9 Ways to be Prepared to Substitute

I took on a new role this week.  After twelve years of being the classroom teacher, a math/science facilitator, professional development trainer, and college professor, this week I was Mr. Dovico, Substitute Teacher.  One of my closest friends is a 4th grade teacher at a local elementary school, and her six-year-old son was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma last fall.  Well he beat it!  And the wonderful Make-a-Wish Foundation granted him his wish to be a zookeeper this week.

I had some flexibility in my schedule on Tuesday and Wednesday, so I told her I would be happy to come in and substitute for her while she was with her son’s Make-a-Wish.  Coincidentally, as I was scrolling through my Twitter feed last evening, I came across an interesting article called 9 Ways to Prepare a Substitute for Your Tough Class.  It offers sound suggestions and ideas for preparing your classroom and your students for the arrival of a substitute teacher.

Given the new circumstance I was faced with this week, in the role of the substitute, I thought I would look at this from the other side of the table, and offer ideas on how to be prepared if you are the substitute teacher.

1) Set the Tone: Even though the class I was substituting for is a wonderfully behaved and organized class, I have been around long enough to know that “when the cat’s away, the mice shall play.”  Kids will be kids.  I treated my experience as the first day of school, where I always set the tone immediately.  As students entered the classroom, I welcomed them and had instructions on the board for beginning their morning work without talking, though I did have music playing in the background to offset the request for no talking.  When a student tried talking to his neighbor, I quickly fussed him out and that is all the rest of the class needed to see I wasn’t playing.

2) Smile: While I did fuss out that child for talking, I did it with a smile.  There is no reason to go into a classroom as an ogre.  These are children, they appreciate happy people.  Find the balance of setting the tone with a smile on your face.

3) Be Prepared for the Worst: Luckily, I had plenty of time to talk to my friend about what I was going to do with the students, but many substitute teachers do not have the luxury of knowing the teacher they are subbing for or have much time for preparation, so they rely on the sub plans that the teacher creates.  Unfortunately, not all sub plans are created equal.  Last week, one of my Wake Forest elementary education seniors did a workshop presentation (their final assignment in my leadership course) on what she created called her “Substitute Notebook.”  She had done some subbing this semester since she was a part-time student and encountered a number of instances where the plans left for her were insufficient.  She went ahead and created this notebook, which included backup materials, worksheets, lesson ideas, and a number of other “lifesavers” in case you are left with nothing to do with the students.

4) Establish Guidelines: As a substitute teacher, you walk the line of abiding by the procedures and rules that the classroom has become used to, but also maintaining order according to what you are comfortable with.  When I subbed this week, I spoke to a few of the students before the day got started to find out their procedures with the bathroom, getting materials, and transitioning.  However, I also established my three rules that I bring with me to any class I teach: 1) tracking the speaker, 2) speaking and sitting respectfully, and 3) standing up when you speak and answering in a complete sentence.  This allowed me to still allow the students to feel comfortable with what they have become accustomed to throughout the year, but also for me to feel comfortable in what I like to see in the classroom.

5) Identify Your Go-to Kids: As I greeted the students on Tuesday morning, I was carefully paying attention to who was following the routines of the classroom even with their teacher not there.  I used those students as my go-to kids when I had a question about procedures.  I would simply whisper my question to them or call them to me to ask; this avoided making a spectacle with a simple question to the entire class.

6) They Know the Answer: When one student asked me “Where do we put the answers to the trivia questions?” I honestly had no idea.  However, I did not want to open Pandora’s Box with asking the class, so I simply acted like this was an unnecessary question and turned it back to him and said, “Where have you put the answers since the beginning of the year?”  He said, “Oh,” and put it where it was apparently placed all year.  Sometimes you just need to take a chance and assume the kids know!

7) Build Relationships: This may sound odd because you may only be with these students for one day as a substitute, but students who respect you and know that you are there for them tend to behave better and cooperate more.  You can do simple things like asking about their day, complimenting them on their clothes, making connections with them by bring up community activities, sports, or family.
8) Earn Street Cred: Students, parents, teachers, administrators all talk.  When students leave your room saying “He’s cool,” after you had them for the day or even a period, they are bound to tell someone else.  Before you know it, word will get around about you as the substitute teacher.  Reputation precedes you in many cases.  This can work in your favor or against you, and can also impact your likelihood of being asked back by a teacher or school. 

9) Have fun: “If you’re not having fun, you’re in the wrong profession.”  I use this phrase in general when I speak to teachers, but I believe the same goes for substitute teaching.  Why would you want to spend six hours in a place with kids if you’re not having fun.  Frankly, there are many jobs that pay the same as subbing where you do not need to work with anyone else if you are that miserable being with kids.  Make the most out of the short time you have with the kids and have fun!

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