A Guide To Substitute Teaching: How To Maintain Order Along With Your Dignity

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I substitute teach part time. The reasons for this are twofold. First, I’m thinking about going back to school to teach full time; and secondly, it’s a fun way to spend a day (sometimes) and make some money. I’m assuming almost everyone who reads this blog is either in school or was in school at one point, so feel free to answer this next question: what do you think of when you think “substitute teacher”? If your mind immediately went to “easy day”, “pushover”, or “we can do whatever we want”, then you are or were the average student. When I think back on my own school experiences, days with substitutes were right up there with the Valentine’s Day’s they made us have all through elementary school where you had to bring candy for EVERYONE, which meant you got to eat candy all day in school. So naturally, when I started substitute teaching, I went into it with the attitude of behavior control. This proved to be grossly ineffective. Instead I came up with my own way of substiteaching and I will share some pointers with you. (These rules can also apply to Sunday School or babysitting)

1. Be a cool customer.
One of the first things anyone tells you in a counseling class is that you should act like you’ve heard everything before, even if your brain is having a Nicolas Cage in the Wicker Man style breakdown. Your face or actions should never give away what your true emotions are. The foundations of a counseling relationship are trust and understanding. If a patient sees the counselor is visibly upset by what he just heard, then it may cause the patient to shut down and the counseling goes nowhere. Trust is destroyed, and that can’t happen. This principle applies to teaching.

Kids can sense fear. If they see you’re overwhelmed or becoming frustrated, they will pounce on you and make your day way longer than it needs to be. How do you combat this? Be cooler than them. I’m not meaning cool in like a Fonzie compared to Potsie kind of way, I mean in a Steve McQueen on a motorcycle or John Wayne on a horse way. You need to walk in like you own the place. You are smartest and most capable person in that room, and those kids are going to learn it soon enough. Maintain your cool. Don’t let it show if you’re starting to crack.

2. Lay down the law.
You’re the new sheriff in town, and what you say goes (In reality, what the regular teacher’s instructions say goes, but they don’t know that). You’re in charge, this is what you expect, and this what will happen if they don’t meet expectations. Be clear and leave nothing to doubt. The sooner you get the kids to understand what happens if they don’t act right, the sooner you can get your day started.

Since you’re technically in charge, you can sometimes put in your own techniques for discipline that the regular teacher doesn’t do. Think of it as your calling card. Mine is to take up everyone’s phone in a basket at the beginning of class. This cuts down on distractions and shows them you’re serious. But, mine comes with a catch: if a phone is left on, vibrates, or rings while it’s in my possession, I can answer or play with it. I tell the kids this up front before they turn the phones in and 98% of them will comply, but when one doesn’t, it’s like Christmas. I will tweet or text on behalf of the guilty party before shutting off their phone, or in more devious instances, put in the wrong password and lock them out for hours at a time. This is one of the better things that can happen because it will endear you to the rest of the class as someone who isn’t afraid to embarrass one of their peers and it also reinforces that you’re serious about your own rules.

3. Sometimes sarcasm and antagonizing is necessary.
I’ve discovered that a slight dose of sarcasm does wonders in dealing with junior high and high school students. This may not be true for everyone, but it works for me. Remember what I said earlier about how you need to walk in like you’re the smartest person in that room. Guess what? You are. You have the high school diploma and college degree to prove it. Don’t sink to their level. Stay above it all and use sarcasm if necessary.

In some cases a slightly antagonistic attitude works really well in pushing the kids to work hard. Once I was substituting and I had a junior high drama period. Why junior highers need a drama class when they already have enough drama to go around is beyond me, but that’s neither here nor there. The assignment left for them was a rehearsal of a small one act play and they were supposed to act it out for me. After using some of my above methods, I told them to act out their play. I could tell immediately they were just going through the motions and not giving an effort, but I sat back and let them finish, looking mildly disinterested the whole time. After it was over, they asked what I thought. My response?

     “Meh.”
     They flipped. “‘Meh’?! Are you saying it wasn’t very good?”
     “Honestly, it wasn’t. I wasn’t very impressed.”
     “What do you mean?”
     “I mean you didn’t really sell it to me. You didn’t make me believe in the story. I could tell you were just going through the motions. I was fully aware I was watching a rehearsal the whole time. You really need to sell it. If i was grading you guys on a scale of 1-10, that was around a 4, if I’m being generous.”

They looked at me dumbfounded. The bell rang and they left shaking their heads. The next day the regular teacher called me and told me they gave her the best rehearsal of the entire school year that morning, and it was all because of what I’d said. I’d made them so mad they were determined to prove me wrong. Sometimes you have to poke the bear to shake it out of apathy and make it run.

5. Don’t act really excited to be in the teachers lounge.
The teacher’s lounge all through school felt like the Neutral Zone in Star Trek. In case you’re not up to date with your Star Trek lingo, the Neutral Zone is a section of space between the Federation and Klingon controlled regions, where if either party enters said Neutral Zone, it’s considered an act of aggression or even a declaration of war. You were never allowed in there, but if you did go in there, it meant bad things were coming. When I was growing up the teachers lounge felt like Narnia or something. I was never allowed in and I always wondered what was behind it’s door.

The reality? It’s a room with a couch, some tables, a Coke machine, and a TV where the teachers hang out and complain about their students to each other, and it’s AWESOME. I’m subbing at my old high school, so now I’m not only allowed and welcome into the teachers lounge, I am considered a peer by the same people who taught me! And they TELL YOU THINGS about everyone. Students, teachers, your old classmates, etc. It’s a revelatory experience. Learning what your teachers thought about your old classmates is one of the greatest things ever. But, don’t act too excited. You’re a peer now, remember? You have to have some air of professionalism.

6. Don’t let a movie ruin the class.
Let me explain. A lot of the time as a sub you will be regulated to the position of movie operator/behavior cop. You put on a movie and then are expected to keep order as distractions blare in front of their face. I discovered a wonderful method to keeping order: tell them to take notes on the movie because the regular teacher may (spoiler alert: they won’t, because it’s not true) take a pop quiz on it when they get back. It keeps the noise down and forces them to pay attention.

7. Answer their questions honestly and unmercifully.
You’re going to be asked a lot of questions. This is especially true if you’re subbing for junior high kids. If you’re young and just out of college, then they’re going to immediately think you’re interesting and want to know things about you or what you do. One of my favorites is I’m asked questions about college. This usually turns into a harsh reality session for the ignorant young minds who think college is what they saw on Van Wilder or Animal House. A girl once asked me if college was hard. I started laughing immediately. I asked what she wanted to be and she responded by saying she wanted to be a vet. I laughed even harder. When I told her the amount of time she’d be in school it looked like I’d just punched Justin Bieber in the face right in front of her.

Another kid asked me if you have to write a lot in college. I laughed at this question too. When he asked how much I gave him my own personal estimation of at least 500-1000 pages or more when you think about all the papers you’re going to be writing. He slunk back into his chair and just stared at his desk defeated. A valuable lesson was learned that day by those kids: college takes work, get used to it.

8. If you don’t know the answer, don’t make it a big deal.
Every once in a while you may be asked a question that you have no idea how to answer. This happens to me when I sub for high school math classes. I took three semesters of math at the beginning of college and haven’t touched it since, which means I’m completely useless when it comes to working out standard deviations and other black magic like that. So when someone asks me how to do something, I respond the same way every time: “Very carefully,” then I go back to what I was doing. Works every time.

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