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Virginia Journal of Education

Moving Forward

by Jane H. Jones

Many times during my 33-year teaching career, I dragged myself into work, even though I was a feverous, snuffling, sneezing, mess. Why? Because preparing for a day or two of being out of the classroom, and returning to deal with the list of complaints from the sub and the whining of my students, was far worse than making it through a day or two of suffering. Do teachers really have to stress so much about the success of the substitute? Are there some workable strategies that will preclude some of the potential "disasters?"

My experience in the classroom and current status as a permanent substitute have given me some valuable insights into creating rules and plans that will encourage teachers to take the time off they need to get well.

The best favor teachers can do for themselves when it comes to substitute teachers is to establish clear, prominently posted classroom rules. Analyzing past problems led me to realize that a few students had developed specific aggressive tactics for gaining control of the class. I've found that the following rules and consequences can serve as the basis for creating a classroom climate of fairness and respect. I've used them when I substitute, even if they differ from the teacher's rules. This is because I am the responsible adult for the day. A frequent comment from many of my substitute reports was that the students had said, "That's not the way Ms. Jones does it." The substitute often remarked that he or she would feel compelled to grant permission, allowing a questionable behavior.

The Rules
1. Talking or making other sounds while someone is speaking or it is time for the room to be quiet is not allowed.
2. Sarcastic remarks, putdowns, noises, faces, or rolling eyes are not allowed. The teacher/sub is the judge of what is sarcastic, or what constitutes a putdown.
3. No touching of anyone, anyone's property, or anything else in the room that does not belong to you.
4. Do not throw anything.
5. Do not become a lawyer for another student when I am disciplining him or her. The teacher/sub will deal with any misbehavior.
6. Ask questions that are specific to the classroom topic or daily lessons.
7. No food/drink/gum in the room except for bottled water.
8. No cell phones or other electric devices unless specified by the teacher.
9. When a guest or sub is in the room, he or she may do things in a different way. The person in charge is responsible for your safety, the maintenance of the room and the equipment so he or she will make decisions as needed.

The Consequences
. Students will not be warned because these rules are school rules and deal with fair play (equal treatment) and respect. (A side note about this specification which is a personal preference: I don't give warnings because I have seen parents in malls start counting to get their child to stop misbehaving which allows the bad behavior to continue during the countdown.)
. Students may try saying sincerely, "I'm sorry, it won't happen again." This may or not work.
. Students will be sent to in-school suspension or to another teacher's classroom and it is possible a referral will be written. If the school doesn't have in-school suspension, then find a nearby teacher who is willing to take in a misbehaving student. A lot of teachers will do this if you don't make it a habit and reciprocate.

At the end of letting students know the rules and the consequences ask:

1. Are there any rules you didn't understand?
2. Is there any rule you wish to modify or change in a way to make it better or clearer?

None of my students has ever responded to either question when I sub. This means if they break a rule, they have no recourse because they had a chance to alter the rules.

Rules 2, 5, 6 and 9, as well as the two questions above, are extremely important because they represent blocks to the tricks students have used to get around the controls that teachers attempt to establish. If these rules are in place and have been enforced, then students will not be able to pull any of the troublesome behavior I used to read about on my substitute reports. Students can't complain about that mean, unfair substitute.

For the rules to be effective, it is very important that teachers and substitutes have a place to send disruptive students. Additionally, the adult in charge must enforce the rules completely. I have subbed in English for Speakers of Other Languages classes, physical education classes with 40 students, and special education classes without any problems. It's a good investment of teacher time to work with your administration, team teachers or teachers on your grade level to set up a system. Creating a place to send disruptive students may take a lot of work, it may have been tried unsuccessfully in the past, but it is well worth the effort to have a way of enforcing your consequences. High expectations for outstanding behavior meet with success.

The Plans
Most school districts have directions for accommodating substitutes so I won't go into detail about general planning; however, I will make some observations based on my experience.

1. Check over the substitute folder used by your school. It should have a clear map and phone numbers for main switchboard, administration, security, the nurse and any other help the sub might need. The sub folder should have a bell schedule, a lunch schedule, referral forms and any other school-related forms. If your school's sub folder is not user-friendly, then try and get this issue addressed. Teachers should not have to write this general information in their plans.

2. Keep assignments simple and provide answer keys. If your school's sub folder is well-designed, the classroom teacher can leave very simple handwritten plans with the necessary class work in labeled or numbered folders in a prominent place on their desk or cart. Teachers can also e-mail or fax in plans. Subs don't need everything explained. Star two or three helpful students on your roll and that will take care of many directions teachers feel must be written on the plans. Remember, the sub is trying to process a lot of information quickly and less is more.

3. Many teachers leave a videotape or a DVD for the substitute. This is fine, but it does not mean that students won't misbehave. Be sure the sub has a way to introduce the media, and goes over any worksheets provided with the film with the students before starting so that students are prepared to answer the questions.

4. Many teacher leave more work than a substitute can complete. The teacher should indicate the part of the lesson that he or she wants completed.

5. Be sure a copy of your classroom rules is in your sub folder.

It is by design that I placed suggestions for classroom rules at the beginning of this article. Many teachers feel that when they are out, their students will become unruly and disrespectful. Teachers need to feel comfortable that they can take sick leave when necessary, and that they will come back and be able to get right back to the business of teaching and not get caught up in unnecessary drama. With some preparation, including training students to a firm, consistent discipline plan, students will behave, substitutes will sing your praises, and teachers can take the time they need to get healthy.

Jones ( ) is a retired Fairfax and Prince William teacher with experience in elementary, middle and high school classrooms. She continues to substitute for Osbourn Park High School in Prince William County and work as an adjunct professor at Old Dominion University.


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