Classroom Management Help For The Substitute Teacher (page 3)
Children make a very rapid collective assessment of you the moment they see you in a classroom. That’s why I think it’s so important to set a positive, authoritative tone at the start of the day. Most children feel relieved when a confident sub takes charge. It’s scary to be in a room with no control.
Within the first few minutes, it’s likely that one or two students will try to challenge your authority. They’re testing for weakness, unconsciously trying to establish dominance. You have to win the first skirmish by being kind but firm. Issue your directions in a way that leaves no room for debate or argument.
A petite girl raises her hand, “Mrs. Camileri [the regular classroom teacher] always lets us switch seats so that we can work together.”
Your reaction must be calm but firm. In a no-nonsense voice, you respond, “No, you may not switch seats for group work. Your teacher may let you work with your friends and that’s great. But on sub days, we do things a little differently. Thank you for understanding.”
All the begging in the world will not change your mind. The class sees that you are serious, and they are relieved. Someone is in control.
Should I Try to Make the Class Like Me?
All of us want to be liked, and substitute teachers are no exception. But it’s a mistake to try too hard to be liked by your students. There are times when your students won’t like you, and that’s okay!
Students are happiest when they feel safe and protected. It’s your job to establish a safe and secure classroom environment, even if it means that your students feel that you’re being authoritarian. “That’s not fair” is a common exclamation when you work to avoid chaos. But a few frowns are a small price to pay in order to maintain control.
Remember, when chaos reigns in the classroom, everyone is miserable. The quiet, well-behaved children are uneasy, even frightened. And the boisterous few who are trying to disrupt the flow of the classroom aren’t really happy. Someone needs to be the “heavy,” and that someone is you! Even if the students don’t like you for that instant, they will all feel better in a classroom that is calm and orderly.
Should I Raise my Voice or Even Yell if it’s Appropriate?
It’s very important to understand that classroom management is not about yelling. In a firm, confident voice, you say, “No, that is not acceptable.” Your tone and body language—your most important communication tools—telegraph the absolute expectation that your comments will be heeded. If the students try to ignore you, repeat yourself, calmly.
I recommend that as the volume of student voices goes up, your voice level should go down. A quiet, but strong voice in the midst of chaos can have a profound effect on those who hear it. It is never acceptable for students to ignore your words.
When order is restored (without yelling), you will be liked and respected for your strength and fairness. This is a wonderful feeling, and it is what makes you an effective substitute teacher.
How do I Respond to “That’s Not Fair”?
You will hear these words often, and as a sub, you must be careful not to fall into the trap of trying to be perfectly fair at all times to all students. Children may use these words to manipulate you, so be careful not to fall into the trap of defending yourself. You won’t win!
Children sometimes feel that you are not being fair when they feel slighted or hurt. They want to turn a perceived injustice into revenge. And you are the tool!
I always tried to explain to the class that we all try to be fair, but they must understand that life’s not fair. A good teacher tries to give each student what is best for that student, and what may be fair for one is not always the best for the next person. Sometimes we must do what is best for the whole group, and that may not feel fair to one or two individuals.
If the discussion about fairness continues, tell the students involved that you will discuss it and resolve the situation later, but now it is time to get back to work. Then you may take the children aside and resolve the problem privately.
A worthwhile discussion of fairness can be found in the book Positive Discipline, by J. Nelsen et al. The authors provide pragmatic solutions for handling situations in which students try to push your “fairness button.”
How Should I Manage Rewards and Consequences?
In the classroom, a carrot is almost always better than a stick. Rewards provide positive reinforcement for good performance and good behavior. But rewards have to be balanced with consequences if performance or behavior is less than satisfactory. Use them both, and your ability to manage the classroom will be greatly enhanced.
The system that most good teachers establish encompasses both tiered rewards for good performance and behavior and a warning system with consequences for performance or behavior that doesn’t meet school standards. Hopefully, there is a reward system in use in the classroom. Ask your special helper to explain it to you.
Many classrooms use multilevel warnings (e.g., green light, yellow light, red light) with consequences (e.g., write student’s name in a special book, make a check next to name, miss recess, call the parent). If this approach is not effective for your needs that day, you will need a backup system.
There are many rewards systems that are effective. Here are a few that have worked for me. Try some of these and see which work best for you.
- Recess as a reward. On the board, write the word R-E-C-E-S-S in big letters. Tell the class that you will give them a recess period at the end of the day. However, if you need to remind them to be quiet, instead of telling them, you’ll simply erase one letter of the word recess from the board. If the whole word is erased, recess is gone. However, even if just one letter is left, they are safe!
- List of names. Tell the class that their teacher has asked you to leave the names of any students who misbehave. However, say that you prefer to give the teacher a list of excellent students. You can write these names on the board or keep a list on paper. Just make sure all can see the list. Those on the list will be given a reward at the end of the day, and the names will be included in your teacher note.
- Contest. If the classroom is arranged in pods, rows, or sections, give each section a number. Each time a section is behaving well, put the number of the section on the board. Each time you want to compliment them, put a check next to that number. The section with the most checks will be rewarded (e.g., stickers, treats, extra time for a free choice activity).
When children are arranged in groups and the whole group wants a reward, they will self-police. If one student is noisy, he can ruin the chance of a reward for the whole group. Usually one or more members of the group will act as your surrogate to quiet the noisy child. This can work for whole-class rewards as well.
Because you are not the classroom teacher, your survival tools are limited. I’ve found that if you use rewards effectively, they can make a real difference. So try some of the suggestions, and be on the lookout for others in the classrooms you visit.
But remember, always be consistent. If you start the day using a reward system, continue to use it throughout the entire day. Be sure that if you threaten consequences, you must be able to follow through.
There is much more that can be said about reward systems. In fact, entire books have been written on the subject. If you have additional interest, I recommend Assertive Discipline by Lee Canter and The First Days of School by Harry and Rosemary Wong.
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