Chapter 21 – Substitute Teachers

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Face it now, you will have many substitute teachers because you will be pulled out for days and days of training. You will also get sick far more often than you imagine. There is something about the first year in a new school for every child or adult; it seems like the human body has to work through every virus in the community.

Part of your job is to teach your students to behave and do their work for other teachers. I didn’t realize this until my first time out with the flu and came back to reports of students in my advanced class standing on their desks and shouting. Admittedly, this will feel like an uphill battle. Many students see a sub and think “vacation” or worse, “party.” Some of them treat specials teachers in a similar fashion.

In fact, specials, or any time another teacher or librarian takes your class, is a great place for students to practice making good choices without their teacher watching. I became so frustrated by reports of terrible behavior from my students when I wasn’t with them that, at the initial suggestion of another wonderful teacher at my school, I developed a quick accountability check upon their return to my class. I ask everyone who made great choices to stand, and everyone who didn’t to stay seated. If they remain seated, I give them a ClassDojo point for integrity. If there is dissent about who is still standing, I will ask for three quick reports from raised hands. They may not discuss seated students who have essentially self-reported so I don’t need to hear about them, and no one may argue or the exercise is cancelled. If a discussion is required, I will call on appropriate students in a minute.

Often, someone will report that a child who is standing was disruptive so I give that child a chance to explain. Occasionally, they had a good reason and get to stay standing. But sometimes, they really didn’t know they were so annoying and absolutely defend their shouting, singing, kicking, or refusing to follow directions. At that point, I encourage them to sit, but if they still refuse, I poll the class. Who was disturbed by the behavior? If lots of hands go up, I ask the child to look around the room. I wasn’t there, but clearly many other students had trouble learning. The child, usually quite upset at this point, must sit. Everyone still standing gets a saltine cracker or a Goldfish cracker or a Hershey’s Kiss or a few bits of cereal or whatever other cheap treat I have. If the entire class did well, we have a better treat and I make a really big deal out of it.

I have worried about those upset students, but when I observe them closely, I notice a few things. Take Greg for example. At the beginning of the year, Greg became quite angry at the whole class for being bothered by his behavior. Until now, he had only been corrected by teachers. He mistakenly thought he had been entertaining the class and felt they had thrown him under the bus. After many days of having to be told to sit, he began to understand that this was not everyone else’s fault, that this was his choice, and he started to have some successes. When he had to sit, he was more upset about missing the treat than anything else. Since the treats are nearly immaterial, I wasn’t too worried, but I still encouraged him to make those good choices. His next step was to start sitting himself down, sometimes with a reminder from a classmate. I happily gave him a ClassDojo point for integrity. Finally, by the last quarter, Greg got to stand most of the time.

I do set some ground rules to keep this quick and to avoid tattling. I only take three reports, and those from students I trust, usually on Honor Level A or higher. After a few weeks of school, specials teachers report that my class’ behavior has improved dramatically. In my class, the remaining disruptive students learn to sit down on their own or drop when they see hands raised. Fewer and fewer students get called out for their behavior. They are still mad when others report their behavior, but less upset because they knew it was coming. I can also see patterns; some children actively hate some specials, and we need to work on that.

Having established a daily pattern for self-reporting behavior, I can stretch it into supporting guest speakers, field trip leaders, tutors, and parent volunteers. It’s best to prepare in advance. Practice what the students can expect to hear, can expect to be asked, and especially, how long they can be expected to stand. That last one causes more trouble that you might imagine. You may have to go out on the playground and practice standing and walking, standing and walking, from station to station without letting students lean or flop. You don’t want them leaning on desks or fighting over chairs in the museum. Rafe Esquith practices field trips with his students before they go, and students who fail the practice are not mature enough and don’t attend. He has a point. I remember one trip where the host commented on one child’s behavior. I apologized, but did not mention that I had left several children at school.

This question of behavior for other adults is all very much a work in progress for me. I particularly struggle with high student turnover, a third of my students are new at any given time, plus I have a high number of behavior diagnoses in my room. Still, I can’t blame my students no matter how new or how challenged. This is my responsibility. I want learning to continue, and guests treated well.

When you know a substitute is coming, make sure nametags are on desks, and you supply a seating chart. The first time I ever substituted, the teacher left no seating chart, no nametags, and no keys. What a disaster. I had little control anyway, and it was made much worse by the fact that I had to use, “Hey, you.” Recently, one of my own students peeled her name off of her desk. When the sub asked her name, she shrugged. And this was the beginning of his day.

Second, no open-ended, high-movement lessons. I have so wanted to maintain continuity that I have asked subs to allow students to work on their presentations or with their research groups or on the shared classroom computers or on science experiments. It has never worked. Not once. Not even with experienced substitutes. Their written reports come back with the words “chaotic” and “loud” on them every time. Remember my class with the gifted students that stood on their desks shouting? This was my error. It is possible that the noise level was appropriate to the activity, but most subs feel they spend the entire day on the edge of losing control and any noise threatens that fragile sense of control. I would rather leave a desk-based activity than put an adult in a situation where she feels she has to repeatedly yell at the children to regain sanity.

