Tag Archives: classroom management

Substitute Teachers

Our experience with substitute teachers varies widely. Sometimes our last interaction with substitute teachers was back in high school, when one entered our history or math classroom. (Note: these are the types that tend to chuckle over the memories of those experiences.) Some of us have been substitute teachers ourselves, which makes us appreciate the difficulty of settling down a classroom that is not used to accepting a substitute teacher’s authority.

Which brings me to my biggest question for this post: How responsible should a mainstream teacher be for the experience of his/her substitute teacher? In today’s public schools, a teacher need only email in a lesson plan or two (which may include spontaneous “study halls) and then allow the school to do the digging for the substitute teacher. Once I was a long-term substitute for a teacher on maternity leave who left very brief, vague outlines with little to no notes or suggestions other than–“you can use my files if you like.” Granted, there are good substitute teachers and there are bad substitute teachers. I have seen some substitutes spend an entire class period on the computer or putting on makeup while their students wander throughout the classroom. I have seen other substitutes that just yell at students the entire period. But, in my personal opinion, the success of a substitute teacher in the classroom really runs both ways.

Rule #1: The way you prepare your classroom for a substitute teacher really reflects on your commitment to your classes.

Is teaching just a “job” to you? Chances are that the only reason you’ve lasted in this profession is because somewhere down deep inside of you, there is a true and lasting commitment to the learning and social experiences of your students. And if this is the case, you need to keep in mind how much your students miss of that learning time when you fail to adequately prepare your class. My students are aware that my policy is an automatic detention if I hear any information about student disobedience, disrespect or out of control behavior while a substitute is in charge. While for myself I will take aside a student and question them, listening to their version of events, students know that I will not ask them questions, not accept explanations and that they will simply take the punishment as given. Sound harsh? Well, it certainly eliminates the possibility of the student trying to usurp the authority of the substitute by assuming that I will take his/her word over the teacher’s description of events. Students make an extra-special effort to treat the teacher with dignity, knowing that they will be held responsible for their actions with or without my presence in the classroom. Before I went on maternity leave, I communicated with my students about which substitute would be chosen, and even gave them some “transitioning” assignments that allowed them to thoughtfully anticipate the changes that they might experience. These types of activities are essential in making sure that a class does not take advantage of a substitute teacher in the classroom or cause transition conflicts for the substitute.

Rule #2: When you leave your substitute teacher in the dark, you should expect that they will not necessarily always make the best decisions about classroom management, lesson planning, student discipline or class organization. Not all substitutes are experienced classroom teachers. Also, even an experienced classroom teacher will benefit from knowing your procedures and teaching methods ahead of time. Not that they have to use every single method you use, but they should at least know what the students are used to and which procedures will help them feel comfortable in the transition. When you leave scanty lesson plans (a.k.a. “study hall”), you can expect that your substitute will have difficulty at some point controlling the noise level over a 40-minute class period. Before I went on maternity leave, I left detailed semester outlines not only of the content that needed to be taught, but also suggestions about which specific textbook items to use, ideas for activities/projects and files organized by month for each class. I also copied my USB items onto a USB for the long-term substitute, realizing the amount of work it takes to reinvent the wheel. Save your substitute time, and he/she will be more effective and likeable to your students. Allow your long-term sub to contact you via email or telephone for the first week, then let them go. By then you have done your job.

To summarize, in case I haven’t been clear enough, it really is the responsibility of the mainstream teacher to complete his/her professional duties with responsibility and recognition of the consequences of decisions made in regards to substitute teachers. If you have not shown enough professional respect for the substitute, the students will not show respect for the substitute either. It is not your job to teach the class for the substitute and remain in contact every second during a maternity leave. However, you should at the very least do your best to make the transition as easy as possible for both students and substitutes. This allows students to learn appropriate behavior toward authority and also earns you the respect of substitutes who will always want to sign up for your classes in the future.

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Classroom Management

As a first-year teacher just out of college, I didn’t have a clue. My students appeared to be well-behaved, interested individuals. I thought that if I had enough interesting lesson plans and assignments that all would be well and they wouldn’t want to interrupt, impede their own education and basically disrupt the class. Yeah, right. THAT turned out well.

Regardless of all of the theories that you have heard about classroom management and the philosophical base for each one, the theories pale in the face of actual practice. So let me tell you what REALLY works. First of all, consider your own prevention methods–things that you can do yourself to have better control over the attention span of the kids. When they enter the room, do they have something to do? Is there something on their desk or a routine activity that puts them in their seats? Do you usually have your lesson plans clearly defined? How much of your lesson plan requires “busy work,” “worksheets,” or “seat work” to fill up time? Are you using every minute of your class time, or do you have periods of time that are left for students to “talk amongst themselves”? Have you found yourself breaking frequently one of the “rules” for appropriate behavior that you expect your students to obey?

If you are not appropriately planning your time or directing your students through your expectations and classroom routines on a daily basis, you cannot expect your kids to fit into your idea of appropriate behavior. Also, if students are not allowed to have cell phones, but you pick yours up during class to ask your husband to pick up the dry cleaning, you are not earning their respect. Students learn from modeling, and you are their biggest role model.

Once your own end of the deal is upheld, students can then be presented with the discipline plan and procedures. The discipline plan presents easy, positively-worded rules in a short, simple-to-memorize list. Why? Because students forget! Narrow it down! The discipline plan sometimes allows students to take responsibility by creating their own rules, based on what they feel is appropriate classroom behavior. The discipline plan requires the teacher to set up contracts for classroom behavior with the student and with the parent by requiring signatures. The rules of the class must then be posted and frequently referred to during the year. Finally, all of that work does nothing if the rules are not consistently enforced. Follow your discipline plan all year long, without making little exceptions here and there.

“But what do I do?” you may ask. “Do I just give them a detention?” Students fight detentions that are given to them without warning. For upper level students in middle school and high school, give them a step-by-step process. 1 time = verbal warning.  2nd time = the student fills out a form explaining their infraction and what they will do to correct the problem. 3rd time = detention. Staple the form to the detention slip after making a copy. If the student “accidentally” misplaces the detention slip and doesn’t return it signed, take the student to the office and have them call their parents in your presence. When the parent hears about the infraction from the student’s mouth and sees the written documentation that you have talked with the student about it prior to giving the detention, neither the parent nor the student can complain about a lack of warnings.

Elementary teachers will many times use the “color system.” Small envelopes with the students names are hung on the wall and contain slips of construction paper. Students may start on “Green” with a verbal warning. The card is switched to “Yellow” for second warning. “Red” is the final warning and may warrant a “Time-out” or a missed recess. The cards can be sent home to parents at the end of the week or at the end of every day when the student takes home a folder of their homework/classwork. Set very specific routines set to key words from the first day of class. I knew a teacher who could make students sit in one place very easily just by saying “Criss-Cross Applesauce!” The kindergarten students would gather around and sit down while crossing their legs. They would stop talking and look up expectantly at the teacher.

Want to avoid chaos? The best solution is to have a plan. Now that you have read this article, contribute some classroom management tips of your own! What routines do you have? What is your “plan”? Share your personal classroom management disaster or first-year horror story (To be sure, we all have them!).

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