Hello, I'll be your substitute teacher today. My Indian-name is He-who-breaths-erratically-into-paper-bag...
April 30, 2007 3:20 PM   Subscribe

How can I be a good substitute teacher for middle and high school kids?

I've reviewed the excellent thread about elementary school teaching. Still, secondary ed requires largely different tactics/experience. I'd like to hear from middle and high school teachers. What works? How do I achieve discipline? How do i provide help? How do I judge the proper response to the many thorny "mandated reporter" issues i may face?

A pre/mid/post-pubescent classroom offers many unique challenges. I'd be terribly grateful for some insights into what works in the current setting.

I am just beginning my sub work for the following reasons:
1) I need some money, dammit.
2) I would like to go into secondary ed and I wanted to see if I could deal with the classroom setting.
3) Well, Hell! Public education is important and I've often felt that it is mismanaged and mis-implemented. As a prospective "progressive" teacher, any type of info is helpful as I embark on my first, skin deep foray into the world of public education.

Any input, from success stories to gripes, would be appreciated.
posted by es_de_bah to Education (18 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Not like this will help you at all - but I don't think I ever had a good substitute teacher when I was in middle and highschool. For me, having a sub, just meant I wasn't doing anything for a class period. I felt like I was being babysat. No real teaching went on.
posted by Sassyfras at 3:34 PM on April 30, 2007

When I was in middle and highschool, the best substitutes were simply the ones who did whatever the plan left for them was(put on a movie, etc.) instead of making themselves memorable in some way(ridiculously strict, weird, coming up with some entirely different lesson, etc.). The only exception would be the ones who would sit around and tell funny stories the whole class time.
posted by pravit at 3:44 PM on April 30, 2007

Well, I am not a high school teacher, but I am a high school senior and I think I may be able to help a bit.

You seem most concerned with keeping order in the classroom. I think that the most important aspect of this is respect. Not just respect that the students should have for you, but the respect you need to have for your students. Whether you are a permanent sub, or just filling in for teachers temporarily, this is a very important entity that I cannot stress enough. As long as you know what you are talking about, do not condescend, and understand that you aren't their regular teacher, I think everything would be fine.

If you find yourself in a class of seemingly intelligent students, then its probably better for you to listen to what they say, and think rationally about what their regular teacher had asked of them for the day. One example I have is just this Friday my AP Calculus class had a sub. The class was taking part of an exam which required a calculator. Our teacher forgot to mention this to the sub, yet the sub refused to allow us to use calculators on the calculator section of the exam. Now we all have to retake the exam, wasting class time tomorrow, just because the sub refused to listen to logic (And the directions at the top of the exam saying that a calculator was mandatory to take the examination...).

Moral of the story, don't be like that.

It isn't your job by any means to teach them new material. It isn't even really your job to baby sit. Forcing the students to try to do their work, especially high school seniors, is just suicide. Honestly, we all know what needs to get done. Yes, we know this sheet will be handed in. Yes we know we aren't supposed to be talking this much. Yes, we even know that it's better for us if we sat around and studied like good little children. But as Sassyfras said, its really all just a period off for us. You are the sub. Take it with stride. Realize we are almost, if not already, adults and have other work we have to do, other responsibilities, and other plans for when our teacher is absent for the day.

I hope this helps, and good luck!
posted by MaHaGoN at 3:58 PM on April 30, 2007

I've subbed jr. high and high school dozens of times, and I did it for all the same reasons you mentioned. Here's my observations:

(1) Nothing shocked the students into some semblance of order more than demonstrating I actually knew a significant amount about the subject. So I tended to only accept sub jobs for subjects I knew (Math, Computer Science, and sometimes Physics or Music). See Sassyfras's comment above? That's the opposite effect, and one that's probably the usual story. Walk into the classroom knowing your stuff and you're already different. And many (maybe even most!) of the high school students I've encountered respect competence.

(2) Nearly nothing actually imposes order on Jr. High school students. At least, nothing I figured out.

(3) Substitute teaching doesn't pay very well. I imagine your average soul-sucking corporate bookstore would do better.

