Understanding the Role of Substitute Teacher (page 3)
Why is My Teacher Absent?
A good substitute teacher understands that students may want to know why their teacher is absent. Some are simply curious, others (particularly younger children) might be visibly upset. It’s important that you address the inevitable question in a way that imparts enough information to satisfy the students’ curiosity and reassures those students who might feel a bit uneasy.
As the children enter your classroom, eyes will widen when they see you.
“Where is Mr. Brooks?” one or more students might ask.
As I’ve noted, it’s very important to take control immediately, to introduce yourself in a way that draws the class closer to you, and to have the students see you as a competent teacher and a real person. So, rather than answering the question directly, it’s best to start by introducing yourself. Once that’s done, you can come back to the question.
“You asked why Mr. Brooks is absent. To be honest, I’m not quite sure why he’s out, (If you know the reason and it isn’t confidential, it’s perfectly acceptable to tell the class) but I’m sure he’ll be back soon. You know, I’m very lucky to be subbing for him because everyone tells me he’s a fine teacher, and I’ve heard good things about this class! I know we’re going to have a great day, and I’ll be able to give him an excellent report when he returns.”
An answer like this makes everyone feel good. It satisfies natural curiosity and calms students who might be uneasy with the absence.
How and When Will I Understand my Assignment?
In some cases you’ll have plenty of time to understand your assignment. You’ll get the call about your assignment in advance—sometimes days or even weeks ahead of time— e.g., when an in-service training session or a workshop has been scheduled for certain faculty members. In such cases, the teachers involved will notify the sub coordinator right away and positions are filled. More important, the classroom teacher has the time to provide you with advance notice of the topics to be covered and a good daily plan to guide you. You’ll have time to gather complementary materials (if you feel it’s necessary) by searching the Web for useful information. It’s an excellent idea to have a calendar or appointment book to keep track of your subbing jobs. You must be reliable, above all else.
In other situations, you’ll have much less advance notice. You might get a call the evening before your assignment or even at 6:00 A.M. on the morning of the assignment. The early morning call can be jolting. It will probably wake you out of a deep sleep, so your mind and memory may not be clear. For this reason, I recommend that you keep a pencil and paper on your night table so that you can write the assignment down (school, classroom number, teacher’s name). I’ve known more than a few subs who laughingly admitted that they forgot the school’s or teacher’s name after the morning call came in because they weren’t quite awake. That can be embarrassing!
Once the call comes in and you say yes, get out of bed. It may be tempting to get five more minutes of sleep, but be care ful. You certainly don’t want to oversleep, and the earlier you get started, the more prepared you will be.
How Can I Avoid Feeling Like an Outsider?
Let’s be honest, you’re not a full-time member of the school faculty, and some regulars may treat you as if you’re invisible. Others, however, will be friendly and helpful. You should understand that people in any organization accept outsiders slowly (and sometimes grudgingly), and you shouldn’t feel hurt if you’re not immediately embraced as one of the team.
I emphasize the need to dress and act professionally and to engage faculty members in friendly conversation whenever you can. Remember, jeans and T-shirts are never appropriate for a teacher, unless the school has “dress-down day.” Wearing sandals, especially flip-flops, is not acceptable. When I subbed, I ignored dress-down day. As a sub, I knew that I needed every trick in the book to gain respect!
Although you’ve done everything right, you will encounter some schools where you may get an icy reception. Don’t take it personally. It’s their problem, not yours!
Remember, you are an integral part of the school system, and without you (and other subs) chaos would reign. Who would take over when the teacher is out—the principal, the custodian, or the front office secretary? I doubt it! More likely, your grade partner would have to combine two classes. You’re providing all of these people with a very valuable service, and regardless of how you’re received, you should understand that simple fact.
What’s my Social Position in the Teachers’ Lounge?
