Survival Skills for the Substitute Teacher
How Strict Should I Be?
In an ideal world, all classroom and behavior management would be accomplished with kind words and positive reinforcement. But in the world of real classrooms and real students, it is sometimes necessary to set distinct behavior limits and reinforce them with strict measures when the limits are not followed.
The degree to which you must set firm or strict classroom rules varies from grade to grade and by the culture of each school. In general, middle school requires the most discipline and is the most likely setting for clear classroom policies. However, you cannot expect absolute silence in middle school. You’ll need to be flexible. Classroom management is essential at the middle school level, but it must be handled with finesse and a sense of humor.
At every grade level, enter a new classroom with a positive attitude, giving the students every chance to exhibit acceptable behavior. But if “being nice” isn’t working, quickly change your demeanor and become a no-nonsense classroom manager.
Are There Any Quick Fixes?
If you enter a classroom that is out of control, recognize that it isn’t your fault. The culture of the class and the mixture of students defines the manner in which students interact with one another and behave in general.
But those realities are cold comfort when you have to manage the class. Although there is no “silver bullet” that changes a challenging class into a good one, there are a number of quick fixes that you can use to modify unacceptable classroom behavior:
- Hold back a privilege. Learn what the students love to do and hold that activity hostage to good behavior. The students won’t like it (and it is unfair to those students who are performing acceptably), but holding back a privilege can be an effective quick fix.
- Isolate the instigator (there is always an instigator) and have a private conversation with him or her. Tell the instigator that you do not want to embarrass him or her in front of other classmates, but the disruptive behavior will not be tolerated. Try to negotiate a path to better behavior. Often, this one-on-one talk in close proximity defuses the situation.
- Promise a “fun activity” when work is done. This approach works well in lower grades and often results in the children policing the behavior of others in order to ensure that the “fun activity” will be delivered.
- Praise good behavior. If a disruptive student does anything positive, praise him or her immediately and profusely. In some cases, this is all that will be required to modify behavior.
- Let the students know that you’ll tell the regular teacher who was good and who was not. Put the names of both cooperative and uncooperative students on the board and promise to include each list in your teacher note. Provide some mechanism that enables a student on the uncooperative list to get his or her name removed.
- Try to defuse a disruptive situation by refocusing the student on something interesting. Use a brainteaser or some other filler to break up the situation. Promise to do it again later as a reward.
- Don’t be afraid to issue a detention slip or to send a student to the office. If you do this, the rest of the class will see that you are serious about your standards of behavior. Others will be reluctant to push you if they see you follow through on standards of conduct.
When a class is difficult, your job is to manage it as best you can. As I’ve noted repeatedly, you must project confidence and control, even in a bad situation. If you look weak, you’ll have trouble surviving the day.
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