(4) Substitute teaching is a good way to get exposure to public education, but there are things I didn't think much about while I was doing it that became apparent as I did student teaching. The generally short-term nature of subbing means you get regular breaks, so you don't have to invest as much of yourself or deal with the pebbles in your shoe that irritate more as you walk longer. For me, those things were: the problem of having to be always-on during school, day after day (it's not like a normal office job where you can wait for your brain to warm up while you read your email in the morning, in order to be effective and sometimes just to keep order you have to be ready from the moment the kids file through the door); the problem of continually large amounts of grading and prep work; the mandated curriculum that *you* find mind-numbing; the disruptive students that try really your patience that you can't get away from; and the struggling ones that break your heart.

That said, it's certainly not all bad news. You can make rewarding connections with students, and help them make rewarding connections with the subject. And even if the system itself is pretty much too large to change, you can make a personal difference in a number of places. And some days, it's actually fun. I just wanted to make it clear that the row of a progressive teacher can be a long one to hoe, and sub-teaching didn't show me all of that. Get a long term assignment if you can, or a teacher's aide job, or wait until you do student teaching to really assess.
posted by weston at 4:19 PM on April 30, 2007

I subbed for several years and I am now a full-time junior high teacher. So speaking with experience from both sides of the gig, I would say:

1. Follow the teacher's lesson plan as much as possible. I write my lesson plans as if the substitute knows nothing about my subject (math). Heck, I write plans that the students can follow on their own because it's not unusual for my sub to not even show up.

2. Do not try to be the students' friend. Do not try to convince them that you are cool because you saw this movie or listen to that band. If you really care what a bunch of 14-year olds think about you, this isn't the job for you.

3. Be the boss. When I was a sub, I began the class by telling the students the two or three rules I expected them to follow and what would happen to them if they didn't follow them. (They got one warning and at the next sign of any trouble, I sent them to the office or the teacher next door. Make sure you have the consequence planned out in advance.) They will test you, and if you don't back up your words with actions, they will walk all over you. If, however, they see that you are serious, they'll generally settle down.

4. At the end of the day, leave a note about how the day went and include your number. Good subs are hard to find, so make it easy for them to get you more work.
posted by baho at 4:48 PM on April 30, 2007

baho speaks true.
Truly a tough job.
Get in, get out.
posted by Dizzy at 6:16 PM on April 30, 2007

Maybe I am recalling this incorrectly but I loved subbing. I found it to be both challenging and yet fun, and yes... crazy as well. I think that the main thing is to have a plan.
1) Be standing up with the students walk in. Simple physical stance but it says, "Im here..I know what I am doing"
2) Know the names of at least two other teachers in the school who have seniority and one admin... name dropping works for kiddies as well as adults
3) Have fun, as a sub people dont really expect much from your day. Sure, follow the lesson plan but if the class is more into a portion of the lesson GO WITH IT, they know that Mrs.SoandSo will be back tomorrow and will be on track, your goal is to get the learning done and manage as best you can.
4) Leave a good note. As a former teacher I wanted to know precisely what happened when I was gone and if I should be happy with my students or have some difficult conversations.
5) Come up with some tricky games that are seriously fun (brain teasers worked for me) and bring candy for rewards, sounds silly but it works even with high schoolers.

Best of luck... and keep at it. :)
posted by Meemer at 6:44 PM on April 30, 2007 [1 favorite]

As a current sub, I agree with what Meemer, Dizzy, and weston are saying.

Don't try to be the kids friend, but at the same time, they are used to grumpy retired teachers, and pseudo-stay-at-home mothers who work a few days a week while the kids are at school. Both groups are exceptionally skilled at yelling to get their way. Don't be that sub.

I find that the tricks most of the class rolled their eyes at in Ed school really do work.
* Proximity, proximity, proximity. Nothing says "get to work" like having the teacher standing over your shoulder.
* Know names, use them. (If you sub in a school a lot, this is pretty easy.)
* Stand while the students enter the classroom, even greet them at the door, and then start immediately when the bell rings. Students interpret dead air as permission to chat, and insecurity on the part of the sub.
* Call role -- as silly as it sounds, it puts you in a more authoritative position, which means you don't need to be as much of a hardass later.
* Find out the school policy on things like ipods, cell phones, etc. There's nothing more disruptive than an extended argument over technology. Enforce it uniformly, but firmly.

