your own personal practice. Reflect on your own teaching in order to improve it.

Have fun (and shake it off). Teaching is in no means an easy profession, and supply teaching adds extra stresses and challenges. Laugh when you can. Take downtime when you need it. Relax and re-energize at school if you need to — leave the property for a brisk walk at lunch, do some sun salutations in your classroom, play your favourite songs. You are doing an important job, and need to take care of yourself in order to be successful at it. My worst teaching day was followed by one of the best meals I ever made: I de-stress by cooking Sunday dinners on a weeknight.

Find what works for you, and build it into your routine. Good luck!

Any other substitute teachers wanna give up their survival tips?

  1. I worked as a substitute teacher for about 1.5 (school) years in Florida, Maryland, and Delaware. I have a teaching degree and thought that it was a good stepping stone to my own classroom. I think that the experience of subbing is much different in the US than Canada (for the worse). Here are a couple of things that I found from my time subbing in the states.

    Teachers don't trust subs to teach. In the US, you do not have to be a certified teacher to sub or have any sort of post highschool degree, so most subs have no teaching experience. You are a warm body/babysitter and the lesson plans that are left for you will often be 1. useless or 2. something the students have already done. Bring backup activities. I always had a movie (one on VHS and one on DVD because some schools are antiquated) and coloring pages/word searches/riddles etc. as distraction/time filler. These were also used as rewards for students who completed work left by the teacher.

    Schools can and will switch your assignment after you arrive, be prepared. I went to sub assignments expecting to be in an honors history room and ended up as the substitute gym teacher. I was wearing heels and a nice blouse the first time it happened. After that, I always kept a pair of socks and sneakers in my car just in case. I also moved from a computer room to jr ROTC, 5th grade to Kindergarten etc.

    If you're really good, some school systems will purposefully not hire you. If you are a regular sub at a school and a job opening comes up, it may not be the way into a permanent job. Schools LOVE to have reliable, regular subs that teachers know that they can leave actual work for. They don't want to lose you, so they will purposefully not hire you as a full time employee. It blows and is stupid.

    Kids are really mean. Seriously. They will lie to you about their names, seating charts, work, everything. They will be mean to you. They will get in your face. Depending on your school, they will scare you (I had one school and the administrator showed me where the panic button was in the room in case I needed security). You will drink a bunch of wine at home and not sub the next day.

    As a Sub in the states, you aren't part of the teacher's union, so there really isn't any PD or benefits or anything. Different states run things different. Maryland and Florida the sub assignments wen through the different county governments. Delaware's sub service was run through a staffing service which served 3 districts across two counties. Each place required it's own application and finger printing/background checks.

    Subbing, for me, was pretty terrible. It did teach me a lot of about the different districts in my area and which schools I was interested in becoming a full time teacher at. As someone new to the area I was living in, it also helped me learn my way around. However, for me, there were more bad days than good and I was elated when I decided to be done with it.

    • It's unfortunate about conditions for US substitute teachers, especially when it comes to permanent hiring practices. I'm nodding my head about the need for backup plans, and wine. I have had more than a few days where the liquor store was the first stop on my route home.

      • I found subbing in rural school districts were better. The kids were more respectful, and the admin was more engaged. You can often tell how good a teacher is with their own behavior management by how the kids treat the sub. Often mean kids to the sub is a sign of bad behavior management from the regular teacher.

        Also, ALWAYS ALWAYS ALWAYS leave a detailed note of what you did and how the day went. I always did this when I subbed and I think it went a long way in them asking me back. It ensures that discipline for misbehaving students is followed up on, and as full time teacher, I HATE it when I come back the next day and there is no note about how things went. I feel totally in the dark.

        • The detailed note is key for communicating. A friend of mine is a full-time teacher to a high-needs class. She hates it when guest teachers leave notes saying "everything went well", because chances are that is not an honest note given the needs of her students. If everything did go well, then a more specific note is also appreciated (especially when teaching a challenging class).

          On the flip side of notes, I do much better as a supply teacher when the classroom teacher leaves me a detailed overview of the class. High-needs students, helpful students, seating plans, daily routines, the works! I have taught in classes where key information was missing (not knowing a student was legally blind, safety plans not present, etc). Those situations are a recipe for disaster for everyone, and can easily be avoided.

