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.