Agreed with Meemer's comments as well: Have something in your bag of tricks so kids aren't staring at the walls. Brain teasers work well with high school students and academically inclined classes of middle schoolers. I once had to play 'heads up seven up' with a group of 7th graders to fill 8 minutes of class (their idea, not mine). I've used one of those "truth or fiction" calendars to improvise a pop-quiz style trivia test when the teacher's lesson plan runs out. Usually, however, my fallback (which is the school suggested one) is "Work silently on homework for another class, or read. Yes, you may listen to your iPod, but no texting."

I sub in a district that relies heavily on email, and as the day goes on, I compile my sub report in an email, broken down by period, and with an opening and closing 'thank you for having me guest teach in your classroom today'. A little gratitude for the work goes a long way. Leave names of students who worked well; it shows you didn't spend the entire period putting out fires, and you were watching the whole class.

Overall, have fun with it. It is just a job, but if you really want to be a teacher, it is the best way to get your foot in the door. Do a good job, and people will request you (and give you tips on where to find full-time teaching jobs). I've been subbing since January, I'm currently getting requested by teachers 5 days a week, and I'm booked for half of May already. All because I have a word-of-mouth reputation for following the lesson plan, keeping the kids in line, and leaving the teacher's room as tidy as I found it.
posted by idlyadam at 7:31 PM on April 30, 2007

On preview, idlyadam is spot-on.

From a student's perspective, you're basically the equivalent of a test proctor - you're supposed to hand out the work and then maintain order. If you try to pull an O' Captain My Captain, don't expect us to respond positively.

As everyone else said, establish the guidelines upfront, and stick to them. We like to work in groups/partners, but you may need to remind us to keep quiet sometimes. Also, a good portion of us (myself included) will not complete work unless it's collected at the end of the period. Sorry, we'd rather have a small break in the day and complete the work at home.

We need to study for that Big Calculus Midterm that we have to take next period. We're not cold, unfeeling people, but we have busy lives; if you try to start a conversation, and we don't pay attention, please don't hold it against us. Sure, we respect competence, but at the same time we don't expect you to know double integrals and Riemann sums. If a student asks a question and you don't know the answer, just admit it.

And remember, every class is different. It's really hit-or-miss. Upper level (Honors, AP) classes are generally better behaved, and many people will actually work. Students in electives will generally be more talkative, and you may need to enforce the rules.
posted by theiconoclast31 at 7:45 PM on April 30, 2007

Knowing about the subject can really, really help you. My favorite sub (I'm a junior in high school) is a guy who worked as a programmer, apparently, before working as a sub. When he subs in comp sci or physics, we get excited because he can probably tell us more than our actual teacher. However, no one is impressed that you went to France once after your senior year when you're subbing a French class.

For God's sake, don't tell pointless stories about yourself. If you really want to chat, try asking the students about what the class is like, whatever. Don't make it about you, and don't think classroom = captive audience.

That's about all I can think of right now. Good luck.
posted by MadamM at 7:52 PM on April 30, 2007

High schoolers are not so different from elementary schoolers as they would have you think: They still want gold stars (see my comments in the thread you linked to--they still apply to high school). I'm not kidding about this. You walk around putting stickers on kids' work and it will have an effect.

Here's another thing: Send an attendance sheet around the room and have kids sign it. Pay attention to the route it takes around the room. When you get it back, use it to make a mental map of the names of the kids in the room.

MaHaGoN mentions respect above. There's no quick route to mutual respect, but--in my experience--the quickest way to some semblance of it is to learn names and learn them fast. I've trained myself to learn a roomful of kids' names in a few minutes.

Kids are a lot more prone to listen if you use their names, and they know consequences to misbehavior are a lot more likely if you know their names.

