Substitute Teaching – It's All About Image

Substitute teaching is more about image than substance, more about what you don't do than what you do, and really not a job where risk taking is prudent.  Of most importance is a substitute teacher's demeanor.   

As a substitute you will be assigned to teach many pleasant, cooperative, hard-working, and almost angelic classes, but there will be those that are the exact opposite.  It is very unpleasant to have a bad class - a class that is not interested in doing the assignment, ignores the substitute, incessantly talks and laughs with friends, and has several students who leave their assigned seats.  But if a substitute is not careful his demeanor can change a bad class into a hostile class, which is much, much worse.  Overreacting, panicking, and using sarcasm can do it, as will name calling like, "I can't believe what a bunch of self-centered, spoiled brats you are."

And you will encounter at times some very unpleasant students.  But be careful not to show your real feelings. "That teacher hates me" is a common student complaint – one that is received sympathetically by parents, counselors, and disciplinarians.

Also most students are oblivious to the substitute teacher, but a few will band together and deliberately try to provoke a substitute and take pride in their ability to make things difficult. Usually by being unnecessarily noisy and rude hoping to make the substitute lose his or her temper thus giving them an excuse to be even louder and more rude.  So don't take the bait and be patient.    

Students are perceptive.  Because teachers have to communicate so often with them, personality characteristics such as lack of confidence, arrogance, pretentiousness, and testiness are hard to conceal. Watch celebrities and politicians when they are being interviewed.  Watch their facial expressions and other forms of nonverbal communication, and listen to what they say and do not say. And take a cue from the police: "Sir, please get out of the car... and put your hands on the hood, please."  So be polite. "Please, don't sit on the desk" is preferable to an abrupt "Don't sit on the desk."  When taking attendance and a student responds, look at the student and say, "Thank you." This will also discourage students from answering for an absent student. But do it quickly and naturally.  You don't want to seem too polite.  
One way to enhance the businesslike aspect of one's personality is to speak in a way that shows respect for the regular teacher.  At times actually read passages to the students from the directions the teacher has left.  Statements like, "Mrs. Engle has directed you to.... and she expects everyone to finish by...." remind students that the authority comes from the regular teacher and that you are working diligently to follow the teacher's plan. And follow the plans carefully even if you do not think it is a good plan. Innovation by you is not usually appreciated.

However, taking just a few minutes to enhance a lesson is usually okay.  Pre-discuss the video you are about to show; or the chapter that is about to be studied.  Or explain the learning objective of the lesson and its importance.  This too is good for your image.  It shows students that you can do more than just turn on a DVD player or hand out assignments.

You may also want to be careful not to get too friendly with students.  It feels awkward to have to stifle a student's good time after just having a pleasant conversation with him or her.

One last thing about image.  Don't apologize.  If you are clueless about a subject, like chemistry, geometry, or Spanish, you don't need to announce your ignorance.  Or if you have had very little classroom experience, students don't need to know that either.  They'll learn soon enough, or they may not.  One exception to the don't-apologize rule would be if you say something mildly rude or disrespectful to someone.  But keep it brief.  You're not perfect and should not be expected to be.  However, if you are guilty of a serious breach of conduct, it's is best to keep your mouth shut.

Finally, it is more important to be thought of as a good teacher than to actually be one.  If you are respected, students will cooperate more and therefore learn more.  So fool them if you can.

Good Luck


Social Studies Teachers Deserve More Respect.  Or Do They?

Social studies is the study of civilization – a global study of people's attempts to work together, in the past and present, for the benefit of all – and is one of the most important subjects taught in our schools, because even if we make great advances in math and science and technology, it can be worth nothing if mankind does not work cooperatively with one another.
Social studies classes, however, are often assigned to teachers carelessly, because many believe anyone can teach social studies.  Which is true.  But not everyone does it well. 

I recall not long ago listening to a tediously detailed presentation of John Brown's 1859 raid on the federal armory at Harper's Ferry, Virginia, with the intention of gaining weapons for a slave revolt.  But I don't recall any mention of how in the South this event caused deep fear and mistrust, because so many in the North cheered this lunatic.  Good social studies teachers know what is important and emphasize it.

In another setting I listened to a park ranger deliver an emotional and indignant description of the atrocities that occurred during Major John Chivington's and his militia's massacre of a defenseless Indian tribe in Colorado in 1864.  But what I wanted to know was what led up to this savage incident.  Social studies teaching is about comprehension not condemnation.

And I recall viewing a very lengthy video of the military campaigns of Julius Caesar – the many battles he won and the territories he conquered.  Possibly the intent was to show how force was used to advance the Roman civilization.  But if this was mentioned, I missed it.  The significance of events should be routinely and elaborately explained. 

Social studies teachers also need to teach students to think beyond the textbook.  I had an opportunity to do this once while substituting for an American history class.   I asked the students, "Why would our venerable founding fathers lead the American colonies into a war with the most powerful nation on earth knowing so much death and destruction would follow?"

