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Log in to Witsby: ASCD’s Next-Generation Professional Learning and Credentialing Platform
May 1, 2000
Vol. 57
No. 8

Special Topic / Substitute Teaching: Sink or Swim

These guidelines will help new substitutes navigate their job and reassure them that it is a meaningful and important one.

Substitute teaching, the "bah, humbug!" of education. There is probably no harder job in education than substitute teaching, with the possible exception of driving a school bus.
A substitute teacher is supposed to manage a class of strangers at a moment's notice, teach all subjects from fractured plans, and maintain discipline and a sense of humor. At the end of the day, a substitute is supposed to have a sense of well-being, garnered from a meaningful teaching experience. These expectations come with a small paycheck. No wonder the pool of qualified substitutes is dwindling.

The Rules

After 20 years of experience as an elementary school teacher, I suddenly found myself substitute teaching. It was a sink-or-swim situation. I knew that few schools train new substitutes, so I came up with my own set of guidelines, which are meant to reassure new substitutes that theirs is an important position in the educational system.

Be Prepared

It works for Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, and it will work for you. A phone call from a substitute coordinator will probably wake you in the wee hours of the morning, and it is not wise to leave your planning until then. In the evening, pick out your outfit and pack your supplies. Put a pen and a notepad by the telephone to write down your assignment's details, such as the school name, the teacher's name, the room number, and the time that students arrive.
Prepare a "Just in Case" folder with materials that you can use to fill awkward blocks of time when the class runs out of things to do. Plan some creative projects in writing, math, or art, and include a short book—there is always time for a good story or two.

Look the Part

A wise teacher once told me to dress for the weather, and she wasn't talking about long johns. Students watch their teacher, and if they get bored with what they are seeing, you will have a hard time keeping their attention. If it is a rainy Monday and you are wearing the colors of granite, the mood in the classroom will be soggy. However, if you wear a pair of pink flamingo earrings or a Bugs Bunny tie, the class might not notice the gloomy weather. Avoid dressing casually. Casual is fine at home, but a substitute is a professional teacher and should dress accordingly.

Be an Early Bird

You would be wise to arrive at the school at least half an hour earlier than your students. Report to the office when you arrive and determine your responsibilities. Get a key to the classroom, and find the adult bathrooms. Get the telephone number of the school and the person who calls the substitutes in case you have to cancel some day.

Figure Out the Game Plan

Before the students arrive, become familiar with the classroom. Find the clock, the fire drill route, and the class rules. Introduce yourself to the teacher next door, who will most likely fill you in on routines and expectations. Clearly print the date and your name on the board so that the students can refer to it during the day. Now you are ready to tackle the lesson plans.
These cryptic, often mysterious, sometimes nonexistent directions for your day are usually on the teacher's desk. Don't panic if at first glance they are indecipherable. Some teachers leave hieroglyphics or abbreviations and assume that you are a mind reader. Read the plans several times and concentrate on the morning work; use breaks and your lunch period to untangle the rest.
If you are completely at a loss, don't forget your handy "Just in Case" folder and the nice teacher whom you just met next door. When you have a game plan, take a calming breath, smile, and greet the students at the door. It's a nice touch.

Meet the Class

Remember, you are now a stranger in charge of 20 or more strangers. Students may be worried; assure them that their teacher is fine and that she or he will be back soon. Some students may tell you how to run the class: "Our teacher doesn't do it like that." Let them know that their teacher left plans and that your way might differ a little from what they are used to. Ask a student to explain the rules for using the bathroom; sharpening pencils; and collecting homework, notes, or lunch money.
Tell the students that you expect hands to be raised before voices. Also let them know that you will write a note to their teacher at the end of the day with specific names and problems but that you would rather write about the good things that happened. Let them know that you expect quality work from them.

Enforce Consequences

Children are astute at reading adults. If you speak with authority, they will respect you, but if you are indecisive, they will delight in making your day miserable.
Even the most experienced teacher will sometimes find the room noise approaching a loud roar. When this happens, bring the class back into focus by clapping in rhythm or singing your instructions. Soon the students' curiosity will get the better of them. Another way to gather attention is to turn off the lights. And never underestimate the power of a good stare. Silence and a certain look can snap a noisy class into attention, and quiet discipline is always the best. Remember that the voice of authority is neither soft nor shrill; it is firm.
I use a three-strikes rule, which I explain during the morning game plan. Most students know the rules of baseball and the consequences of three strikes, so I print the word strikes on the board. Each time an infraction of the rules gets out of hand, I put a check mark under the word. I put an unruly student's name under the strikes. Sometimes all I have to do is to approach the word with chalk in hand and the class settles down. Rarely do I have to give three strikes, because the class hushes the offender. If a class earns three strikes, I have a consequence ready, such as eliminating recess or the much-anticipated "gimmick."

Have a Gimmick

Mae West always believed that "a girl had to have a gimmick." It is wonderfully effective philosophy for a substitute, too. A gimmick might be a lure, a reward, or a bribe. In the morning, when you are going over the game plan, let the students know that you will reward them at the end of the day for their cooperation and hard work. However, you will revoke this privilege if the class earns three strikes.
I often use a guitar as my gimmick; it is a simple instrument to learn, and with a few memorized chords, I can play hundreds of songs. I have a repertoire of a few silly songs. My guitar is a small investment of money and time, but the results are worth it.
If you don't have an instrument, try some rhythm songs that students can invent and lead. Even tic tac toe is exciting when done on a dry chalkboard with wet paint brushes (water, of course). And many books on creative art are available to teachers today.
Present the coming reward with an air of mystery and anticipation in the morning, and keep the gimmick time short. It is likely to get a little chaotic.

Relish the Teachable Moment

On an ideal day, you will find accurate, detailed plans, write no strikes on the board, and end the class with a lively activity. The ideal rarely happens. But don't assume that the day has been unproductive if class discussions meander into topics not outlined by the teacher. Sometimes going off on a tangent is the right thing to do at the moment. Don't avoid teachable moments for the sake of staying within the lesson plan, but remember to return to the topic when appropriate.

Leave the Room Neat and Tidy

When your day has ended, don't walk away without first attending to some courtesies. Correct the papers that the class worked on unless the teacher has instructed otherwise. If you don't know how to assign a letter grade, simply note the number of mistakes at the top of the page and leave them for the teacher to grade.
Do the little chores that the classroom helpers haven't done, such as washing the board or putting up the chairs. Make sure that all the classroom pets have been fed. Most important, write a note for the teacher, telling what the class accomplished and what specific problems you encountered. When you leave, lock the door and return the key to the office.

Believe in Yourself

None of this advice will mean much to you or your students if you don't think that substitute teaching is important. It is, and so are you. You are a professional teacher, not a babysitter. You are an important influence on the students in your care. Keep this in mind, and your job will be more rewarding; you might even look forward to going back. When you return, don't be surprised to find that the students remember you and rejoice at seeing you again.

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