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Spiral Pass


The day after my last posting, I was asked to cover another teacher's class for 45 minutes. She was absent, and no substitute teacher was available. I agreed easily, because I am a team player. I actually like going into another teacher's class. Since I only teach one class of one subject of one grade, it's a way for me to meet more students in my new school.

I went into that classroom, relieving another teacher who had covered the first half. I introduced myself as a regular teacher in the school. The students had their work, and knew it was due at the end of the period. Within ten minutes, students were up and walking around the room, talking, throwing papers, handling things on the teacher's desk. I asked several students to return to their seats, and they just looked way from me. Several asked to use the restroom, or the water fountain.

I don't often raise my voice, but I did to tell students to return to their seats. Most did, although the talking continued and little work was being done. I was trying to help a student who didn't understand the assignment, but every time I looked down a paper was being thrown or a student was changing seats.

A lot of teachers will recognize the frustration I felt as my classroom spiralled out of control.

A couple of students were clearly the leaders of the disruption. I asked one for his name, because I did not have a seating chart. He refused to give it to me. I asked again, and he laughed. At that point, I knew that if something did not change, it would be a very long 30 minutes until the bell rang.

I didn't know these students, or how their daily teacher handled her classroom. I didn't know if everyone else would follow this one kid, or decide to follow my instructions. So I played hardball. I called for an administrator.

She came up, and told me the name of the students who were the main problems. She lectured them for five minutes. It was obvious she'd been there before. She asked me how I wanted to handle the problem.

I announced to the class was I was inviting them to lunch with me in a few days' time. Middle school students don't like lunch detention. They have to go into the cafeteria, then show their detention slip to the administrator, then leave their friends to sit in a room with a silent teacher. It's not a hard punishment, it's just really boring.

I'm not a brand new teacher, and days later I am still fretting over the whole thing. I rarely call for administrative help. I prefer to keep problems within my classroom. I want to feel like I am part of a learning team. I want to lead a mutually-respectful group of inquisitive people. In this case, I was not successful.

I've been teaching long enough to know that doesn't happen all the time. Sometimes a pass is intercepted. I offer learning, and it is batted away by a defensive move. Sometimes, I'm put on the defensive. So now I need some coaching, even after several years in the classroom.

I think my first step is to talk to the daily teacher, to see if she has suggestions on what I could have done differently. I'll let her handle any disciplinary action. If she agrees lunch detention is in order, I'll do that. Or if her policies are to call home, I'll call home.

The interesting thing in education is that, just like in football, the quarterback can never be sure what the next play will bring. Teachers never know what the next class will bring. We have to keep talking about our experiences, coaching each other, to be ready for the next game day.

I guess I just need a little pep rally.


Thank you for bravely stating what a substitute teacher faces everyday when they step into a classroom. I began teaching in 1957 and hold a Ph.D. in Educational Leaadership with a variety of experiences in private schools, public schools, prison schools and preschools. Many full time teachers act as though substitutes are something less than fully qualified and are not to be trusted.

Lists of students are often unavailable. Seating charts are useless because students move about and play games. Desks and closets are locked. Materials are unavailable or stacked in piles without a hint of when or where they are to be used. A video for the class can be disaster if the equipment is unavailable or not working or require numerous steps operations to run the video. At times the substitute folder holds materials that are quite old and do not apply to the week's work.

Suggestions include:
1. A complete and updated list of students with their recent pictures beside their names.

2. Complete and thorough sets of lesson plans with materials available to support the lesson plans.

3. A map of the building.

4. A schedule for that day with times and grade level of the subjects taught.

5. A concise list of important expectations and regulations.

6. A map with precise instructions for fire drills with exists and places to go to until the all clear signal is given.

7. Suggestions that the teacher finds are helpful to running the classroom smoothly. Each teacher develops their own means of working in the class. Share your successful tips.

8. Teach students and show respect to all substitutes.
Students will be held accountable for the day when the substitute is there.

Preparing for a day of absence requires a great deal of work. Are you sure you want to take the day off? It may just be easier to come to school that day.

I substitute because I still have something to share.
Having a good learning day in your class is my goal.

I did quite a bit of substituting several years ago and these are the things that I remember from that experience:
If you can, substitute in a particular school on a regular basis so you can learn names, layout, policies, etc.
Classroom behavior with a substitute is a mirror for classroom behavior with the regular teacher. I had a variety of experiences within the same mid-size high school. The same kids who were hugely disruptive in a science class could be perfectly behaved students in an English class. These students went from lighting bunsen burners for no reason to being silenced by a glance for a whisper. They knew that they would be held accountable by the regular teacher.
Substituting is a special art in and of itself. Regular classroom teachers should appreciate that not only is it "covering their class for the day", but that there are skills required for successful substituting.

Even teachers who are not subbing in a classroom can have days like that. I am ending a semester with students who are actually good kids, but come to my class right after recess and P.E. class. They have diffficulty sitting still, no less quietly. I was at the verge of tears when I finally decided to have it out with them. I marched them out of my room, informed them that they were not welcome there anymore unless they could commit to good behavior and cooperation. At first, some students thought it was a joke until my quietest student looked around and said,"Just shut up!" to her classmates.
After the shock wore off, I think it dawned on the rest of the class how awful they had been acting. We agreed that a punishment was in order (They lost a cooking lab) and their seats were changed around to cut down on the need to talk. These last few weeks have been a relative pleasure!