According to the textbooks:  "British Tyranny"   "Freedom"  "No Taxation without representation." 

Soon the conversation expanded into a general discussion of wars against existing governments – of which worldwide there have been hundreds if not thousands – and typical reasons for these were listed.

Most common were economic reasons – the belief that the existing government is unable or unwilling to achieve prosperity for many of its citizens.  In the case of the American colonies, there was undoubtedly a desire to be free of the trade and manufacturing laws and other restrictions that seemed to favor Britain.

A second reason: arrogance.  People in power often believe they are superior and therefore entitled to more of the nation's wealth – frequently much more.  There is evidence of a superior attitude by the British toward the colonists.  

A third reason: a belief in the ability to win.  George Washington believed this.  During the French and Indian War he witnessed much British military ineptness. 

Another reason: effective use of propaganda.  People may be fooled into believing they have a terrible government and will be better off with a change. Unfortunately the result is often a government that is more incompetent and more corrupt. 

Of course some insurrections are simply the result of years of frustration with the failure to resolve grievances.  The actual fighting during the American Revolution had begun more than a year before the Declaration of Independence.

You or your students may have better answers.  

And relating the past to the present is always a good idea.   Many view the United States today the way we viewed Britain in the 18th century.  "Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown."  So our government works with world trade organizations to create fair trade laws and helps developing countries; our diplomats court friendships and alliances, carefully show respect for other cultures, and avoid arrogance; we endeavor to keep our military so powerful that no one will dare challenge us; and we promote free speech and education to reduce the effects of propaganda.

Propaganda is mentioned often in social studies and is one of many important topics for discussion, because it seems now more pervasive than ever here in the United States and may be responsible for our inability to act on many issues.  Money talks and well-financed interests groups seem to have a "win at any cost" attitude believing their common use of half-truths and prevarications are okay because "The end justifies the means."  The solution of course is transparency.  One must consider the source and insist that sources not remain anonymous.  (Maybe we need something similar to the warnings on cigarette packages.)  But be careful.  Showing bias will justifiably get you into trouble.  Be objective and stick to the facts.     

President Obama has set the goal of preparing 100,000 science and math teachers over the next decade.  Hey Pres, what about us social studies teachers?  (I'm sending him a copy of this.)  


Episodes of Classroom Mischief and Mayhem  

Throughout my career my classes have proceeded with harmony and tranquility, and I have been an exemplary model of professionalism – most of the time. 

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As retribution for classroom misbehavior, middle school teachers occasionally do not to allow students to pass promptly to their next class.  And while the detainees wait to be released, lengthy chastisements are often delivered.   This appeared to be the reason that so many students were in a foul mood as they trickled in late to my last period class then demanded passes to get water or use the restroom.

I was substituting for one of the wildest 7th grade classes ever. While I was taking roll and dealing with the late arrivals, students were having much difficulty finding their seats, were loudly joking with and harassing their friends, and, after class started, began asking questions that did not need to be asked, just to be funny.

At one point, because it had become so hard to communicate with this class, I just stood there and looked at them for several minutes without saying a word.  This did make a few uneasy.  I heard one boy say, "Everyone be quiet.  He's going to just stand there again."  

Later I said to them, "We can keep bitching at each other, or we can get on with the class."

One girl, who was sitting in the back row and not paying much attention, looked up from the book she was reading and asked, "Did you say 'bitching"?

 "Yes, bitching. You know, complaining, yelling at each other."  It seemed like a harmless remark.

Well the word "bitching" got me into trouble.  The next day I received a call from the school district supervisor of substitute teachers.  Apparently some parents had called the school.

The supervisor was polite yet firm and told me this incident would be written in my file.  I began to explain, but was cut off and realized the futility of quibbling.  There had been times when I had expected a complaint and hadn't received one, so, since the supervisor had mentioned that this was my first complaint, I felt lucky I hadn't had more. 

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During a conversation with my principal once, when I was a young teacher, he commented, "...but you really like the kids."

I was uncomfortable with the word "but" and would have preferred hearing, "…have become a very effective teacher" or "The kids have a lot of respect for you."

But maybe liking the kids is not something everyone can do, and it is hard to fake it.  And if you don't like them, they probably won't like you.

But I do have difficulty liking those young men who swagger when they walk, wear slouching baggy pants and long black shirts and ball caps turned sideways or backwards, and flash obscure signs at each other.  They seem to be about intimidation - maybe the only way they can get respect.

And these are often big guys with names like Joey or Ricky, and the social worker and special education ladies say, "Oh he's so a big teddy bear."  So are grizzlies, until you make them mad.

While substituting several years ago, I had one of these guys in a high school PE class.  We were doing coed kick ball in the gym and the mild mannered other kids "allowed" him be the pitcher.  

