Substitute Survival Guide

 

While I’ve been active in the education profession as a writer, consultant, and trainer for the past 6 years, I haven’t actually held a classroom teaching position in that time. Recently, I decided to avoid being disconnected from the classroom by taking up a position as a substitute teacher. In the midst of all the chaos – classrooms without plans, students trying to take advantage you, or getting called for a shift 15 minutes before the school day starts – I do really love subbing. I learn more about connecting with students, lesson delivery, and classroom management in a day or two of subbing than hours logged in university education or professional development. For those of you who share in this role as a substitute teacher, whether on-call daily or in a long-term position, here’s my top five tips for surviving subbing.

 

  1. Don’t undervalue your role. I get asked by students, “Why aren’t you a real teacher?” I usually reply with dramatically feigned surprise, “This isn’t real?!?” Subbing is seen as the bottom of the totem pole for education careers. There’s a mindset that if a substitute is below retirement age, then obviously they have this job because they just couldn’t land a full time job. Anyone over retirement age is just filling in for nostalgia’s sake or to cure boredom. Regardless of your reasons for subbing, you have a really important job. You need to provide stability in an unstable situation. Teachers need to be out of the classroom due to illness, professional development, family needs, or even for a vacation (yes, those a real!). You need to hold down the fort. Like a soldier taking over the post, you are responsible for this group of students – even if it’s for just a few hours. You are not “only a sub.” You are the superhero swooping in to hold back the chaos of routine disruption.
  2. Build relationships. Sure, you might just be a day-to-day sub in a different classroom, building, or even district each day of the week, but it’s still critical to connect with people (children and adults) everywhere you go. Every time you walk through the halls of a school, smile and greet people. You’ll find it makes your day generally more enjoyable. If you re in an elementary building, also make an attempt to get to know all of the “specials” teachers because chances are you will see at least one of them each time you work. Build a relationship with the building secretary; this is the person whom you see first and last each day. They wield an awful lot of power and act as the glue pulling everyone else together. Finally, try to get to know the children. Try to learn their names. Let them know you care. Too many children have adults come in and out of their lives and they never feel valued. In a class period, or over the course of a day show them how important they are.
  3. Observe to learn. Look around the classroom and the building. You can learn a lot about the school culture and classroom social environment by taking a few minutes to just look around. Don’t go through cupboards or desks in a snooping, invasive sense – but even a superficial evaluation could be enough. See what teachers are doing that works. Do you like a center strategy, library arrangement, job chart, or seating plan? Jot it down, or take a photo (but do NOT photograph students or their likenesses). Write down materials you like and consider writing a note to the teacher to ask where materials were purchased. If you are familiar with the school and are a frequent visitor, you can even ask to borrow a book or resource. Learn from each room that you are a guest in.
  4. Try it all. Go through your Pinterest board, web bookmarks, favorite blogs, or dog eared book pages and give a try to behavior modifications, bell-ringer activities, popcorn reading strategies, review games, transition ideas, and time fillers. Each day, you get a new set of students to be your guinea pigs for pedagogical experimentation. Keep a log book or chart noting the strategy you tried, the age level of the children, and pros/cons of your facilitation. You’ll be surprised at how quickly you come to learn what works well for you. This trial and error process can be critical research as you reaffirm your personal philosophy of education. You will know what you believe in because you have not only tried it with success, you know that it is better than other strategies that have failed for you.
  5. Keep a bag of tricks. What’s in my bag? Multiples copies of a daily evaluation sheet that I leave for teachers. (I use this Teachers Pay Teachers freebie: https://www.teacherspayteachers.com/Product/Freebie-While-you-were-outA-Substitute-Feedback-Form-685967) I also keep stickers, a smiley face stamp and scented ink pad, pencils, erasers, and a box of crayons to share with students. The placement company I work for forbids giving food to students (it’s a liability given food sensitives, allergies, and dietary restrictions) but I know many other substitutes who keep crackers, pretzels, or small candies in their bag as well. For my own use, I also have hand sanitizer, tissues, cough drops, a granola bar, and a notebook. I also usually throw in a book to keep me occupied if I have a long lunch or planning period (those are the days to live for!).

 

Hopefully these tips can help my fellow substitutes embrace their role and arrive prepared to create a great day of learning for students!


Back to School Basics: Gooooooaaaaaaaallllllll!

With the gusto of soccer announcer Andrés Cantor, you need to celebrate your goals. Well, maybe before we start dancing in the streets, let’s back up a second and think about your goals. Sure, you can come up with all sorts of lofty goals as to why you’re a teacher: I want to impact the future. I want to be the reason a child becomes great. I want to create lifelong learners. That fluff-stuff is for your Philosophy of Education that you have to submit with your resume to get the job. But, now you’re hired, here, and ready to start off a new school year that may include new faces or new places.

In Teach, Reflect, Learn, Hall and Simeral (2015, ASCD) argue, “With so many professional responsibilities determined for us in education […], it is essential to our continued growth – not to mention our sanity – to have some semblance of ownership over our own development.” Do you even know what you want to do beyond pure survival? Setting goals outside of curriculum maps and mastery levels can keep you focused on your mission to, as Ghandi so eloquently put it, “Be the change you wish to see in the world” or whatever quote you pulled into your philosophy statement back in college.

