Guide to First Year Teaching/Substitute Teaching

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So you want to be a substitute teacher - or plan a lesson for a sub? Here are some secrets for success.

For the substitute

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Follow the lesson plan. A substitute teacher needs self-confidence. You do matter and what you do during your time with students counts. A conscientious teacher will leave you well-prepared plans accounting for every minute of each class period. If this is the case, do not change the plan - especially when pressured by students who inevitably have a better idea, or a reason why they can't possibly complete the teacher's lesson. Be firm, don't hesitate and don't accept whining or cajoling. Just do what you've been asked to do. Bear in mind that most often the classroom teacher has put time and effort into the substitute's plan and will depend on you to get the students to do the work.

Get an early lead! The sooner you can get the students seated and working, the easier and more effective your job will be. Take the time before the day's classes begin to read the plans carefully. Be certain that you understand your charge and that you have all materials organized and ready for the entire day.

Silence sometimes works best. You are now organized and ready for your day. Consider handing students the assignment as they walk in the door, saying very quietly to each that he or she may take a seat and get started as you point to the assignment written on the board. It would be helpful to write on the board the number of minutes the students will be given to complete the work. Getting control of a class from the first minute will help to minimize outbursts, wisecracks, and other attempts at insurrection.

"But we already did this!" Students work really hard to convince substitutes that the work left was an error on the part of the teacher. They have, "in fact", already completed this assignment. Remember that the teacher is depending on you to have the students complete this assignment. Ask them to redo the work or pass it in. Don't argue or challenge the students. Simply say OK and remind them that the work will be graded based upon what is submitted at the end of the class. If they have already done the work, they may go on to the next assignment or read or study silently. Remind them that you will ask for the assignment at the end of the class. Students that have already completed the work will pass in a note to the teacher saying they have already submitted said work. These notes will be signed by the student and left for the teacher. You'll be surprised that most students will complete the work.

Don't make deals! You are the teacher. You don't have to make deals. Don't negotiate an early dismissal or a shortened assignment. Don't feel like you have to schmooze the students into working. Be cordial, soft-spoken, direct, and firm. Never be confrontational or sarcastic. Teachers can tease their students because they have developed a trusting rapport. But the students don't know you well enough for you to treat them casually. What's more, they will often take advantage of an opening to use sarcasm and humor to disrupt the entire class. Be proper and sincere, demonstrating your earnest desire to complete the work as outlined by the classroom teacher.

Don't be afraid to ask for help. There are teachers all around you who can lend a hand. Don't hesitate to ask for intervention if you have questions or need assistance. You will earn more respect by asking for help than you will if you lose control of the class.

Substituting in inner-city schools

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Subbing in an inner-city American secondary school can be an entirely rewarding experience or an unforgettable nightmare. Your boundaries are going to be tested. There are vast differences regarding student expectations in American schools. Try to get a "feel" for the school when you enter. Ask yourself some of these questions: Are the classes with the regular teachers loud and chaotic? Are large numbers of students roaming the hallway? Are students wearing hats in school? Do students mill around after the bell in the hallway? Do teachers shut their doors during classtime?

If the answer to these questions is yes, it is likely you are in a failing school. Expectations of a substitute vary in each school. If students are tossing a football around the hallway DURING class (I have been in schools where this has happened) or in front of an administrators office, the chances of you having a productive class are quite slim (although not entirely impossible). Unfortunately, in some schools it is expected that a substitute serves as a "certified" babysitter. Most likely, if a school has a chaotic atmosphere, it is likely that administrators view a substitute as a babysitter. In these failing schools, it is also likely the regular faculty and staff are regarded in the same manner. It is unfortunate that a large number of inner-city schools in America operate in this dysfunctional manner. Below are some do's and don'ts when subbing in a tough inner-city environment.

  • Don't become emotional - never show anger, frustration or fear.
  • Don't call administrators for minor behavior infractions, such as talking, not sitting in the proper seat, chewing gum, etc. You will end up getting a bad reputation.
  • Don't let more than 3 students go to bathroom, nurse etc. during period.
  • Do call administrators if you are sworn at or threatened, students are fighting, or if you encounter a weapon or drugs.
  • Do take attendance...several times.
  • Do list your rules on the blackboard for the class at the beginning of the period.
  • Do bring in an extra assignment - something fun, like a wordsearch.

Some techniques that have proven effective in even the most difficult of environments are listed below:

  • When a student asks to use the lav, ask him or her to ask you in five minutes. When the first student asks to use the lav, or nurse etc., tell him or her that you will let them go, but they must wait for five minutes. This technique is usually effective at controlling the number of students who leave a classroom in a given period.
  • Tell class you only let three people out of the class at the beginning of the class.
  • If possible, read out loud. Don't rotate reading around room - ask for volunteers.
  • If a teacher leaves a lesson that you feel is inadequate, don't be afraid to add on to it. For example, your sub plans might say: "p.435, #2-8; ALL CLASSES". The teacher has spent very little if any time preparing this lesson. Do the lesson with the class, but maybe have a wordsearch or a popular crossword to complete after this assignment is complete. By the way, students will very seldom answer questions out of a textbook. If you are in a class where this is the assignment, don't be surprised if there is a fair amount of chaos.
  • Remember, it's not your fault if the students are not doing their work. It is not a reflection on you. Keep calm and professional at all times. You are the leader of the class for that particular day. It takes a lot strength and fortitude, mixed with a great amount of compassion and empathy to teach in an inner-city school. Do not become discouraged, and have high expectations for ALL students you meet. Students can feel high expectations and will strive to meet them.