Good luck.
posted by etc. at 8:04 PM on April 30, 2007

From a slightly different perspective, I have two girls in middle school this year. My seventh grader said: definately go with baho, dizzy and idlyadam's comments.

The main thing seems to be letting the kids know from the first moment that you are in charge and are not going to take any crap. Know the established discipline plan for the school: follow it correctly and without exception. Even things like enforcing assigned seating is apparently important for whether they will take you seriously. It can also help with the all important Knowing of Names as etc. and idlyadam said. My daughter said some kids try to swap names to confuse the sub. Not nice, but very juvenile.

Also important is to leave a good, truthful note for the regular teacher. The kids need to know that there will be consequences after the sub is gone, both good and bad. This seems to keep the sub-day in context for the kids, and not just a one-off free day.

Also, if the class is under control, they certainly don't mind the reward of personal stories from you, on topic or off, as long as it's interesting and the class stays engaged.

Good luck. Middle school is challenging because the students are seething with uncertainty, but that's what can make them them so rewarding too. They are still searching for direction.
posted by rintj at 8:28 PM on April 30, 2007

Avoid 6th and 7th grade as much as possible. The best sub assignments are high school electives (especially computer classes) and teachers who only teach 11th and 12th grade.
posted by Kronoss at 8:40 PM on April 30, 2007

Knowing the names of troublemakers is very good for class control. The really troublesome ones cannot be relied on to tell you their real name or to sign an attendance sheet properly. However, going to the back of the room and walking up slowly past their shoulder lets you scan their belongings and you can usually pick up their name.

I had a friend who swore that the best way to bring a class to quiet obedience was to write some paragraphs on the board which they were supposed to copy down. He said all kids go into automatic mode for that.
posted by Idcoytco at 5:51 AM on May 1, 2007

Make sure that the kids like you, and this can be done while being firm. Come in, make it clear that you should not be messed with, and after don't do silly things like yell if the kids are talking a little. Don't talk to them about your opinions, and don't try to teach them. Show that you have a sense of humor and that you aren't just a lifeless guy, and that will win their respect.
posted by zenja72 at 1:07 PM on May 1, 2007

As a middle school administrator, I have a few tips:

1. Meet the kids at the door every period.
2. Have the assignment written on the board. As the student come into the room, point it out and ask them to get started.
3. Stand up and walk around the room the entire time. The minute you sit down, you've lost them.
4. Never, and I mean never, sit and read the newspaper or your own book (unless you really, really like being in a room full of wild people)
5. If you want to make an enemy of all the teachers in the building, by all means, give them candy! Nothing like kids coming into their next class hyped up because the sub down the hall gave them sugar on purpose. In Texas, it is illegal to give students candy or soda.
6. If you need to report discipline issues to either the teacher or an administrator, a short message will do. Something like "talked in a disrespectful manner to the teacher" will work. We really don't need to know (nor do we care) the whole entire long story. I've had subs literally write two or three page letters about one incident with one kid. If we need to know more about what happened, we'll ask.
7. Never, ever scream at them. If you get to the point where you feel that screaming is necessary, GET HELP. Send someone to the office or next door.
8. It wouldn't hurt to have something like a mystery puzzle or some other interesting seatwork activity for the students to do if they get finished. You can find books of this stuff at the teacher supply store. Ask at the office or the teacher next door if you need help getting copies made.
9. Relax! The only way to effectively discipline kids this age is to build relationships with them. That is very hard to do unless you are in the same school on a regular basis. They will probably talk more and act up more than they will when you are a regular teacher.
10. If you do need to get onto a student, take them out to the hallway. You can stand in the doorway and keep an eye on the rest of the kids while you talk in a quiet but firm voice to the one in trouble. The WORST thing you can do is attempt to embarrass a middle-school boy in front of his peers. AND NEVER LAY A HAND IN ANGER ON A STUDENT.
posted by rcavett at 6:11 PM on May 1, 2007

Oh, and this time of year their brains and common sense have turned to mush...take that into account.
posted by rcavett at 6:13 PM on May 1, 2007

true dat
posted by etc. at 9:08 PM on May 2, 2007

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