12 Tips for new middle school substitute teachers

13 Apr

I relate to so many of the stories I read about the challenges of subbing, the desire to get things right, the love/exasperation relationship with those kids that we care about and are trying to serve, the nerves and sometimes fear. Now that I’ve made it through a year of teaching middle schoolers full time (right out of school–yikes!), then a few years of subbing in those grades, as well as raising four children (the youngest now in middle school), I feel I can offer some assistance–the kind I was desperate for when I was starting out. Keeping in mind that the journey is very individual and personal–getting a feel for your own style and the cultures and conditions in which you teach.

Some of these tips are crowd management techniques, while others are based on what I think students have a right to expect. None if them are about teaching, which I hope you will get to do in your areas of expertise, and in your own ever more effective and satisfying style.

  1. Stuff to bring: extra pencils (old stubby ones for emergency handouts) and pens, a clipboard with scrap paper, a notebook to gather tips for your future jobs and journal during your prep, backup stuff in case of inadequate plans, list of key personnel.
  2. As a hook, bring something to share—either a fascinating object or an anecdote, a puzzle, or a cool thing you can draw on the board (and later show them how). Last year I brought a large wolf spider carcass and a true spider story. This week I shared “dried slugs” (dried Italian plums). You could also save this treat for the end of the class after you wrap up the lesson.
  3. Read up on what you’ll be doing and how (individually or groups, to hand in or not, when work is due, what to do if done early). Mark it up for a quick reference. I also write the plan on the board.
  4. Explore the classroom. Look for all the machines, get the layout, find safety info and supplies, assignment trays, books, other useful materials. Don’t be shy about looking in cupboards and drawers–they are for teaching materials, and you’re the hired teacher.
  5. Before kids arrive, sketch the seating arrangement and fill in as kids arrive (you might use tone provided by the teacher, but students often switch when they see a sub, and I don’t make them switch back unless there’s a problem). It’s also a way to mingle, connect, etc. If it’s time to start before the bell rings, fill the rest in later. If a kid pulls the wool over your eyes and gives a false name (you’ll learn to see it in their eyes and in the delay as they try to think of what name to use), share the joke. The map is useful for a quick attendance (confirm with the kids who’s absent) and for taking private notes (see below #12). I use a clipboard for these seating maps, the sub plans, and scrap paper, and carry it practically everywhere.
  6. Write your name on the board and leave it there all day. When you introduce yourself (a common courtesy you should never omit), give a few basic details. For example, how long have you been subbing, your specialties, whether you have children. Cheerfully, briefly, set out basic expectations. Don’t be the heavy at that point, or you’ll probably be tested sooner and more dramatically (as in “Make my day”). Let them know you’ll be following the plan left by their teacher, with your own variations. I err on the side of caution/safety when it comes to rules & procedures on my first few days until I know the students. If I hear “Mr. B lets us….” I say, yeah, but he’s way nicer than I am.” Or I explain that since I’m new I’ll have to be more “strict” until I know everyone better. They understand. Ask individual students during the course of the day about any important details not in the sub plan, like does the teacher usually meet them at the door after recess, where’s the remote for the document camera, is there a hall pass, does the teacher usually collect this work, etc.
  7. Make allowances for normal, natural human behavior. This includes socializing, friendly teasing, humor, curiosity about things not on the lesson plan, creating classroom entertainment, wanting to move around, and testing the sub. Remember your own youth. Yes, you can ask for and expect quiet during instructions or reading, hands raised for group discussion, and minding their own business when work is being done, but don’t be unreasonable and overly controlling. I have students get up and stretch or walk around to get blood flowing and to relax muscles between seat activities, kids breathe deeply to settle down after a humor interruption, sometimes invite antsy students to walk around at the back while they read, or pick them to do a job requiring movement or talking.
  8. If a student is starting to disrupt the flow, try to get him/her back on track subtly with a stroll around the room, a tap, a look or signal, with as little interruption as possible. Try not to let the disruption become classroom entertainment. Appeal to reason and the student’s conscience, with your underlying communication: You know what I ask is reasonable, don’t you? Please do what you can to make this class time work well for everyone.
  9. Repeated interruptions and off task behavior call for quiet intervention aimed at determining the real reason for the problem–is the work confusing for the student? Can they not handle sitting near distractions? Is there an ongoing issue that you as a sub cannot address? So many variations here, I hesitate to advise, except to say, use empathetic discernment, clarify expectations, and be firm when student persist in interfering with the learning of other students. The phrase, “I insist” can be helpful here, if you don’t glower at the same time. Occasionally I realize the problem is bigger than I, and I regretfully hand the student over to the school discipline people (I call ahead and send the student down to the office). I try to check in with the student again later, and with staff members who know him or her.
  10. If assignments are due, ask students who aren’t handing it in for some reason to write that reason in a note to the regular teacher. Try to include these details in your own notes too.
  11. If a student asks you to sign a permission form, e.g. for a field trip, have them ask a regular staff member instead, explaining that they have the authority to do that. If you can’t find hall/library passes, make your own, noting the time and reason.
  12. Keep notes, in your own scrawly handwriting and code, on who’s working well, who’s goofing off (and so got moved), who got the day’s work done (have them show you to be signed off)–to be used for the neat sub notes you leave for the teacher. Try to finish up each class with a few minutes left for students to tidy up and relax.

Posted by on April 13, 2015 in Education


Tags: , , ,

3 responses to “12 Tips for new middle school substitute teachers

  1. jdawgsrunningblog

    April 14, 2015 at 5:42 am

    What a great list—helps me as a veteran to read this–thank you for taking the time and caring enough to do it—and for being so vigilant and smart.

  2. ketaninkorea

    April 16, 2015 at 2:45 am


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