Also, ask more of your class. Asking everyone to behave appropriately is setting your standards too low. Every child needs to be actively helpful. This may mean showing the substitute where supplies are kept. It may mean telling her the class rules or procedures. It may mean turning to a classmate who is getting too loud and reminding them to keep it down. It may mean helping a neighbor find a lost book. It may mean letting the sub know that someone is missing from the recess line or has spent too long in the bathroom. If you know you will be absent, have this conversation with your class before you depart. Discussing these examples can help tremendously.

Finally, set up an accountability system. I draw two columns on the board before I leave – Helpful and Not Helpful. (Experienced substitutes may have their own systems. Let them use whatever works for them.) Students who earn a spot in the first column get extra recess. Anyone who appears in the latter will write apology letters. Early in my career, entire classes got their letter writing unit completed while writing apology letters to substitute teachers. Some teachers even replied with thank you notes. At any rate, we debrief the morning of my return to discuss how it went, what we could have done better, and who has earned what reward or consequence.

Your first sub plan can be a nightmare to write. I spent about five hours writing and preparing for my first day out; it would have been easier to show up for work. It’s why I hated being pulled out for training so much. To give you a head start, here is what I write now. You will notice that the introduction is as long as the plan. I try to give the sub as much context as content.

Marjie DeWilde  (555) 555-1212 home                                      Monday, 11/12/12

(555) 555-1212 cell

Grade 3                                                                                       Full Day Lesson Plan

Thank you for coming in.

Help: Ms. Lisa is a volunteer who may come in. She sets up at the back table, grades homework, and will call back and motivate a couple of children who don’t seem to be working any too hard. She can also collect bathroom passes so you don’t have to get distracted. Lessa, a Central High School student volunteers from 8:15 to 9:15 so if you need anything sorted, copied, found, or organized, ask her.

Ms. Barbara, my mom, will come in during Specials. She is a retired teacher and has regular groups that she takes to the library during reading, math, and word study. They know who they are, but if you need to know, check the bulletin board on the east wall.

Discipline plan: I expect each child to be helpful and cooperative. There are two columns on the whiteboard – helpful & not helpful. Every child you put on the helpful list gets 10 extra minutes of recess when I return. Every child on the not helpful list will write you an apology letter. Should anyone give you serious trouble, give them a 10-minute timeout next door in Ms. Vogt’s room. Walk through the coatroom to her room with the child, and she will find room. After 10 minutes, they should apologize to you in the coatroom. If not, send them to the office (x17600) for placement in another classroom with a think sheet (in your pile) and the work they refused to do in class noted on a Post-It.

The following children have pre-arranged placements if they do not calm down. Call and say you are sending them, send Shawn with the key to let them into the main building.

Eddie – Mrs. Sands x17620

Brady – Mrs. Prince x17202

Greg – Mrs. Woods x17208

For individuals, is set up for you on the SmartBoard, desktop computer, and iPad. Be generous. Our class goal is 6 positives for every 1 negative. Tap on a student’s name to give an award. You can also use the buttons at the top of the screen to check on students randomly or to give whole-class awards. You may also use class cash (in the middle desk drawer over your knees). They have to pay $1 to get a drink or go to the bathroom. Someone will loan them money if they are desperate.

Pullouts: The students on the list know when they need to go, but here is the current schedule.

9:15-11:15 Yarrow goes upstairs to Mrs. James

12:45 – 1:45 Yarrow goes upstairs to Mrs. James

Reliable students: If you don’t know how something works, ask Elaine or Shawn. On the other hand, Eddie and Brady are enthusiastic, but not reliable. We have also had some problems with theft so don’t let anyone alone in the classroom and leave the door open when someone goes in the coatroom.

If you need more information, particularly about medical emergencies, find my sub folder in the front of the bottom right-hand drawer. It is bright yellow.

7:45 Breakfast in the Classroom. Go get the students from the gym. Have them line up in alphabetical order by last name. It’s Tanya’s day to go first. Pick the first three students to get the bags, have them load the cart, and bring it to the room. Everyone else follows. Students select one item from each bag and eat quietly at their desks. Mark every student who takes a breakfast on the clipboard. They may give away any food they don’t want to eat or they may put it in the cooler. Elaine organizes the cooler. You get a free breakfast also. By 8:10 appoint Tanya, and the next four students on the list, to do the morning breakfast chores.

Anyone who finishes early may quietly do homework or read.

You can pass out as many points or dollars as you like if you catch them working or walking quietly.

8:15 attendance. Send it to the office with Speedy Delivery which is Tanya or Eddie.

8:15 Line them up in alphabetical order. The order is on the wall and the door.  It’s Tanya’s day to go first. Walk the students to the library.