For the classroom teacher

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Make expectations of substitutes clear. Take the time to discuss your expectations of student behavior with substitutes early in the year in case you are absent. When you are going to be absent, take the time to write thorough plans that account for every minute of class time. Consider leaving alternative activities in case the class finishes early. If you know that you will be absent, organize your students the day before by telling them your expectations, detailing the assignment, and stating simple consequences for lack of compliance. If the students will work alone, tell them so and write it into the sub plans. If they will be in groups, define the groups and include that information in the sub plans. Specify if students are allowed to move their desks or chairs, or if they're allowed to work sitting on the floor, or even out in the hallway, the library, or outdoors. Always let the sub know if classwork, homework, etc. is to be collected, or if the students are to place their work in specially designated baskets, trays or folders. Let the substitute know if this includes ALL work, or only completed work. If the latter, then specify what is to be done with incomplete work.

Two very essential items are a time schedule of each period (necessary if working in middle or high schools), and a map of the school, including a map of "duty" stations.

Never say, "You have cafeteria duty during period 5." What exactly does the duty entail? Does the sub stand by the doors, walk among the tables of students, stand by the food line, etc. What exactly is the sub supposed to be looking out for? Another example: "You have bus duty outside door #35." Does the sub stand on the sidewalk? Does she stand right by the door but within the building? Does she go up to each bus and greet the students as they come out? Is she supposed to stop by the main office first, to get a walkie-talkie? How do you use the walkie-talkie? Another example: If there is bathroom duty and the bathrooms have to be locked and unlocked for safety reasons, where would the sub find the key?

Please advise if there is an accessible restroom for the sub, and let the sub know where the restroom is located. It's humiliating for an adult to have to ask strangers "Can you please open up the restroom for me?" Some subs won't use the restroom all day just for that reason.

Lesson plan packets usually include information about fire drills, lockdowns, eating policy, etc. Although it is the sub's responsibility to know these regulations, it would still be greatly appreciated if you leave a list of basics. Here is an example: 1. No staff or students may eat or drink in the classroom. (Then the sub knows not to take her lunch break in the classroom.) 2. Only two students out at a time, regardless of where they are going. (Very straightforward and helpful.)

It's probably best not to advise the sub about which student behaves and which doesn't. Sometimes, it is the so-called "good" student or "honor" student who misbehaves, while many so-called "troublesome" students behave pretty well. Don't scare the sub with a biased picture; let the sub make up her own mind about how each student or class behaved.

Also ask the substitute to leave you feedback on a standard questionnaire or simply by leaving you a note. When you receive negative feedback about a student or a class, be sure to address it and assign reasonable but firm consequences including a hand-written note and/or verbal apology from the student to the substitute.

Make expectations of students clear. Give students no opportunity to contradict the substitute. Distribute copies of the plan to the class. A well-prepared group of students will most often comply with the substitute. Explain to students that they must be on their best behavior for the substitute since he or she won't know them as you do, and may misinterpret their well-meaning quips. Define best behavior for them. Never make jokes about substitute teachers and don't let students think that you have low expectations for days that you aren't there.

Make a lesson plan. It is vital that you take an adequate amount of time preparing for a substitute teacher. Give the substitute as much detail as necessary to make your wishes clear. Review, organize and clearly label materials to be left for the substitute. The substitute needs enough material to keep the students busy for the entire class period. Your instructions should be fairly detailed and legible, leaving no doubt about what you are trying to accomplish on that given day. It might even be a good idea to include the actual goals and objectives that you are trying to attain to. But at all costs, leave the substitute more than enough activities/material to keep the students busy. Also, if you copy a ditto, always make a few extra copies.

Subs are expected to bring SOME things with them (#2 pencils, red pens, etc.), but the school should provide the majority of materials, since the school administration has its own requirements about which supplies are desired. If you wish to leave your desks and cabinets locked, that is understandable, but at least leave a large sealed envelope marked "FOR THE SUBSTITUTE", containing all the items the sub will need for the day. For example, if you want papers collected from all classes, make sure you leave binder clips, large paper clips, or a stapler with enough staples (rubber bands are not good because they can snap).

Try not to make procedures or terminology complicated (many subs have not yet learned about KWL, concept webs, Bloom's Taxonomy questions, context clues, etc.). Do give as much work as you like, but keep methods and instructions as simple as possible.

One more piece of advice: find out which substitute is your students' least favorite. Usually you can find this information out fairly easily. For instance, when you tell them that you will be gone, some students will inevitably say, "Don't get Mrs. so-and-so". If there is a particular sub that your students do not want, seek that person out. Usually, the reason that the students don't "like" the sub is because he or she does a pretty good job of carrying out your instructions. This could also be a result of a sub who is simply not good. You should use judgement in this case. Students do sometimes like subs who follow the lesson plan, some are just plain crazy. It could be a legitimate reason for not wanting a sub. Ask the students why they don't want this person.