May 14, 2008

After working seventeen years in the LA Unified School District in Los Angeles, CA , there are a myriad of things I wish I had known when I first began as a substitute teacher that I know now.  It didn’t take me long to learn the fact that kids equate the term “sub” to mean “babysitter”, “a vacation day free from any class-work.” On the other hand, I approached my job from its fullest definition, substitute “teacher.” And my definition was stated plainly to them ,at the very beginning, that I am here substituting in the absence of your teacher, following the instructions left for me by your teacher. It took a minute for them to get it. After persistently letting them know that I was planinng to follow the lesson plan, the students quickly realized that I was serious. 


The next thing I learned quickly, with middle school and high school classes, was that smiling at the beginning of the day, as the students entered class, was the worse thing I could do. When a new sub does this, the students take that friendly gesture to mean that you’re going to be a push over. They would then go out of their way to test my every nerve and push every button they could find with me hoping that you would drive me away and never desire to return to that school.


So I developed a very simple, yet effective rule which was the key to my survival in the classroom – “Never smile before 10 a.m.” If you are cordial yet firm during your first hour, then you are likely to have a great day. Otherwise you are doomed to have a long draining day.


The rule in the classroom as a substitute teacher is, “Never enter the classroom with no supplies for yourself.” In many schools, especially the inner city schools, you may enter a classroom that has nothing in the teacher’s desk. or teacher’s closet. To kids this absence of equipment means paradise and fun while you seek to solve the “lack of supplies” issue, but for the teacher it can be a complete nightmare.


If at least the teacher has some supplies, he can write an assignment on the board as classwork. The only challenge here are the schools where the kids come to school with only an empty back pack seeking to look the part when, in reality, they don’t have a single supply that they will need during the school day. This only means that the substitue teacher will have to teach a guided lesson no matter how creative it may be. 


Always have a emegency lesson plan just in case the regular teacher left the classroom suddenly and didn’t have time to write down a lesson plan. What do you teach when this happens? It really doesn’t matter along as you are able to get the students to working as soon as possible or keepng their attention with a topic you are able to teach. Life skills is always a great emergency topic because you can stimulate discussion by bringing up topics applicable to everyday life.   Or you can go to any of the local bookstores or school bookstores and browse through any of the books designed to give substitute teachers emergency lessons to use that day. Even though some of the lessons may even look complex, anything is better than nothing.


Finally comes the category that determines your longevity as a sub – that is being a disciplinarian. Today’s students are a whole new breed, very different than when I was that age. With the increase of households where both parents work, in my opinion, there has been also an increase in the number of kids who have parents who are too busy or tired to keep up with what their kids are doing in school. That rat-race schedule, if the parent is not careful, can cause their kid to become a “bad apple” in class and lead them to feel, “if my parents don’t care, why should I care?”


The problem is that in today’s sometimes over crowded schools, you might have up to 5 irate students in a classroom. This poses an interesting challenge for the substitute. In many schools, a substitute is expected to be babysitter, disciplinarian and teacher even though you may hardly know the kids like the regular teacher does.


The first key to your sanity as a sub in a classroom with several irate students is to understand that there are many reasons why a kid turns into a irate in class. Other than busy parents, the other reasons include; (1) peer pressure, (2) anger towards the missing parent in a divorced household, (3) sub-standard reading skills, (4) chemical imbalance or even more reasons.


Even though a substitute is not expected to be a counselor nor is it the sub’s job to try to solve the behavior problem. The day to day sub, unlike long-term subs, isn’t with the kids long enough to get to know the students. However, if you are able to pick up the fact that an irate student’s behavior is fed by condtions which exist outside the classroom, it may help you with how you deal with that student. Sometimes by just asking that student, “are you okay” or “what’s up with your behavior today” can touch that student far more than challenging them or trying to shut them out. The latter choices will only cause the student to rebel against you even more send your class completely out of control. At that point you have no other choice than to send the student to the dean’s offce.


The next challenge for the sub is how the adminstration reacts to your sending an irate kid out of class. There is a specific way this should be handled. In many schools, subs are expected to be babysitter, teachers and disciplinarians all at the same time with a tolerance level off the chart. When you have done all you can to discipline an irate student and class disruption continues, don’t torture yourself, send that kid out. Take the time to list all the behavior problems on the office referral. In addition, send the class work or a worksheet along with the irate student so that they have something to work on in the office. 


Nothing makes an administration more frustrated with a sub than when an irate student is sent to the office with nothing to do than to make their lives miserable. In fact, some schools will judge the sub unfairly and conclude that the sub has poor class management skills because of this. Every sub has a right to send irate students to the office for poor behavior. If any school doesn’t respect that right, then you may want to consider not returning to that school.


If you like variety and excitement and love to work with kids, being a substitute teacher is the job for you. The flexible “on-call” schedule is also a plus. However, just remember, gone are the days of classes like the old TV show,Room 222, when kids entered the room quietly ,eager to learn.  In fact, ceating your own worksheets to use in class are a good way to keep yourself prepared.   Howevver if you have a low tolerance for misbehaving or disrespectful kids, teaching is not for you.  One survival note you should always keep in mind as a substitute teacher is the quickest way to get fired as a sub is to come into the class and focus only on your own personal work and not take time to connect with the students.   


With the distractions today in the form of mp3’s, ipods, PSP, X-Box 360, music videos and other hi-tech distractions, our kids’ minds have been reconditioned to expect that everything should be entertaining, fun and exciting. These factors make it harder for students to focus in a quiet educational setting and make it hard for teachers who must now adjust their teaching styles in an attempt to keep their students attention.


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May 14, 2008

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