Wednesday, May 16, 2007

top 10 things full-time teachers should tell their substitutes

I had another one of those days subbing today, and it completely took me by surprise. The teacher I worked for is one that had one of my own kids in recent years, so I thought I was familiar with her classroom style; I wasn't expecting any great difficulties.

What I failed to consider is that the teacher's style is only part of the equation, and that the make-up of the class is another, equally important part. The culture of the class won't just be determined by the teacher, because let's face it, no one has that much control. A lot of it depends on the kids, their capabilities, and their personalities. My biggest problem today was expecting this class to be like my kid's class, and it wasn't.

I ran into a multitude of small issues today, along with one issue -- actually, one child -- that was a constant source of disruption and (I'll admit it) irritation. So here's my list of the top 10 things that full-time teachers should tell their subs, to help avoid the problems I had today. (I didn't include lesson plans; this is the stuff besides lesson plans that subs need to know.)

10) The full names of the teachers and aides that the sub will be interacting with, along with the room numbers where you can expect to find them. Abbreviations don't cut it with subs that are not familiar with all the staff at the school. We have a pretty small school, relatively, but there are still some teachers' and aides' names I don't know. Today, since I don't know who the aide was, I couldn't ask about her whereabouts when she wasn't there to get the kids out to morning recess. So I had to take them out, which was OK but still left me wondering what was up with her.

9) A list of permissable activities for the kids to do when/if they've finished all their work. A recent in-class project involved curling ribbon, and I guess some kids hadn't finished, and so were working on it today. But at least a third of the class was cutting off lengths of curling ribbon at various times, completely independent of any activity. I put the curling ribbon away at least twice, and told the class at least twice "No more curling ribbon today," but apparently the lure of the curling ribbon was impossible to resist.

8) A list of activities the kids should not be doing when/if they've finished all their work. I let some kids use the computer workstations today, and many of them logged in to EdHeads to do virtual knee reconstruction surgery. About 10 minutes later I heard more than one (non-computer-using) kid declare, "We're not supposed to go on EdHeads!" (Of course that was after I'd tried to get them onto Frog Guts, and failed -- the computers are too slow and too old to handle all the Flash graphics.) I have no idea whether or not there was a ban on EdHeads, but I couldn't see the harm in it.

7) Details on whether or not work is to be turned in, and if so, where. Over the course of the day, we completed a number of assignments. For some, I had directions: turn in. For others, nothing at all, so I assumed the kids should hang onto them. Also include with the lesson plan instructions for whether or not to correct any work before handing it in -- some classes have the kids swap their worksheets with a partner, and then correct them; this saves the teacher a great deal of time down the line, I understand -- but I do need to know if that's something you want me to do.

6) Details on whether a lesson needs to be taught to the whole class, can be tackled by small groups on their own, or whether some subset of the class should be broken out to cover a topic that a lot of kids get on their own. In my experience, given a math assignment, the class, if given a choice, will never choose instruction, preferring to guess on every single answer rather than sitting through instructions. If you ask the class, "Have you studied probabilities before?" Some significant fraction of the class will say "yes" while the rest insist "no," and as a sub, it's nearly impossible to tell one way or another. So "Math journal, pages x and y," is a good start but needs more information, like "They can work on this in small groups," or "They need instruction on these topics before tackling the worksheets."

5) Class rules for seat-changing or special locations. Most classrooms have special places, usually comfy places for reading, that students get to use certain times. Several classrooms I've worked in let one or two, possibly three groups work out in the hall. Rarely, if ever, do teachers let me know what the rules are regarding these special places, which results in ugly competition among the kids to score a good spot for whatever it is they're doing. So, if the rule is "you get to work in the hall once a day," I need to know that. And I also need to know when to open the in-class comfy places, if at all; just tell me the rules so I can enforce them uniformly and keep the kids on-task. Today I had to chase my problem kid out of the rocking chair three times. I had no argument from authority because I didn't know what the rule was.

4) A brief run-down on classroom incentives and disciplinary measures. Some incentives I've seen are "table points" and extra recess minutes, but disciplinary measures have a lot more variety and are often very difficult for a sub to apply. The teacher I subbed for today has a good system when kids go astray; she makes them clean up the schoolyard during recess. But I forgot about that while dealing with my one problem kid, and so ended up imposing my default consequence -- sitting out recess -- instead. But this teacher also has an incentive plan which she mentioned to me, very briefly -- so briefly I didn't know how to use it! How many points would I give to a table, and how often? Maybe the class would've responded to the positive incentive of table points, rather than to the negative incentive of losing recess? It's hard for me to believe at this point that they would've responded to any incentive for very long.

3) Seating charts are a godsend.

2) If any children leave the classroom for special instruction, please tell me who they are, when and for how long they are gone, and where they are going. Do I need to escort them wherever, or just send them? Do I need to pick them up?

1) Absolutely, the most important: if there are any children with learning disabilities or behavioral issues in the classroom, please let me know so I don't have to waste time trying to figure them out. When a child is acting out in class, I need to assess immediately what's happening so I can deal with it. If the acting out is temperamental rather than manipulative, that's going to make a big difference in how I handle it. Also, give a moment's thought to the class dynamic. If you know about any testy relationships that are likely to heat up without policing, please let me know.

My biggest mistake today was getting entangled in the problem kid's arguments against everything. (Seriously, everything -- when DS1 said, at the end of the day, "I've played kickball with you," this kid immediately said, "Nuh-uh, I've never played tetherball with you," which is of course not what DS1 said -- but this kid goes into argument mode automatically.) I like to think that, if I'd had a head's up, I would've known better than to get drawn in the way I was.

On top of that issue, there were a few others, like kids using crude humor or just being obnoxious to each other. These were for the most part harmless if disruptive, but once or twice they threatened to mushroom into something more serious. As a sub it's hard to know when a tiff is going to explode into something much larger, so any advice on danger signs is very, very useful.


Anonymous said...

Um...if I might suggest something?

We have a criminal case here in CT where a substicute teacher is facing 40 years in prison because she let the kids on the computer and they then proceeded to access some online porn via popups, popunders and reroutes that she couldn't control. It didn't help that she was a computer illiterate, but still the prosecuters went after her based solely on the fact that the kids saw the porn. There are other details, but if your computers are anything like most school systems, they are running outdated software behind little or no firewalls and you could be on the hook. The administration in this instance was completely out of their depth and really screwed the pooch in terms of teacher support.

Get very clear instructions what the kids are allowed to do with the computer and monitor it closely because you never know.

Joan said...

I'm familiar with that case, it sounds like a series of screw-ups.

The computers at my kids' school are indeed old and creaky, but they have very good spyware/spam/firewall software installed. The issue with the kids going out to EdHeads -- a site I was previously familiar with -- was a question of when was it OK to go do virtual knee surgery. It's not OK, for example, when you're supposed to be taking an online reading test -- but for free time, it's a pre-approved site.

I've been stymied a few times at school trying to read pages from mainstream news websites, so I knew about the screening software. And I have a good enough relationship with the administration and the tech guy who comes in a couple of times a week to keep everything up and running, to feel pretty comfortable letting the kids on the computers. It's a fair bet I know more about what's going on there than the regular teachers do. After all, they're teachers, and most likely never worked in previous lives as network administrators or programmers.

Anonymous said...

I hear 'ya.

I'm just saying 'ya know? :>)

Good luck with that year 'round schedule.

happychyck said...

Thanks for that post! I used to write such detailed plans, and then they wouldn't be read. What often happens is that other teachers have to "cover" my class if I'm gone, so they're just winging it. Thanks for the reminder that some subs do appreciate the details.