By Andrew Hawk
The substitute teacher is one of the most underappreciated and stereotyped positions in the professional world. The trials and tribulations of the substitute teacher are often made light of in sitcoms and movies. However, with instructional time being so important, substitute teachers are an integral part of any school’s success.
Interestingly enough, the criteria for being a substitute teacher can vary from state to state. Some states require a bachelor’s degree, but allow noneducation degree holders to work as subs. Other states do not require a degree, but require applicants to pass a basic skills test. The wide range of requirements produces substitute teachers who may be retired teachers, college graduates looking for their first jobs, or people working in schools for the very first time. No matter which category you fall under, here are some tips I hope will help you with this very important job.
Develop Your Classroom Presence
Classroom presence is the trait that many struggling substitutes lack. Classroom presence is, in the simplest terms, the reason why students sit up and listen to a teacher instead of daydreaming or engaging in other off-task behaviors.
If you asked ten teachers to explain their theories on how to improve classroom presence, you would probably receive ten different responses. Classroom presence is largely based on an instructor’s personality and style of teaching, and is similar to the stage presence an actor or actress possesses in live theater. In general, a person can improve his or her classroom presence by speaking in a confident manner and altering his or her teaching voice appropriately.
Be Prepared for No Sub Plans
Some schools require teachers to write emergency sub plans and leave them in the office. Only one out of the four schools I have taught at embraced this policy. A substitute who finds no emergency plans to cover an unexpected absence will have to ask other teachers in the grade level what the students should be working on.
Offset this by carrying a few basic activities with you. These should be specific to the subject and grade level for which you will be subbing. And they do not have to be worksheets: there is educational value in answering subject-centered trivia questions. Something as simple as Googling and printing emergency lists of questions can be a real lifesaver.
When in Doubt, Call the Office
Many simple questions, such as the location of classroom supplies, can be answered by students. If you have any questions beyond those relating to classroom operations, I would suggest calling the office to double-check. This is especially true for questions relating to dismissal. Sometimes children present false dismissal information to their substitute teachers. For example, students often claim they are going to be picked up and shouldn’t get on the bus. Without a note or a phone call to the office, you should never vary from the daily dismissal plans. If you are unsure of something, it is okay to call the office to ask.
Do Not Criticize the Classroom
Remember, anything critical you say to students or other teachers likely is going to make it back to the teacher for whom you are subbing. Depending on how offended the teacher is, your comments might make it to the principal. Substitutes who voice a lot of criticisms are sometimes not invited back to schools.
Be On Time
You might think that this goes without saying, but substitutes are regularly late. This does not speak to their professionalism so much as it does to their preparedness. They really do mean to be on time, but often are unaware of the exact location of a school building or entrance or the traffic patterns that exist on the route to the school. If you are called to sub at an unfamiliar school, I recommend doing a drive-by the night before you are scheduled. Make a note of where the front door of the school is located.
Engage with the Students
I have walked into classrooms and found the sub doing everything from playing on his or her cell phone to reading a novel to knitting a scarf. Sometimes teachers leave a lot of independent work for students to complete with a substitute. If this is the case, circulate around the room to see if anyone needs assistance.
Do Not Be Mean to the Students
Based on the age-old idea that students give substitutes a hard time, some substitutes show up in classrooms expecting trouble. To counteract this expectation, the substitute may attempt to be very stern. This also can be true of regular teachers with underdeveloped classroom management skills. Classroom management does not mean yelling at or embarrassing students. Short of an emergency situation, such as a fistfight, teachers and substitute teachers should not yell at students at all. Many good classroom managers learn to use their “parent voice” in discipline situations. This simple change in tone can have a great impact.
All classrooms should have a classroom management plan in place. Follow this plan. It should indicate what steps to take if students do not respond to warnings. If no obvious plan is in place, ask a teacher in the neighboring classroom what steps should be taken if an issue arises.
Do Not Give Up on a Class
Some classes are more challenging than others. If you have a class that feels really overwhelming, at least consider subbing in the room again. Some groups of students respond better to adults after multiple days spent together.
Andrew Hawk has worked in public education for fourteen years, starting as a teaching assistant in a special education classroom. He has taught first, second, and fifth grade as a classroom teacher, and for the past three years, has worked as a resource room teacher, providing services for fourth and fifth graders. Working as a special education teacher has given him the opportunity to work with a variety of age groups and exceptionalities. In 2011, he earned his master’s degree in special education from Western Governor’s University. When Andrew is not preparing for school, he enjoys spending time with his wife and daughter.
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