    • As a former substitute teacher for a school system in Maryland, I can agree with a lot of this comment. The kids were mean – K-12, I dealt with it all. They'd lie about EVERYTHING, just because you were a sub, and thus were on the same level as dirt. One of the worst classrooms I ever had was a bunch of 4th graders – they nearly made me cry in front of them (and I did cry, later. Small comfort – when I let the teacher know how… poorly the students behaved, the teacher told me that most nights she went home and cried herself.) Some full time teachers treated me like a moron, so I made a point to find out where the teachers were eating lunch and eat with them so I could engage with them in conversation and show them that I was more than just "another warm body/babysitter." My assignments were sometimes shifted the second I came in (I also had classroom-teacher-to-gym-teacher experiences – several times), and often I had to cover the equivalent of two different assignments and received no break. I came home exhausted, mentally and physically, most evenings. I was so glad to finish substitute teaching (a flexible job while earning a second degree) and head on to graduate school.

      Mind you, I built positive relationships with particular grades at middle schools or particular content areas in high schools. By the end, I was a favored sub for band/orchestra classes, as I had a music degree and could conduct and thus run rehearsals. There were good points, there were good students, and there were good days. However, I can't honestly say that the good days outnumbered the bad, or that I truly enjoyed substitute teaching. YMMV. Most of the time, I brought a notebook and pen with me, and wrote "letters" to my partner or to myself or to a friend – stream of consciousness journalling I could do to keep me sane.

    • I have to say, I'm one of those full time teachers who doesn't trust subs. I still don't leave useless material, but unless I know the sub-like, the sub is a coworker, because that can happen sometimes-I leave three lesson plans in the classroom, one with the academic coach, one with the principal and one with all the other teachers in my grade, so they can all keep an eye out to make sure the plan is being followed.
      In my defense, subs rarely follow the lesson plan unless I do all of this. My plan will say "have the students read ch. 5 and then explain why the setting is important to this story" or "write a short essay explaining how wins, losses, penalties, and scoring work in your favorite sport" and instead of that, the sub will treat the day as a free day. If I have the kids get on computers, it's less terrible. More than that, I've had subs steal or allow the kids to steal from my desk (doughnuts are especially popular), I've gone with every book in perfect condition and come back to pages torn out and covers ripped off, and I've definitely come back to absolutely zero work done, even by students who are normally conscientious.

      You're probably an amazing sub. I've had terrible experiences here, and I really dislike using subs.

      • I'm on the same page as you. I'm a full time teacher, and unless I know the sub, I have to assume that whatever I need the kids to get done, may very well not be done. An amazing sub is a diamond in the rough!

        At my district we have a "requested subs" list in our substitute online system, and when we put in an absence, it automatically sends an email to our preferred subs first. Then, if the job isn't picked up by one of them it goes to "the pool," where anyone can take it. For people out there who are currently working as subs, the best ways to get yourself onto these preferred lists with individual teachers are to:
        -Follow the lesson plan. Emergencies happen, but not teaching a lesson plan because you "think it looked boring" or "couldn't find it," are not excuses (these are actual excuses).
        -Be firm but nice with the kids. As stated by other commenters, they are mean little buggers. Mine require what I like to call "an iron fist with a gentle touch."
        -Leave detailed notes. The more information the better, especially if there were any problems or confusion with the lesson plan. Knowing ahead of time about problems allows us to address those the next class period.

        For those awesome subs out there, YOU ARE MAGICAL BEINGS AND WE LOVE YOU!!! 🙂

        • I do not blame teachers for not liking subs or trusting them. It would be so much better if schools were able to have more full time subs. This is something that I encountered in Florida during my teaching practicum where a certified teacher was hired to work in a school and subbed in different classrooms as needed. When not in the classroom, they assisted in administrative capacities or served as a second adult in some higher needs classrooms. It enabled the students in the school to have a familiar presence that they knew would also be there the next day to talk to their regular teacher as well as knowing the administrative staff and procedures.

          It would also be wonderful if subs in the US were required to have some sort of training with the district or schools before being sent into the classroom.

          With better qualified and trained subs, it would be easier for regular teachers and the subs.