When I substituted and I encountered unruly students who refused to tell me their names, I told them "That's fine, I'll just guess and I'll fill out the referral for the person who I think it is." That never failed to root out the culprit's real name, since most students aren't going to "go down" for something they didn't do.

The comments so far are excellent, so I'll add just one more suggestion. If you are a substitute teacher, bring your own "survival" kit of interesting activities to use when the lesson plans go awry (like A/V problems, fire drills, missing textbooks, etc.) or when there's too much time left over before the bell...Things to put in your "kit" might be crossword puzzles or mazes (you can get some neat ones for free at the Puzzlemaker part of Discovery.com), brainteasers or riddles, and copies of high interest articles that you could discuss (be careful in your selection!)

In this instance, you were caught off-guard since you were asked to fill in at the 11th hour. There was little else you could do and it sounds like you handled the situation as well as could be expected under the circumstances.

As a former substitute teacher, regular classroom teacher, counselor and finally, elementary school principal, I developed a repertoire of suggestions for new subs, often presenting at new substitute teacher orientation sessions.

Ideally, when you sub you will walk into a classroom with a seating chart and up-to-date emergency lesson plans. However, there will be times when you will walk into a room with nothing but a general idea of the subject matter. When that happens, I have told subs to have a "Plan B" - tell the students that their regular teacher is out for the day and that you are an experienced substitute teacher. The day is going to look quite different than their regular days because subs don't always know how things normally work and will, instead, use their own plans. In other words, they are in for some surprises. They can expect things to be done quite differently, and you expect them to do everything that is put before them, even if it is totally new and strange.

Then you can launch into some of the back-up activities you have brought with you. Depending on the grade, subject, and age level, you might have jigsaw reading activities, logic problems, simple group activities(be sure to group the students in a creative way that you choose, rather than letting them group themselves), even "Reader's Theater" activities. Reader's Theater consists of putting students into groups of up to 6 students, all reading at various levels. Their assignment is to perform a play for the class, each taking a part at their reading level. The students do not know the reading levels vary; only the teacher has that information. Most plays can accommodate a variety of reading levels. When students are given an assignment that requires them to perform for their classmates, they generally take it more seriously because they don't want to embarrass themselves. One caveat - make sure the activities you bring with you take a reasonable amount of time to complete; students can fly through simple activities like puzzles in no time, leaving you with large blocks of time and nothing to do.

Of course, not all substituting situations will require such innovative planning and preparation, but in almost every situation, the sub can take command by simply telling the students that they are in charge, that things may be different, and not to expect everything to be "business as usual". Students who sense that the sub is trying to do everything just like their regular teacher does, will likely take advantage of the sub's "ignorance". Letting them know that you are aware of your "ignorance" and that you intend to simply do things your own way can go a long way toward pulling the rug out from under them. They will also get a sense of your confidence level and will be less likely to challenge you.

As others have noted, thank you for recognizing the innate difficulties in being a substitute teacher. My own experience as a substitute was primarily at the middle school level (by choice). I got to see schools throughout my district from a very unique viewpoint. Despite all that is said about what kids bring to the classroom and what their parents teach them (or not), I was able to see much larger differences in the ability of the teaching staff of a school to hang together (or hang separately, as it were). There were schools where I always knew that someone "had my back," and schools where the reverse is true.

Some of what I was able to apply:

Middle schoolers are a very special breed with a high need for security. When you throw them off by altering the situation, expect to be tested (they are trying to figure out if you are ready to take charge and ensure their security, or if they will have to take care of themselves)

What the regular teacher does is unavailable--you really have to trust and make your own rules. Personally, I never let kids go to the bathroom, go to the library, get a book--any of those things that they were likely to ask for. That's my rule. I would recommend that you follow through with your lunchtime detentions. That is a luxury that few subs get (since we never know where we will be tomorrow).

Middle schoolers are particularly tranparent about what they do. It is not difficult to figure out who's who, even when they think they are putting one over on you (I recall observing the twitters throughout the room whenever I referred to a kid by the name on the seating chart, so I casually walked past the desk. Then I started calling him by the name he wrote on his paper. He was amazed).

Whatever they may tell you, it's very likely they know that a day of reckoning is coming when their regular teacher gets back. Start writing names on the board, add check marks. Mysteriously observe while writing on a piece of paper. I think when pressed I established a rule that three checkmarks meant a report to the teacher. I also took to honoring the kids who did right. Turns out they loved it--who would guess?

Particularly with middle schoolers, any new adult who walks in the room commands the undivided attention of the whole class. Learn to use it. I also had to call for administrative back-up in one school. I felt vindicated years later when I visited the same school as a parent and some poor substitute was being eaten alive in my son's class. I authoritatively reminded them that Ms Regular Teacher would never allow them to act this way. They looked down and returned to their seats. I felt like a goddess!

Thanks for being a team player and assisting your school, students and fellow colleague.
I think you did the right thing by assigning detention for those students. I think the consequences should be immediate for the infraction so the students know their behavior was unacceptable and you are personally holding them to your expectation of orderly behavior. By waiting until the classroom teacher returns, the students forget why they are being punished and the classroom teacher did not assign the detention. Constistency is the key.

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Recent Comments

  • Leslie: Hi, Thanks for being a team player and assisting your read more
  • Margo/Mom: As others have noted, thank you for recognizing the innate read more
  • Sharon: In this instance, you were caught off-guard since you were read more
  • Cindy Wright: The comments so far are excellent, so I'll add just read more
  • Dee: When I substituted and I encountered unruly students who refused read more




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