Well he was having a great time belligerently throwing the ball at people and generally ignoring the rules of the game while a few abetted him.  I confronted him about this at least twice, but was ignored and the same behavior continued.  So I put the extra kick balls away, and at my first opportunity I scooped up the kick ball that was in play and announced to his team that a new pitcher had to be selected.

I think I hurt the boy's feelings.  After losing his position he refused to participate, and for the rest of the period, stood off to the side by the bleachers with a sulky look on his face.

*          *
I was warned about this class.  In the teacher's substitute plans for the day.
It was the teacher's 3rd Period – just before lunch.

As I was taking attendance, it was noisy, but not too bad.  Then a student carrying a bag of potato chips comes in late and some confusion about the attendance resulted.  Meanwhile, as I'm correcting the attendance, he starts passing out the potato chips to people and generally creates some chaos.  A few moments later, while I'm looking down at the desk and going over the plans for the day, he leaves.  Turns out he wasn't even enrolled in this class.

So the class is noisy but tolerable, and I'm keeping busy.  At 11:45, to my surprise, a bell rings and about one-third of the class stands suddenly and begins to leave.  Fortunately I was standing near the exit and realized that this bell was for students with a different lunch schedule –I had been at this school before – and I halted their exit. They knew what they were doing and they were quick – but I was quicker.

After lunch, during the next class, in comes the potato chip passer – perhaps he didn't think I would recognize him.  I made a vaguely sarcastic remark to him and let it go.  And he was just mildly irritating during the class - though he was having an excessively good time talking to the pretty girl sitting behind him.

Near the end of the period I heard this girl call him a name that was not the same name as indicated on the seating chart.  Upon investigation I learned that he had persuaded another boy to change places with him - and names when attendance was taken.

Well I decided that his behavior warranted a note to his regular teacher, so, while the class was completing an assignment, I sat down and carefully composed one. I then proudly read my well-written composition to the young man– while he was still enjoying the company of his pretty girlfriend – and I asked him if I had described the day's events well.

But if he was impressed with my writing skills, he didn't show it.

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Well it was my fault, because I started it.

I was substituting at a high school and, as I was beginning this one class, a student mentioned that this was my third time in this class.  Then another student, Richard, said he thought I had been here just twice.

I replied to Richard, "He's right, my second day here you were absent, which was fortunate for me."  The class goes wooooooooo and Richard did not reply.  Richard could be very challenging and the class knew it.

So when I am taking roll I call out Richard's name, "Rick?"

He responds in crescendo and exaggerated anger, "Don't call me Rick!  I hate it when people call me Rick.  If you call me Rick again, I'm just not going to answer.  Don't call me Rick."  And on and on like that.

I reacted mildly with, "Okay.....Okay."

After attendance the class has an assignment.  They're sitting at tables working in small groups and I routinely go around and check on each group.  When I get to Richard's table and ask how they are doing, the pretty girl sitting next to Richard says, "Rick and I are....."

I then interrupted the young lady with some greatly exaggerated drama of my own, "Don't call him Rick!  He hates it when people call him Rick.  He goes crazy when people call him Rick.  Just don't call him Rick."  I was enjoying myself.  Richard just sat there silently.

About a week later I am at the same school but in a different class, and Richard is in the class, as are several other fun loving young men.  And they all sit together because there is no seating chart – because the teacher is a nice guy and lets them sit wherever they please.

So they're all having a good time while I'm trying to conduct the class – nothing terrible, just a lot of mildly loud talking and laughter.  And I'm putting up with it, but getting really steamed up too.

Finally, I decide I have to break up this group by moving some of these guys to different seats.  But I am reluctant because if one of them refuses and defies me, I'll have to call for help, and I never do that.

Well the first kid cooperated and moved.  Then for some reason I decided the next to move had to be Richard, and I told him calmly, "Richard, you need to move to another seat too."

He shouts back at me angrily, "I'm not moving, I haven't done anything."   

At this point I'm at the end of my rope and I shout right back into his face, "Then go stand in the hall!" His chair hits the wall as he stands up in a fit of temper, then goes out into the hall.

The whole class is really quiet now, and the boy that I had first asked to move said, "I've never seen a teacher talk to a student like that."  And I thought, "What?  Never seen a teacher yell at a student?" But I know times have changed.  Teachers are much more gentle now.

As I resumed the lesson, I hear a "Boom! Boom! Boom!" sound coming from the hall.  Though I never did learn the sound's source, my first thought was that Richard was banging his head against the wall.  So I put down the book I was holding and told the still very quiet class I had to go out and deal with Richard.

When I exited the classroom, Richard was standing just outside the door.    We stood there face to face.  As our eyes met, possibly we each saw in the other a longing to end the conflict. 

I spoke blandly to Richard, "Just come back in and sit down."  And he did, and I don't recall where he sat, but there was no more trouble.