        • I really don't think this is fair. As many are saying, students give subs and RIDICULOUSLY hard time. Trying to get a classroom full of antagonists to do any actual work to do without the authority of the normal classroom teacher is often an exercise in futility. I'm a student teacher and the kids, after MONTHS, are still more likely to do work for my mentor teacher. I know there are a lot of shitty af subs who just don't care, but plenty try to get the kids to do work, but aren't able to. I don't blame them for throwing their hands up because they don't want to deal with, or can't handle, the venom from kids.

      • I am someone who very recently became a sub – my last assignment was 2 weeks in the library which was basically a dream (sure, I was responsible for about 50 kids during lunch by myself but it was actually surprisingly easy)

        How can I become known as a "competent" sub particularly for certain areas? I'm an engineer who is going back to school to become a math and science teacher, so I am quite prepared to teach basically any and all math, physics, and most of chem (I was a mechanical engineer, so I'm still working on bringing my chem back up to snuff)

        Is there anything I could do to make this happen? I've always tried to follow the lesson plans to the letter (erring on the side of "more work" if ambiguous) but I don't think that alone is really going to help me out.

        • Speaking from the substitute teacher side, what worked for me was usually leaving detailed notes (often leaving my cell phone # and email so they could ask me if they had any other questions), checking in with other teachers that worked with who I was subbing for before I left for the day (and at the beginning of the day), and trying to follow the lesson plan strictly. If I was in the same school again the next day or soon after a job, I'd also make a point of finding the teacher I subbed for in person, identifying myself as their sub, and asking if my notes were detailed enough/did everything work out alright/etc. Doing a good job is always key (which I'm sure you're doing), and letting the teachers know that you have degrees in these fields can only help you. Oh, and I'd like to think that organizing the papers I had collected (sticky notes to label class and assignment and paper clips to hold them together – my own, not borrowed from the teacher) and leaving the room in better condition than I found it probably helped too. It still took a while, and it might for you too because you're running up against blatant mistrust, as you can see based on the comments up-thread from several long-term teachers.

      • I am a recent college graduate and I started subbing to gain some professional experience in the public school system. I spent three semesters of college in the elementary education program and did very well. Each semester included at least one day a week in an actual classroom where I was performing many of the tasks that substitutes are asked to complete. I am confident about my teaching abilities and classroom management skills. That being said, I am no longer substitute teaching because I felt that it was a huge waste of time. I followed the lesson plans left for me very closely. I always collected all student work and made sure that names were on papers. I followed all of classroom routines and did not let students get away with breaking rules. I also left very detailed notes about the day including my contact information. I never got a single email! I know that teachers are busy but the smallest amount of feedback would have gone a long way! I was never even added to anyone's preference list. I just did not feel that I was appreciated for putting 110% effort into a job that so many people do not take seriously. Also with zero feedback from teachers, administrators, or classroom aides I felt that there was no way that I could improve myself. The final straw was when I witnessed what I felt like was emotional abuse to a child (a regular teacher continuously screaming directly into a second grader's face). I immediately reported the incident to the vice principle but I don't know if any disciplinary action was taken against the teacher. All things considered I just decided that I did't want to be a part of the whole system anymore.

      • Don't use them then, because you seem to have no respect for or understanding of what is a very difficult role to fulfill. It's obvious which teachers care about the subs and which don't. I'd rather not have to work in your room. It is probably a nightmare for a substitute teacher.