This is your break, and you may leave. During this time, find all of your materials. Pull a word search or crossword puzzle to fill time if you need it. They’re on the bottom shelf near the playground windows.

9:15 Take over the class from the Spanish teacher.

9:15 Have a class meeting. Go over whatever you need to cover.

9:30 Reading groups. Have Ms. Barbara’s group line up at the door with whatever boxes she has placed on their desks. Send them to the library. The order you meet with groups is posted on the east bulletin board, but you only have half an hour.

  • Aquamarine needs to write how a tractor cares for people on their painting.
  • Red Riders needs to explain the pourquoi tale they just read to you. For independent work, tell them they don’t have to do a question and to move on to their independent reading folders.
  • Purple Moon wants to discuss possible projects to prove they understood the theme of their book. Make a list of their ideas.

10:00 Graphic Wednesday. Ms. Barbara will run this. She has them finishing their comprehension folders this week. Those who have finished are reading the second novel in the series for fun.

10:30 Snack Stop & Recess: Check the weather. If it is not raining, it’s time for recess. Lily will get the snacks out of the closet. Tanya gets first choice. Since our door opens onto the playground, they may go straight out once they have their snack. Keep the door open so you can keep an eye on them until the room is empty. Work through the list alphabetically until everyone has a snack and has left the room. Then go supervise the playground.  (NOTE: If it is raining, read Merry-Go-Round.)

10:45 Whistle the students in. Give them class cash if they run (or walk fast due to mud).

10:45 Math: Line up Ms. Barbara’s group and send them to the library. Everyone else is working on lesson 7.7. (The teacher’s guide is in your pile.) They can answer the mental math on personal whiteboards at their desks and hold them up for you to check. Anyone without supplies can rent them from you for $1. Izzy and Brady are passers and can pass out the student reference books when you need them. I also have the student workbook page loaded on my desktop computer if you want to use the SmartBoard.

11:40 Word Study: The students know the drill. It’s all independent work, and they should all work all of the time. They have a checklist. The few who have completed the checklist (double check their work) may play a spelling game of their own invention or from the plastic box next to the student computer.

12:00 Clean up. Line the students up in ClassDojo order starting with Tanya and take them to the lunchroom inside the building. Walk the line up and over the stairs past the office to the boy’s bathroom. Once in the bathroom, they can get themselves to the lunch line. Take the iPad with you and give points as you travel. Leave it in the lunchroom. A student will return it when they finish eating. Take a break while the students eat and go to recess.

12:35 Whistle the students in. They line up on starting on the deck steps. They may brush their teeth silently, color, draw, or shop in the prize boxes if they pay 10 cards (Colleen collects them), while you read Merry-Go-Round. Explain as you go, if necessary.

12:45 or so Writing:

  • Cursive p. 108. It’s a practice page so students can work at their own pace. Check and help with letter formation. (Lily may work in her book wherever she wants.) When most have finished, switch to
  • WriteSource, p. 39. It’s also review, but several students will need reminders.

1:50 or so. Social Studies: Economics. Students tentatively chose businesses yesterday. Pass out the copies of the product packet directions. Today, they must each work at their desk to design one good or service that they can really produce. Tomorrow, they will meet with their teams to decide which ideas to use. They may use paper from the closet or from the tub under my desk. Lily may get any supplies from closets or drawers. You may get magic erasers or whiteout from my top middle drawer. Please use the whiteout tape for the students; we have a class rule that whiteout is teacher only.

2:50 Students pick up the floor before they go. We call it “Pick up, pack up, no stack up.” (No stack up because I have tutoring in the room at 3:10.)

3:00 Dismissal. Line them up and walk them out. After the last student is out the door, grab the walkie-talkie (on the bookshelf near the door) and head out to the car line. Your last duty is to ask for child names at car doors and repeat them into the walkie-talkie so the car line keeps moving and the kids get home safely.

You must have the room empty at 3:00. Book Club uses the room and will line up outside the door as you are leaving.


Nothing needs to be graded, But if the kids insist on you grading as you go, give grades on each page ranging from

A (0 wrong

A- (1 wrong)

B (2 wrong)

C (3 wrong)

D (4 wrong)

F  (more)

If that seems extreme, don’t worry. They get to redo anything they miss.

One more thing… If something goes wrong and you have time to fill, there are plastic boxes (bottom shelf next to the closet) full of manila envelopes. Pick one with a crossword puzzle or a word search to keep the students busy for a while.

Leave me notes. How did it go?

Once you get through your first sub plan, it gets a lot easier because you can use it as a template for your next one. You can also check the notes and ask your students to see what was confusing. Some teachers keep one sub lesson full of generic assignments in their drawer so if they are ever sick, they don’t have to write a plan. I don’t because I’d use it the very next Monday morning. The down side is that I’ve had to write a few plans with a full-blown migraine. I really hope they were coherent. It’s those times when I am extra grateful for the support of my teaching partner in the other half of the trailer. We have a standing deal to check on each other’s subs.


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