How much should I tell students about myself? & How can I keep the class quiet during independent work times?
Dear Barbara - Advice for Substitute Teachers by Barbara Pressman
The author of Substitute Teaching from A to Z (McGraw-Hill, 2008)
Regular contributor to the Gazette
October 1, 2008
How much should I tell students about myself?
I enjoyed your book, but I have a couple of questions that mystify me a bit. I'm a secondary English sub, and am afraid to introduce myself by doing as you suggest in the book, telling the class about me, as I don't know which classes I can trust. As you say in the book, much advice to the teacher of teenagers says not to smile until Christmas. I often feel that I need to be as stern and threatening as possible.
One other problem I often have is sometimes students secretively roll objects or make mouth sounds when the class is busy, and it would not seem effective to play detective. I've tried threatening to detain the class when the bell rings, but that threat never stops it. And when I move to the source of the sound, the source often moves too.
Thanks for the opportunity to communicate about this challenging job.
I’m glad you enjoyed the book!
Your concerns about subbing in secondary school are not unusual. It is a challenging age group. Let me address your questions one at a time.
It’s important to set a tone when you meet each new group. Introducing yourself includes greeting students at the door. That’s where you will make the first impression. Make eye contact with each student. When the bell rings, say good morning (or afternoon) and tell them your name and that you are happy to here today. Now you must assess what feels comfortable. If the group seems friendly, choose a few words to connect yourself with the class. “My name is ….I see you are working on Night, by Elie Weisel. I remember reading that book a few years ago. It’s one of my favorites. Let’s begin.”
As you can see, the introduction should be very short to start with. As you continue to sub, you might get more personal, but only if it feels comfortable. With secondary students, you must be aware of the climate of the group.
When the students secretly roll objects or make silly noises with their mouths, they are testing you. Their goal is to get you to react. Here is your chance to show them that you are not easily upset. A confident sub would calmly say, “Those noises are very distracting. I would hate to waste your time by playing detective. If we can’t complete the assigned work, you’ll have to do it for homework.” Then immediately continue with your lesson. Begin to walk around the room and use proximity to discourage the noise making. If there are still one or two culprits, determine who is making the noise, speak to him/her privately and calmly, stating your expectations. “You need to pick up your pencil and complete today’s work without any sounds.” If that student continues, send him to the office immediately.
The best way to handle disruptions is noncoercively. Don’t threaten if you can’t follow through. Keep your sense of humor. Notice good behaviors and reward them. Sometimes the best reward is a kind word of acknowledgement, such as “Thank you for doing such great work.”
How can I keep the class quiet during independent work times?
I finally graduated with a teaching degree at the age of 53, and have been “subbing” for the last year and a half. I’m writing because I consistently seem to have a problem in the K-5 classrooms I teach in: what I refer to as “breakout talking.” I can have the students quietly working, and gradually the students begin to talk to one another at their tables, until the noise level rises to what I consider to be very unacceptable. (This happens while I am working on helping students who are having trouble, or trying to check student work, answer questions, etc.)
I then have to STOP the class, interrupting even those who ARE doing what they are supposed to be doing, to get order and quiet reestablished. This newly established order lasts anywhere from 3-10 minutes or so; then the whole cycle repeats itself – with me getting more and more frustrated.
I have tried having them sit quietly for 5 minutes or so with heads down on desks, to “practice quiet,” but enforcing that quiet, even for 5 minutes, is sometimes more exhausting than anything else. Invariably, someone will talk before the time is up; and we have to start all over again. In a way, this is the students controlling ME, because we are losing actual on-task working time, but I really don’t know what else to do!
Sometimes I call the principal or other administrator to come in and settle the class down, if it is too bad; however, as soon as they leave, the same thing happens! I don’t want to spend valuable class-time fighting this all day, but what do you do, when the whole class keeps getting out of control? Sometimes, nothing works! (One school I sub at is urban, lower-income, and I feel students are not really held accountable for their behavior. But this happens at the suburban schools somewhat, too.) I want to control the classroom and be the very best teacher I can be! HELP, please!
Sincerely, Christine, Newport, KY
Congratulations on your graduation and teaching degree. Subbing is a great way to get your foot in the door. The practical experience is invaluable.
I gather from your letter that students are quiet during teaching time. But when they begin independent or group work, “break out talking” begins. We all experience this problem. I have some suggestions for you:
Remember, it’s unrealistic to expect absolute quiet during independent work time. Students have been programmed to help one another, and quiet talking is usually acceptable. You won’t be able to change the class culture.
When you are about to begin independent work time, tell the class exactly what your expectations are. “I expect you to work independently for the next fifteen minutes. If you have a question, please raise your hand and I will help you. Please keep your voices down. If you must talk, keep your voice to a whisper.” Now demonstrate a whisper for them. They need to know what you expect.
Now start reinforcing good behaviors. Develop a reward system that works for you. You might use stickers, or table points for the primary grades. For third grade and above, tell them that when you see a group or an individual working quietly, they will receive a ticket. They may write their name on the ticket. At the end of the period (or day), collect the tickets. Choose 3 tickets and give prizes. A visit to the Dollar Store is a great source for your reward system.
Remember, rewards can be concrete, or verbal. Students love praise. “Thank you for working quietly, class.” The rewards for you will be worth it!
Barbara Pressman is an adjunct professor at the College of Education, Florida Atlantic University. She has been a classroom teacher for more than 20 years, and a supervisor for student teachers for 10 years. She currently mentors Substitute Teachers as well.
Teachers.Net asked Barbara how she came to be interested in writing for substitute teachers. Her response:
I have subbed for many years during my teaching career. When my children were small, I found subbing to be a wonderful "free lance" job. At that time, I took on a 6th grade long term subbing assignment, which led me back to full time teaching. Upon retirement, I went back to subbing once again.