You should feel free to socialize with the other teachers during free time, but you must try to be sensitive to their degree of receptivity. Usually, the conversation involves talking about topical matters within the school (e.g., students, parents, faculty). Because you don’t have appropriate context, you may not know what’s going on. Be a good listener and understand that it’s better to be silent than to offer an opinion that is inappropriate because you don’t understand the context (or the local politics).
It’s a good idea to be known as a person who is understanding. Listen carefully and try to reflect feeling. If another teacher does engage you in conversation, avoid judgmental comments and allow the full-time faculty member to guide the flow of the discussion.
I emphasize the importance of avoiding negative or “gossipy” conversations. If you become known as a gossip or align yourself with faculty members who are known as gossips, you may not be asked to return for other assignments.
How Can I Understand the Dynamics in the Classroom?
A good substitute teacher is an astute observer of human interaction. Understanding the roles of various students in the classroom and being able to identify the students who play those roles will help you immeasurably as you work to manage the class.
During your first fifteen minutes in the classroom, try to identify which students are leaders, which are followers, who is the class clown, who you can count on to be your special helper, and who you may need to protect from harassment. Watch and observe, and then use that information to be a more effective substitute teacher.
It’s important to understand that developing observational skills takes time. Your intent is to look for patterns of behavior and then to associate these patterns with various classroom roles. Look for these personality types. I suspect you may know some of these people from your own school experience.
- Class clown. He loves to be the center of attention. He is often very bright, although he may struggle academically because of attention problems or learning disabilities. If you get him on your side using your own sense of humor, he will not be a problem. Be aware of his need for attention and feed into it in a positive way. Don’t get too serious here. Use your own sense of humor, and you can easily outsmart this student. Appreciate him for who he is, and he will thrive on it.
- The victim. This student loves to say, “It’s not fair!” She feels as if you are picking on her. A good approach for this student is to have a private, one-on-one conversation, without being confrontational. Explain that life’s not always fair. Try to make her feel appreciated for her talents. Use a compliment to defuse the situation. “Thank you for understanding. I know this isn’t easy for you. I really appreciate your cooperation.”
- The mean girl. We all know the type. She is very pretty but actually quite insecure. She uses her ability to put down others to maintain her status in the classroom. Others are afraid to challenge her. Be careful. She has power. If you need to speak to her, do so privately. If you can get her on your side early in the day, she can be a good ally. Learn her name and establish rapport.
- The mean boy. He is often physically mature and gains stature by intimidating other students. He will have sycophants, but many of the students will try to avoid him. At the first sign of intimidation, you should have a private conversation. Looking him right in the eye, indicate that intimidating behavior is unacceptable, but then change course. Tell him that he could be a class leader, and you’ll need his help. As with the mean girl, get him on your side early in the day and his aggressive behavior should stop.
- The outcast. This student appears to have a “kick me” sign on his back. He lacks social skills, and others love to get him upset. Somehow he brings out the ugly side of human nature. You will need to defend him, but don’t be caught in his trap. Be sensitive, but detached if you need to be. Your overall responsibility must be to the entire group. • The helpful child. This student wants your approval. She wants to be your helper. It’s a pleasure to have this student on your side. Her help is needed, so why not take advantage? Everyone wins.
- The smart one. Usually the brightest students are high achievers and are respected by the group. However, if they lack social skills and try to flaunt their abilities, they may need to be protected from certain classmates who might not appreciate their talents.
- The leader. She will be a well-balanced, good student who has the respect of her peers. She has excellent social instincts and knows how to persuade others. Be sure to cultivate her help. Learn her name and call on her often.
- The needy one. He will want to tell you his life story, in real time! Because he wants to monopolize all of your time, you must limit your interaction with him, or you will find yourself ignoring the others. See more about the needy student later in this article.
A classroom is a microcosm of our society, and it’s not unusual to encounter each of these student types in a classroom. Observe the class dynamic. As you gain more classroom experience, you’ll learn how to identify and interact with these students. By managing the different types, you make your own day easier and the classroom much more manageable.
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