        • That's an interesting response. I do understand how difficult it is to be a sub, but "follow the lesson plan, please" is a pretty basic expectation.
          "Don't eat the food left in my classroom" is pretty basic. "Please make sure the kids don't leave the room a disaster" is a pretty basic expectation. This was posted months ago, and since then, I've had a few good subs. One was certified to be in the classroom as a full teacher, but was certified in the middle of the year, so she was subbing until she could get a full time job. She followed my lesson plans, left the food I leave in my classroom alone, and ensured that every student turned in an assignment.
          Another was a teacher for many years and subs now to make ends meet. She also followed my lesson plans, left my stuff alone and ensured that students turned in their assignments. Your solution of "never be gone if you don't like subs" is untenable and ignores the basic problems.
          Maybe I am a nightmare, but I don't think that's really the case. I leave thorough lesson plans with assignment expectations outlined on it. I leave papers and pens for them to write about how the students have done. I list the materials and supplies the students will need on the board, where students can enact their own procedures, so long as they aren't hindered. I make sure the subs have information about who can take the attendance to the office, about which students sit where, about which teachers to contact if they have any problems, and even a list of phone numbers where I can be reached if they need me to take care of anything.
          Is this too much information? Is this too little information? Are my expectations too extravagant? Do I show too little trust? I might grant you that last one, and if the sub can handle teaching (for example) how to analyze theme, I'm happy to have them do so, but I don't have that expectation because most of them aren't trained to teach secondary content, just to manage a classroom while a teacher is not there. I get this can be difficult, that being in a different classroom everyday can be hard, but I'm not asking any more of any sub than every other teacher.

  2. I loved substitute teaching when I was looking for full-time work in my profession (I'm a librarian). There were a lot of factors that led into that:

    1. I was in my hometown, so the teachers knew me already and were delighted I was filling in
    2. Related to being in my hometown, the principals knew me and my family – and they knew I was a short walk from school, so they could call me at 6:45am and I'd be there by 7:20 without any issues.
    3. My first "gig" was as a sub for a para-professional who mainly worked with 4K and Kindergartners. She was out for three weeks, so I got to know the little ones really well, and I also had the advantage of being paired with teachers who could give great direction. Then, when I subbed for one of those teachers, the kids knew me and trusted me already, and I knew their routine so I didn't have to ask 4 year olds what we're supposed to do after nap time, or what the rules usually are for playtime.
    4. I was able to learn a lot about myself and my style in a supportive environment.

    Subbing as a para-pro was great, but it also pays terribly. I wouldn't have been able to do it if I hadn't been living with my parents at the time. It was great as an introduction to the school system though, and gave me a lot of confidence to try new things!

    • I think learning about your style is an important element of supply teaching. I teach in a wide range of grades, schools, and programs, and these experiences have helped me validate what I find important, and what does/doesn't work for me in terms of classroom management, organization, lesson planning, etc.

  3. Subbing in the US is… an interesting endeavor! It can be a flexible and steady job with decent pay and hours (some people do it for years as a part-time gig). Or, it can be a tough situation with little to no work, rough kids, no lesson plans, recess duty every day, etc. I worked as a sub for 1.5-2 years in the local public school districts in WI. Sometimes I got to go on super-fun field trips and help out in classrooms in my areas of interest. I also tried to work for a couple private and parochial (Catholic, Lutheran, etc.) schools, but literally never got a call for jobs in those schools. Each district/county had a different system of how you got jobs for the day/week. Some called you at 5:45 am that day, others had you go online and 'bid' for jobs, others would call you in advance to schedule out longer positions. There was a lot of favoritism in certain districts where they wouldn't call the newer people and would call their favorite regular sub first. It helped to be super flexible and take every job offered to you! In my area, a lot of people saw it as a way 'in' to a regular job in the district. However, that's not how it usually worked out. In this part of the country, we have an over-abundance of teachers, and districts with reduced budgets and minimal staffing. For a teaching job at a school I subbed in, there were literally 150 applicants for 1 full-time teaching position. They hired the reading aide who had been with the district for 5+ years. After that situation, I decided to get out of the subbing gig and find a more regular /steady job. But, I did enjoy a lot of what I did subbing.

  4. I substituted for 6 years before landing my permanent position. I cannot stress enough how important it is to lay out expectations at the beginning of class succinctly and clearly. My version is " I have two rules, don't talk while I'm talking, and do what I say". Kids usually laugh because it's so obvious, but nearly everything falls into these two categories, and it's an easy way to remind kids about behavior.

    I always found success making the lessons my own a little bit, adding my own quirkiness and flair, and being ok with not making it through everything, or taking a quick side-conversation or tangent. You can do a lot of relationship building very quickly as a substitute and that will go really far in the behavior they give you.

    Admins really appreciate it when you can keep discipline problems within your room, so avoid jumping to kicking a kid out of class. Quick time outs (go out in the hall, count to 100 and then come back), or letting a kid be fore a second and then coming back to him "I'm going to come back in two minutes, I want to see that you've started…" etc.

