Monday, January 18, 2010

Substitute Survival

“A genuine leader is not a searcher for consensus but a molder of consensus.”

- Martin Luther King Jr.

As I stated in the previous post*, I had a two-day gig in the fifth-grade, but the day didn’t go as well as I would’ve liked. Afterwards, I beat myself up. I’m better than this! I know fifth-grade. It’s not that the day was horrible, but I’ve taught older students at the same school who have behaved better overall.

A couple of problem students + a chatty class = more chaos than I can tolerate.

Part of the problem was that I hadn’t been warned about how to handle the difficult child, since it seemed to the assistant that he was going to be absent. Attention teachers with your own classroom: Let me know who are the potential problem students and the best way to deal with them. Tricks are much appreciated by substitutes. Why force me to reinvent the wheel?

The other part of the problem is that I’m used to having camaraderie with fifth-graders. I worked with them enough years that I know how to relate to them. One of the toughest aspects of subbing on my psyche is that the relationships I create with students are mostly superficial. The bonus of working with the same students is that you get to know one another in profound ways that enhance everything that goes on in the classroom. It’s more than just knowing their learning styles or their favorite subjects, but it’s relationship building. Even if I teach in the same room, with the same group of students, there’s often a gap in between jobs, and I don’t get the momentum.

Entering the classroom, I was determined to create a formidable presence. Before class began, I talked with the assistant and another instructor about the play the previous day. I mentioned that when we try to get the students’ attention, nobody pays attention to us because our voices are too high and get lost in the children’s voices. But when a man is in the room, his louder, deeper voice cuts through theirs. The classroom had a bell, and I made sure to use it, while trying to make my voice lower during instructions.

This class was inundated with handouts, and I figured that the teacher was trying to make the classes easier for me, but when students have two classes of MCAS (state test) preparation, one for reading and the other for writing, over two days, they rebel. My strategy was to tell the students that if they stayed on task, I’d make time to read, Hatchet by Gary Paulsen. An added incentive was that for good behavior, we’d play Mad Libs at the end of the day.

I chose, Hatchet because the previous day’s MCAS writing prompt was:

Imagine that you were hiking in the woods with your family when you got separated from them. The further you walked, the more lost you became. Until rescuers found you, you would have to survive for one week with only your backpack. Tell how you survived with the things in your backpack.

When students were struggling with the assignment, I asked the whole class if anyone had read the book, but only one student had. When I mentioned the premise (a thirteen-year-old boy must land a small plane when the pilot dies, and then survive in the Canadian wilderness), they were excited about it, so I promised to bring it in.

I had two strategies for my two problem boys. The first day, one student refused to do his work unless the assistant was in the room. When I asked him about it, he said, “I don’t listen to subs.” Great. My response: “Then you’re not going to have a good day.” He spent all morning glued to the assistant. Just before lunch, he said his jaw hurt, and soon went home because he had swollen glands. I was hoping he’d be too sick to come back, but he did.

The assistant wasn’t assigned to work much in my room in the morning. The boy kept coming over asking when she was coming, and I’d say, “She’ll be here later.” Apparently, later was taking longer than he could take because he whined, “You said she’d be here.” Again, he refused to do his handout, so I said, “I am your teacher today, and you will have to deal with it. If you don’t start working for me, when Ms. ***** comes in, I will not let you sit with her.” He begrudgingly began to work, and even when the assistant joined us in the afternoon, he had become comfortable enough that he didn’t even notice.

For the second boy, it had been suggested that he needed a lot of back rubbing, which reminded me of a neglected student I’d had a few years back. I was on this boy at almost every moment. When we had to go to the concert for first and second-graders. I sat with him, and each time he tried to flop around and make a comment, I hissed a reminder to be still and quiet. He kept playing with his glasses, which were filthy with fingerprints, and I wondered how he could see through them. Were they always like that? Near the end of the concert, he gave up trying to act out.

During class, when he was off task, I’d give him warnings. At some point I became frustrated and I took him aside.

“Do you pay attention better for your regular teacher or are you being worse for me?”

“My brother is leaving this week.”

“I heard that. Where is he going?”

“Back to college in Ohio.”

“That must be hard. I bet you’ll miss him.”

Like magic, he went back to his desk and worked. Quietly. In the afternoon, when he got off task again, I had him move to the back table. I said, “I’m doing this for you because I want you to get your work done.” When the assistant entered the room, she was shocked to see him by himself completing his packet.

As promised, I read, Hatchet whenever I could squeeze it in, and got through the first two chapters. Even though they got a little noisier during the last hour, I didn’t mind because they got a lot accomplished. The old teacher in me came out, and if a table got noisy, I’d tell them that they didn’t want to be the table of shame, which my former fifth-graders had always liked, and these students did as well. Joking with students to elicit positive behavior often works better than chatizing. When one child was unkind to another, I took him aside and demanded more considerate behavior. As a result, he went right over to the student and made right. A student who had almost cried in frustration over work the day before, did better the next day and I made sure to compliment him to boost his behavior and confidence. Getting to know the children and their needs created an atmosphere of productivity.

The last time I read, Hatchet, some students complained that I couldn’t leave my copy of the book with them. I said, “I’ll tell your teacher where we left off, and if he wants, he can get it from the library and continue reading to you. If not, you can borrow it from the library.” The student who didn’t work with subs and was the only one who had previously read the book, said, “I’ll bring in my copy. I can bring in the whole series.”

At dismissal, one student said, “I hope you get your own class very soon.” I had forgotten that in my introduction on the first morning, I had said that I used to work in the fifth-grade and said that I was subbing to get a full-time job. But she hadn’t forgotten. It made me feel good, and I realized that I long for my own classroom more than ever.

