The daily musings of a substitute teacher in East Central Illinois.

When All the Tricks in the Bag Fail

Yesterday morning I had an assignment to teach for a third grade teacher at Robeson Elementary School. I have known this teacher since I began working as a substitute, and have been looking forward to being in her class. As an aside, I have spent more time teaching at Robeson than at every other school in this district combined. The teachers, administrators, support staff, and students all know me–most of them by name. So it is always a joy to go into a new classroom.

Unfortunately, I have been suffering from the side-effects of my first-ever flu vaccine last week, which means that, among other things, I am losing my voice. I am drinking lots of herbal infusions (also known as herbal teas, despite the lack of actual tea), pounding down the acetaminophen at healthy doses, and trying to speak with a soft, even voice. As a teacher, this can be difficult. As a substitute, it is nigh-impossible. Nevertheless, substitutes don’t get sick days, so away to school I went, scratchy voice and all.

The class was very noisy, and several students seemed to have a distinct lack of respect for substitute teachers in general, and me specifically. One of them even stated that because I am a substitute, she doesn’t need to listen to me. * sigh * Fortunately for me, this class has an incredibly competent student teacher who has been with the class from the beginning of the year. So she was really the one leading the class, and I was there as support. It was rough-going, but not a terrible day.

Yesterday evening, an assignment for this same teacher came up for this afternoon. So I accepted it, hoping that my second visit to the class would be better. I was wrong.

The majority of the students ignored every direction I gave, wandered around the classroom, yelled at their classmates, and generally disrespected each other and me. Even after I revoked their afternoon recess and their movie that they were going to watch, they continued to show a great deal of disrespect. I realised that I had lost this class. I let their teacher know that, at least this year, it would probably be best if I didn’t come back. She sighed, expressed her disappointment, but agreed, pointing out that her class has a hard time with substitute.

I left feeling dejected. I’ve only ever had two other classes that I have had to resign from teaching. One was a fourth grade class that drove the teacher to retirement. During the second day I taught there, students threw wet paper towels at me and tried to ruin school property. The other class as a first grade class that refused to do any of the work that their teacher had left for them. I got home, expressed how bad the day had gone to my wonderfully supportive wife, and then I found my silver lining. My lesson learned from this class. It came from a recent address given by one of the leaders of my church. I don’t want to get too caught up with the spiritual aspects of the talk, but, by applying his address to my role as a teacher, I have learned this valuable nugget of truth:

When it comes to classroom management, students have the control, not the teachers. The teachers invite, entice, and encourage, but the students must actively seek to manage themselves. It is only when all of the students have each decided to behave correctly that the class can be truly managed and led toward the great truths that are to be discovered through learning and teaching. If the students don’t want to control themselves, then no amount of commanding, coercing, or compelling will do any good. Students must invite self-control into their lives. My job as a teacher is to show my students why self-mastery is to be desired over instant gratification. As a substitute teacher, I am given approximately 5 minutes to accomplish this. If, after five minutes, there is still doubt, then the students will probably choose instant gratification over self-mastery. It is definitely something to think about as I continue to learn and grow as an educator.

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4 responses

  1. I wonder if there are any tried and true methods to make the case for self-mastery in those first 5 minutes?

    October 14, 2010 at 7:16 pm

  2. One thing that I think is incredibly important is quickly establishing expectations. The first thing I do when I enter a classroom is introduce myself as a teacher employed by the district as a substitute. This places emphasis on my role as a teacher, rather than as a fill-in for the “real teacher”, as the students often perceive it.

    Right after that, I explain my basic expectations: work when need to work, raise hands so that not everyone is speaking at once, don’t set anything on fire, no defenestration, and everyone should have fun. After establishing these as my expectations, I remind the students that whether or not we can have fun in the class is entirely dependent upon them. This immediately makes the case for self-mastery.

    Unfortunately, not being able to speak very much makes this incredibly difficult. And sometimes, as in the case of this class, the students just don’t care.

    October 14, 2010 at 7:22 pm

  3. Yeah, I guess what I was trying to ask about relates to your last sentence.

    If students do not care (since I imagine that is a BIG problem all across the spectrum), is there a way to inspire them to care? I mean, there’s not a lot you can do with only one day (or even less if you’re only there for one segment of class), but I imagine that there must be some way to tap into the curiosity of children.

    October 14, 2010 at 7:26 pm

  4. I think there are some students who are just going to flat-out resist all attempts by a substitute teacher to connect with them. Many times, these children have serious separation anxiety that is related to their home situation. They can be won over if the substitute is going to be back in the room on other occasions, but I don’t know if there is anything that can be done when you only have 3-7 hours total to work with them.

    If you learn of anything that works, I hope you’ll let me know! It’d definitely make my job a lot easier!

    October 14, 2010 at 7:31 pm

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