Set one attainable goal in each of these areas outside of academics: student social-emotional well-being, professional practice, and personal balance. Here are some reflection questions to get you through goal setting:

Student Social-Emotional Well-Being

  • How will I make time to get to know my students?
  • How will I establish my room as a safe place for students both physically and emotionally?
  • What can I do to show students that I care?
  • What normative beliefs can I promote for respect, integrity, and kindness?
  • Research shows that one caring adult makes a big difference in the success of a child. How will I be that adult for a child who needs me?

Professional Practice

  • What topics do I want to attend training on?
  • Do I want to further my education and seek another degree or certification?
  • What new skill do I want to try? How will I learn the skill, observe the skill, or try the skill?
  • What professional books do I want to read?
  • Can I access a peer coach, instructional partner, or mentoring teacher?
  • What Professional Learning Communities do I have access to within my school or district?
  • How can I connect with other education professionals on social media?

Personal Balance

  • What projects around the house do I want to complete?
  • Do I have any fitness goals that I can work towards?
  • Is there a vacation that I am longing for?
  • How will I make time for my family and friends?
  • What limits will I set to not overwhelm myself with work while I am at home?

Remember, set goals that you can reach. They can small goals, such as, “Paint the bathroom over Fall Break” or tall goals, “Enroll in a Master’s program at a local university.”  Either way, you have to have a plan for reaching them. You can download many goal templates (I’m a fan of the SMART plan: Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, Time-Bound) or simply write your goal on a sticky note. Choose what you are working for, and then go out there and get it. Pick a reward that you will celebrate with – even if it’s just jumping up and down in your classroom and screaming at the top of your lungs, “GOOOOOoooooooooooaaaaaaaaaaaaaaalllllllllllllllll!!!!!!!!!!”

Back to School Basics: Create a Classroom Tour Video

Lights, camera, action! Once you’re done preparing your room, it’s time get out a camera or your smartphone and create a guided video tour of your classroom. When you’re done, upload this video to YouTube, and share the link on a classroom homepage or social media site. If you have availability to student or parent email addresses before the school year begins, send the link out. You could also send this during the first week of school, but sending it before the school year begins helps students feel a little more comfortable and relieve the first day jitters because they know exactly what to expect when they walk in the door. This also introduces you to parents so they can put a face to your name – it is especially helpful with parents at the middle / high school level who may never come into contact with their child’s teacher.

Here are a few things you may want to cover:

  • The basic layout of your classroom. Show the student desks, your desk. Where are student accessible materials? Where do they turn in homework? Do students store coats, lunch boxes, etc in the classroom or in lockers in the hallway? Is there a restroom in your classroom? Cover all of these areas and any other relevant information you can think of.
  • Is there a place within your classroom, or in the hallway where you post information such as field trips, conference sign ups, or other important information? Be sure to highlight this area so that parents can find it easily!
  • Have someone record you sitting in a comfortable place within your classroom (or, be really hip and use a selfie-stick). Behind your desk may come off as a little too sterile or intimidating. Introduce yourself and convey your excitement for the school year. Share your goals for the year. Remind parents where they can locate your contact information (don’t share your contact info in the video unless you are keeping the link private.)

Creating this virtual tour should set the tone for your classroom. Let students and parents alike see your passion for teaching, and how you take pride in this space. Be confident and speak clearly.

Other information videos you can create for your own classroom vlog (video blog) series can include:

  • An overview of your homework / classwork / grading policies.
  • If you have a self-contained classroom, or your entire homeroom follows the same schedule, overview this schedule. If you’re tech savvy, you can overlay pictures over the different areas within the school that the children will visit or even walk the school as you explain where you are going.
  • A walking video of how to get to your classroom from the front door of the school. For students coming into a large, new school this can really alleviate some anxiety.
  • Explain personal electronics policy / computer usage within the school.
  • Video screen navigation of how to access student grades online, locate information on the class website, or social media links for the class.

Post in the comments what other ideas you have for “How to” or informational videos teachers can create!

Connecting with Your Students By Being Up to Date

One of the most common issues teachers have with students is their inability to connect with them on a human level. A lot of educators feel their job is to simply enter the classroom, teach the content, prepare the students for the tests and send them on their way. That isn’t how you connect with students. Teachers can connect with students better by intersecting their lives with the course content.

A perfect example is the video below. A math teacher incorporated the recent song “Teach Me How to Dougie” into a song associated with the content he was teaching.

This process is one of the best ways to connect with students. I’m sure we all remember the “Elements Song”

A famous cartoon when I was younger known as Animaniacs actually helped me remember the state capitals with this little diddy:

You may not be great at rapping or singing, but it is necessary to find a recent event or idea to tie to your current content to help you better connect with your students. Being a little bit goofy will make you more approachable in the eyes of your students.

Think creatively and something will come to you. It is probably not the best idea to have a rap or song associated with every lecture topic, but inserting some fun into the classroom will help you connect with your students. YouTube is a great place for ideas on potential things you can do to incorporate recent events into your teachings to help you connect with students. You don’t have to be over the top, but make it fun.