Happy Martin Luther King Jr. Day.



  1. I long for that for you too. You have such a gift to teach, Theresa, & everyone who has the privilege to work with you or learn from you sees it.

  2. Amen!
    Your bolded part asking 'teachers to leave a warning about the problem students'....Bingo! It's one of the things that almost ran me out of subbing some time ago. You have no idea of what you are getting yourself into.

    You don't know who is a biter, a screamer, a chair thrower or what. It would be great to be given a heads-up about those things. After all, it's better for your safety and the safety of the students.

    I am also with you about the negatives of not being able to form real relationships with the students. You're a stranger to them and them to you.

    Finally, you long for your own classroom again, but I had such a horrible experience I'm scared to have my own again.

  3. Hi

    Happy Martin Luther King day - such a great day to celebrate!

    And what a fantastic blog - I too admire how you've not let problem students harass you or intimidate you - you stand your ground and get RESULTS. It's good for the child in the long run and that's only to the better, thanks to you.

    I'm so intrigued with Hatchett now - I want to read it too!

    Take care


  4. Thanks, Kathleen.

    Teacherella, I feel for teachers who have nightmare classes, and I worry that some day I could be put in that situation, which will make subbing a walk in the park. Being an ETS for three months in a difficult class a few years ago was no picnic. Thanks for the comment.

    Thanks for the comment, Old Kitty. Let me know if you read Hatchet. My family listened to it on a road trip a couple of summers ago, and we all enjoyed it.

  5. You sure do have a knack for this. I'm very glad I found your blog. I feel it's helping me prepare myself for my own stint in subbing (assuming they hire me!) and teaching. I'm sure if I had you for a teacher when I was young, you'd have been one of my favorites.

  6. Thank you, Surfie. I'm glad you like my blog, which now seems to be more successful than my writing and teaching career. Let me know if and when you get a sub gig. It's hard to believe that subbing has become a competitive occupation:

    Let me mention that my first day subbing was the day after this article came out.

  7. I look forward to reading your blog, I see that I am not alone.

  8. Thank you for the quote above.

    I'm not a teacher, but we have several teachers in the family, including those have have subbed. I know what a hard job it is. God Bless you for doing it! I hope you get your own class soon!

  9. I'm glad you look forward to reading my blog, Sheila.

    Thanks for the comment, Mary Anne.

  10. Here's hoping you get your class soon! And I love that quote. One of my favorites of his.

  11. Thanks, Jackee. I was hoping to find a quote from him that worked for the content of the post, since it was MLK day, and found it quickly. They don't all jump out like that!

  12. I know what you mean about getting the problem class. I had a first grade class earlier this year and the teacher told me in her note that they were "chatty." Then the teacher across the way told me to send any problems over to her. I thought she was being nice until I met the group. It's never good when teachers in the lounge say, "oh, you're in THAT class? Well, good luck!"

  13. I'm glad you actually like warnings- I always write them on the sub plans, not necessarily that so and so is a problem child but I'll say, "so and so tends to do ___" I recommend____. A lot of times stupid things like constant visits to the nurse, messing up the bathroom, not getting work done can be prevented if the sub is let in on what the teacher knows.

  14. Vagabond teacher, that's funny because that's the warning I got from this fifth-grade class - "chatty". It turned out to mean that all but about four students kept talking.

    Kelly, I DO love warnings. At the high school, there's a student who asks to go to the bathroom, and then disappears the whole class, but the absent teacher (nor the student teacher IN THE ROOM) didn't give me a heads up. He disappeared with the rubber chicken bathroom pass:

  15. Interesting to read your blog here. I find over the past few years I have been subbing mostly at one school and that really makes it more of a positive experience because the kids and staff know me.
    I find I am more selective as to schools/jobs I accept.(which ones to stay away from). I was told teachers are not really supposed to put information about students down because there is a risk of students reading it and the teacher getting in trouble for that. But, I think there are ways of wording things that can still make substitutes aware. If you can become a preferred sub at one or two or so schools it really does help. Sometimes I find there are students that not even the classroom teacher can figure out how to manage. That makes it more difficult as a sub.
    Another thing that is hard is taking a class that has a very lax and laid back teacher who doesn't mind if the students are noisy. When a class is used to that routine, it is hard to make them change. I find I don't like noise and prefer when students work relatively quietly. But, if they are I just end up rolling with it. If certain students are defiant about getting their work done, I leave a note for the teacher and I tell the student the teacher will be looking at their work. I say to students they will fall behind if they don't stay on task. Often I find even if a class is noisy, most of them will actually still be on task and as long as they are on task that is what matters the most. I was told a class was chatty and they were quite noisy. I find if the teacher has a system in place for getting the class's attention, then that usually works and makes life a whole lot easier. Some teachers though, seem to have no real system in place because they are more lax.
    I enjoy substitute teaching because I have primarily one school these days.

  16. Janine, thanks for the comment.

    If there are no full-time history jobs, I'd love to be a building substitute, but those don't come up very often. For the most part, I've been in just a few school this year. Each district is different. Here, they try to distribute the jobs equitably so all subs get the same number of gigs. If I only put myself down in a few schools, it's less likely I'll work the maximum number of days. Even when teachers or schools request me, it's often ignored in favor of fairness.

    I try to be careful by not naming schools, teachers, or students. This blog is really more about me and how I deal with what's thrown my way, than about anyone else. There are plenty of blogs by classroom teachers, which would make it much easier to figure out who they're talking about. I see many hundreds of students a week, and most weeks I'm in at least three schools. It would be a lot of work to try to figure out where I've been and who I am talking about.

    I'm glad you found a place you like.