6 Tricks for Happier Substitute Teaching

6 Tips for Happier Substitute Teaching | Beth WanglerWell, I’ve been a substitute teacher for a few months now.  I don’t claim to be the most experienced sub out there–far from it–but I have learned a lot over these months, and I’d love to pass on this knowledge to others.  (After all, isn’t that why most of us are teachers–because we love sharing knowledge?)

So here are  things I’ve learned from subbing:

1. A smile goes a long way

6 Tricks for Happier Substitute Teaching | Beth Wangler

It should be common knowledge that people respond well to smiling people.  When you greet a class with a smile, the chances of them responding well are much higher than if you greet them with a scowl or a blank stare.  I’d far rather be around someone who’s happy to be with me, and I’m far more likely to cooperate with such a person, too.  The same goes for students.

This applies on a more general level, too.  If you’re glad to be there, students will be glad that you’re there, too.  If you’re curmudgeonly and disgruntled, the students will be, too.  Try to find the joy in what you’re doing: You can be a positive force in students’ lives, you can help them keep learning while their teacher is absent, you can inspire and love thousands of students in a year instead of just a couple hundred.  Your job is important–what would schools do when teachers were sick or needed training without you?  Subbing may not have been your first choice, but it can still be a fulfilling experience.

2. Greet students at the door

6 Tricks for Happier Substitute Teaching | Beth Wangler

This helps instantly establish your authority in the class.  It lets students know right off the bat that the random person in their room is someone they should pay attention to, not just a passive bystander.  Especially if you’re young like me, it’s crucial that students recognize you.  That way they know who to look for when the bell ring.

As an added bonus, you’ll get to personally meet some of the students and start finding out who will be helpful.  It makes subbing, which can often feel very isolated and lonely, more relational.

3. Be explicit about your expectations

6 Tricks for Happier Substitute Teaching | Beth Wangler

Know what kind of class you want to have, and let the students know that.  What you think is standard classroom procedure may not be so obvious to them.  Every teacher has different expectations, and students have the difficult task of navigating upwards of six different worlds, so to speak, each day.  Throw in a new teacher, and is it any wonder students misbehave?

I always start off by letting students know I will be leaving a report for their teacher, and that I’ll be looking for students who are very helpful and focused as well as students who are distracted and disrespectful.  When students are doing partner or group work, I tell them that I expect them to use academic language–no profanity, using words to encourage their peers to learn rather than tear them down.  I let them know when I expect them to silently work independently.  I let them know what my consequences for failing to meet these expectations are.  I tell them that I hope we can work together well and help each other learn during that class, and that I’ll need their help to make it a successful class.

4. Sometimes, it’s okay to send a student out of class

6 Tricks for Happier Substitute Teaching | Beth Wangler

This is one I’m still struggling with.  I have now officially sent my first student out of class.  While it is important to do everything possible to keep a student in class where they can learn–since our priority as teachers is to educate–there comes a point when one student may be preventing their peers from learning.  When pulling a student aside to talk with them about appropriate classroom behavior, warnings, and every other classroom management trick in your bag have failed, when the amount of learning in a class is being hindered by the behavior of one student, then it is time to calmly send them to the office.

5. Students like to be asked to help

6 Tricks for Happier Substitute Teaching | Beth Wangler

Need a student to pick up trash?  How about pass out worksheets?  Does no one want to take the attendance to the office?  Instead of demanding that someone do what you need, ask the students to help you out.  Demanding sets you up as a dictator, and students who are developmentally beginning to challenge authority will balk against this.  I’ve told students to do things and at best have them grudgingly obey.  Yet when I’ve said, “Can you help me out by ____,” I’ve never failed to have students jump to help.  They love to feel like they’re making a difference.  Who doesn’t love a clear chance to do some good and feel like a better person?

Of course, you do have to be authoritative, too.  There are times when you have to clearly set your foot down.  But, as the idiom goes, you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.

6. Stickers are a great motivator

6 Tricks for Happier Substitute Teaching | Beth Wangler

Seriously.  Everyone loves stickers.  I substitute solely for middle school and high school, and stickers work like a charm.  I tried and tried and tried to get students to clean up their classroom before they left.  I found if I said, “You can’t leave until the class is clean,” students would leave and there would still be trash everywhere.  Then I brought out some teeny tiny happy face stickers and said, “For every five pieces of trash you throw away, you get a sticker,” and suddenly the classroom was spotless.

My sister, who teaches preschool, can confirm that stickers work great for all ages.  I’d say this phenomenon only worked for students, but I know some people who only voted in the last election so they’d get the “I Voted” sticker–so I guess this holds true no matter how old a person is.


What have you learned from subbing or teaching?  What advice do you have for me?

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