Classroom Management for New Substitute Teachers

Substitute teachers often do not receive any substantial training. A former full-time and current substitute teacher shares her best tips for temporarily managing a classroom.

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When I was working as a full-time teacher, I dreaded taking days off. If I woke up with a cold, I had to ask myself: is it going to be harder to work through this, or to prep for a substitute? As a teacher, leaving your class to a stranger can be a terrifying prospect, but I never really considered how equally frightening the situation could be for a substitute until becoming one myself.

When my husband and I decided to start our family, I transitioned from teaching full-time to subbing because I needed a more flexible schedule. After the exhaustive preparation and training I’d completed to become a teacher, I expected at least a few instructional meetings for substituting, but soon learned that the bulk of my one-hour, online substitute training consisted of explaining that jeans and a t-shirt are not appropriate attire. Suddenly my negative sub experiences were coming into focus. How could these teachers really handle high school students with only “wear slacks” as their guide?

From my experience as both a substitute and a teacher, I can tell you that the main hurdle is classroom management — not so much what you teach, but how you interact with the class. It can be intimidating approaching this task as a substitute, especially when you don’t have a lot of experience or training, so I have three simple rules of classroom management to help you get started.

They “smell” fear; be confident.

On my very first day of subbing, I decided to ease myself in. As a teacher, I’d taught Language Arts, so the first class I decided to substitute was Shakespeare. I had taught the play before and led literature discussions more times than I could count—what could possibly go wrong? Unfortunately, despite my qualifications, I was a ball of nerves, thinking to myself, “I’m just a sub.” When the first period began, I nervously dove into a lengthy overview of my teaching experience, mentioning my tenure with senior students and how often I had taught Shakespeare. I practically recited my CV for them before actually saying the phrase, “So I promise I’m not going to be the worst sub ever.”

It was a disaster. The usually well-behaved students quickly turned their attention to phones, friends, and the backs of their eyelids.

Thanks to my first year of teaching, I knew instinctively what the problem was: students smell fear. If you’re lucky, they’ll just become bored and disengaged, but in the worst cases, it can’t lead to huge behavior problems and even losing complete control of a class. When I got up in that first period, my body language, voice, and rambling introduction all told the kids I was terrified to be there. Students don’t respond well to fear. Why should they be obedient to someone who is clearly not in control of the situation?

No matter how nervous you might be, the first and most important task of a sub is to act confident. When you begin class, speak clearly and make eye contact. Make your introduction succinct and to the point; avoid rambling and irrelevant personal information. I’ve found the time it takes me to get from the bell ring to taking roll is directly correlated to student behavior for the rest of class.

Keep the students busy, but trust the teacher’s time management.

It can be tempting to adjust a teacher’s timetable in fear of extra time. Recently, I substituted for a friend of mine, covering each of his English concurrent enrollment classes. His notes suggested giving only ten minutes for discussion before an in-class essay, but after his first period completed their essays with almost fifteen minutes to spare, I decided to give his second period a few more minutes for discussion. Three students in the second class were unable to finish their essays, and left the class in tears. Despite my observations in first period, my friend knew his students’ needs better than I did, and he had planned his schedule accordingly.

If you’re worried about having extra time at the end of the period, it’s always good to have extra activities that you can do with any class. I call it my “bag of tricks.” Find a cool brainteaser that you can have them figure out in small groups. Write a prompt like “Who would win in a fight for world domination: kittens with opposable thumbs or puppies trained in jiu jitsu?” and have a class debate. Teach them “Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes” in another language.

It’s also advisable to have both whole-class activities and some that can be completed individually. When students finish a test early, having a brainteaser on the board or a creative writing/drawing prompt can keep the room quiet and controlled while the rest of the students finish. If a teacher doesn’t leave you a lesson plan, whole-class activities can keep the students engaged and prevent behavior problems. Either way, coming prepared with a back of tricks enables you to adjust to surprises without second-guessing the teacher’s plans.

Don’t be a wallflower.

I recently saw a teacher’s worst nightmare on several students’ camera phones: a substitute teacher propped up against a filing cabinet with a pillow, sound asleep. Hopefully you aren’t packing nap supplies in your workbag, but I know how tempting it can be to relax in the back of the room after getting students started on a self-directed activity. Unfortunately, this relaxation can be the welcome mat for behavior problems.

Students are always going to be better behaved when they know there’s a chance they will be observed soon. Walking around the classroom to monitor students’ progress is the simplest solution. Try check-in questions such as:

  • “How is your assignment coming?”
  • “Tell me what you guys came up with for #1,”
  • “How is your group doing?” and
  • “It looks like you haven’t started yet; do you have any questions?”

These interactions will have a huge impact on student engagement and behavior. Off-task students will feel motivated to get back to work. Students who were reluctant to come ask you clarification will readily do so. Distracted students will reign in their focus once more.

It’s also a great opportunity to build trust and positive relationships, however brief, with the students. Some of my favorite time in the classroom is this chance to talk with students about their work and their related ideas, and it’s the easiest way to bring some levity into your interactions. Humor is the best line of defense for any teacher — substitute or full-time—when it comes to behavior management. When you catch misbehavior early on, it’s easy to deflect and deescalate the situation with jokes. Avoid sarcasm at the students’ expense, but don’t take yourself too seriously. By maintaining this ongoing, positive interaction with students throughout the class, you will prevent most behavior issues before they ever come up.

Getting started as a new substitute can be intimidating, but it doesn’t have to be overwhelming. Focus on these basics of classroom management to get you acclimated to interacting with students in a foreign classroom, and you’ll find it’s much easier than you expected.

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Author Bio:

Allison taught on the collegiate level for three years before spending two years as a high school English teacher. After starting a family earlier this year, she is currently working as a substitute teacher.

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