Survival Skills for the Substitute Teacher (page 4)
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.
How do I Handle a Real Crisis?
When your best effort at applying a quick fix fails, you need to make some rapid decisions. You must assess whether or not the behavior can be tolerated for the rest of the day (or the remainder of the class period). If the behavior is tolerable, accept it and move on. As the day progresses and students become actively involved in their lessons, they may settle down. But if the classroom behavior is intolerable, you need to take action.
Here are some of your options:
- Seek the help of the teacher next door.
- Send the disruptive student or students to the office with a referral slip, calling ahead to alert the office.
- Send a note to the office with a trusted student that says you need the help of the principal.
It’s important to emphasize that requesting help does not mean you’ve failed. It’s far better to remove a disruptive student from the room than it is to allow that student to ruin everyone’s day.
If I Ask for Help, Will I Be Viewed as a Weak Teacher?
No, you will be viewed as someone who has self-respect and will not tolerate a disruptive or potentially dangerous situation. You are protecting yourself and the students when you remove someone who will disrupt all learning and has the potential of putting the class in danger. Your responsibility as a teacher demands that you take action. The rest of the class will thank you silently.
The administration will recognize that you had the good judgment to take action before it was too late. And any other potentially disruptive students now understand that you mean business.
Are There any Positive Ways to Restore Order Once it has Been Lost?
There is always hope! After you have subbed for a while, you will have a sense of which techniques will work for you. Try a few of the following tactics and see which ones work.
It’s a good idea to assess why your class is out of control. Is your material too difficult? Do students understand what to do? Perhaps you need to change the assignment or work on it as a group. • If there is a personality confl ict going on, remove the individuals and speak with them privately. • Try standing near the misbehaving student or students. Use proximity to quiet the situation. • Acknowledge the good things that are happening in the room and ignore the others. Rewarding good behavior can turn the mood of the class around.
Sometimes if you remain calm (never lose your composure) and just wait, the group will quiet down on its own.
What if Students Ask to Go to the Restroom or to the Nurse?
Allow one child at a time to leave your room, and be sure that student has a hall pass if the school requires one. Keep track of who is out of the room, the time that student left, and where he or she is going. Be sure the students understand that you will not be “gamed” into allowing them to roam the halls. If you see that there is a constant stream of students leaving for the bathroom, you must shut it down. Simply state that the bathroom trips are over for now.
Not every day in the classroom will be easy. In fact, some days will try your patience and, if you’re not careful, crush your spirit. In order to avoid that, you have to develop a set of survival techniques for those days that are particularly challenging. The following guidelines will help:
- Be as strict as is required to control the class. You must set limits and enforce them.
- Try to isolate the cause of the classroom problem. Work to change things. If the subject matter is too difficult or unclear, for instance, do the work as a group or change the assignment. If the problem stems from the misbehavior of one student, take her aside, look her in the eye, and have a firm conversation.
- Try a quick fix. Sometimes something as simple as withholding a privilege or isolating the instigator will remedy the situation.
- If a real crisis erupts, don’t hesitate to ask for help. Get assistance from another teacher or the school office. You will not be viewed as weak if you ask for help.
- Give a detention or a referral slip when negative behavior demands one.
- Never lose your composure. Sometimes, if you wait calmly, the tide may change.
Be certain that the students understand that you have classroom boundaries that may not be crossed and there will be consequences if they try to cross them. Remember, you must do everything possible to keep the classroom calm and safe.
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