I spent four days this past week substitute teaching second graders at my favorite Catholic grade school. They were adorable. And a class with only 11 students is never really all that hard.
But the time spent in that classroom gave me reason to reflect on how substitute teaching can sometimes be uniquely difficult.
First off, you don't know the kids' names. Thankfully, this teacher did give me a class list and each student's desk had the name written in large letters on the front. Occasionally, I have subbed for teachers who did not provide a class list. After realizing what an enormous handicap that situation is for the teacher, as soon as I realize I don't have it, I now just go right to the office and ask for the list. It's next to impossible to control a class without knowing those names and extremely difficult to learn them without a sheet to reference.
Secondly, the substitute teacher does not know all of the teacher's rules. Good sub instructions will list the most important ones like whether or not the students are allowed to talk while doing their work, or must they sit in their assigned seats, and who is allowed to leave the classroom and when and how. But no teacher can tell you every little rule they have nor should they. Nine or ten pages of instructions are just too many for the sub to read in the 10 or 15 minutes she has before the students come in. When I require something or forbid something that the teacher does not, the students look at me as though I have just legislated something without having been elected. They don't like it. They're not even sure they really have to do as I say. It feels illegitimate to them and sometimes they even resent it. So usually I ask a student who seems to be reliable, or who the teacher has actually designated in her instructions as reliable (a really helpful tip) what the teacher says about the such-and-such situation. Then there is usually a disagreement because another student thinks they can nuance the answer in such a way as to get the response they want. Example: No, Mrs. V. does not let us go out for recess if we finish our work. But the student nuancer will say indignantly, "YES! She does!" Original reliable student insists, "No, she doesn't." Student nuancer, "Well, she did that one time!!" I then turn to the reliable student and confirm, "But she doesn't usually let you do it, right?" The conniver then mutters something about "that one time."
The younger the students the more they get off track if I change the routine at all. The teacher has given me a rough outline of how things go. But I might not know, for instance, if the homework is turned into a box, put on the teacher's desk, or if the student keeps it until the teacher gets back. There are always multiple opinions among the students. I make my best guess, trying to stick with what seems like the teacher's most likely routine.
And what to do to maintain or regain control of the class? After quite a few years of substitute teaching I have some of my own techniques. But, especially with the younger students, it helps to know what the teacher does to get them quiet. Once in exasperation I asked a student in the front row what his teacher does to get the class quiet. He said, "She yells at us." Oh. I thought well at least if I really lose it and do start yelling no one is going to be shocked. Sometimes the better students will volunteer suggestions even without my asking: Ring the bell. Turn the lights on and off. Miss B. does such and such. I don't know if these suggestions are offered out of compassion for my plight or if these students just really want things under control so they can learn. Probably a bit of both.
One thing I've learned is that the more confident I appear the better things will go. I walk into the classroom like I mean business, standing as tall as I can, which isn't very tall as my height is only five feet. It doesn't matter how tall it actually makes me. It's how I'm carrying myself that makes the difference. Sometimes, with the older kids I give them a little pep talk to start with. Something like this: Look, let's start this day out right. If I tell you to do something I want you to do it. If I tell you to stop something I expect you to stop it. If you don't do what you're told I'm going to give your name to Mr. V. as someone who did not cooperate when he was gone. In other words, I expect you to treat me with the same respect that you treat Mr. V. Once after such a talk a kid in the back raised his hand and completely straight faced asked, "Are you sure you don't want to be treated with MORE respect than Mr. V?" I burst out laughing.
Anyway, subbing is fun. I can do it when I want to and turn down days that don't work. I earn a little extra money and I get to spend time with some of the nicest kids and most thoughtful staff of any school around. Despite the challenges it's an occasional job that I do truly enjoy.