    I loved substituting, I'd have kept doing it if I could have had insurance. C'est la vie. I like my permanent job too 🙂

    • Yes to laying out your expectations at the start of the class! I can remember this one supply teacher from my childhood. He would always go over his three rules no matter what, which resulted in lots of eye rolling from students, BUT I don't think he ever ran into major behaviour issues. We knew what was expected of us, and we tried to meet those expectations. I follow a similar course of action when I teach. I'm flexible on a lot of issues, because I have to pick my battles, but my students know my expectations regarding respect in the classroom.

  5. I spent a semester as a sub a few years ago. The biggest tip I have is to learn the kids' names. It gave me a huge edge for behavior management and allowed me to complete the work given to me by the teacher.

    I also had a wheelie box I took with me, full of spare worksheets, small prizes, games, etc. I took my ukulele when I taught 4-6 year olds, as they LOVED the songs and singing along.

    Ask admin what the school based behavior management policy is in case there's a problematic student.

    Substitute teaching taught me a lot! I'm glad I did it and it left me feeling more confident when I started in my own classroom.

    Edited to add that I'm primary trained in Australia. I can teach 4 year olds (kindy) to year 7 (12 year olds)

    • Learning kids names right away is a superpower! It helps to establish a relationship and is probably one of the more effective classroom management tools I have. Kids don't always realize that I'm "cheating" by using seating charts, photos, labels, names on their work, etc, but knowing a name (and pronouncing it correctly!) is a huge step for having a good day.

  6. Learning that you don't have to be a trained teacher to sub in the US suddenly makes a lot of pop culture references make sense, especially with regards to how kids treat substitutes. In the UK you have to have the same qualifications as any other teacher, and most of the work is done by either retirees or recently graduated teachers who are hoping to get some permanent work out of it. It's pretty competitive, not helped by the fact that supply teachers are more expensive than contract staff, so if it looks like someone's only going to be off for a day or so most schools use another member of staff (usually a part timer).

  7. I just found this conversation and thought to add my two-bits. I work as a TTOC (Teacher Teaching On Call) if you don't mind…but as the original author points out…a rose by any other name…

    I'm in my fifth year of subbing and not sure if I can take it anymore. I so appreciate the requests – (as long as I get them due to my district's seniority rules) so at least I am familiar with the school. But with requests come high expectations…one cannot slip below the level that they have set for themselves or their reputation as a reliable sub is shot down.

    Subbing is a lonely and frustrating job. More often than not the required technology doesn't work – the speakers are frizzled or the laptop doesn't have a cd player. I try my utmost to follow the day plan and to prep one for the teacher's return. Bless the teacher that allows flexibility. Longer call-outs require many evening hours prepping using one's own resources and assessing. At times Admin, Learning Support or the Counsellor tries to impose their requirements for that particular classroom onto me as they have been unsuccessful with the classroom teacher. My detailed notes of the day are ignored as often as they are acknowledged.

    I've been asked to: Come in early (I usually come in 30-45 min early anyway) and to stay late (unpaid), work though lunch to monitor student lemonade sales, pack up offices, clean dead fish out of aquariums, and restore classrooms after the afternoon x-mas party when all the students were in an assembly…with the added benefit of mopping up the chocolate peppermint spoon craft. I've copied a year's worth of Socials 9 in two days. I've flipped pre-class breakfast pancakes and cleaned the greasy grills whilst wearing professional attire when the staff were in jammies. Once an administrator didn't trust me with her music class students so I had to take them all outside in rotating groups for the day – there wasn't any heads up on this. Amazing how many teachers call in sick on scheduled emergency drills without their emergency bag being properly prepared. And yes, I probably have done more supervision than a 20 year veteran.

    It's a rare treat when a day goes smoothly and the students are behaved. My experiences range from extremely violent students who terrorize the whole class to an absolutely delightful grade 2 class that I still think was a pleasant dream. More often than not the students will try to prank me or do what they can to get out of the work.

    Go easy on us humble subs -we are trying their best with often next to no forewarning…even more fun when we are pulled in the middle of a class to be told to get to another school as they have a higher priority. But then, we are on the lowest rank of the pedagogical ladder…in other words – just a sub.

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