I came to substitute teaching protesting all the way, but I had lost a good corporate job several years ago and haven’t been able to replace it with anything worthwhile since. My wife’s insistence that I needed to be doing something besides warming the couch was not motivation enough to compel me until we began to fall far short of paying the bills each month. I finally had no choice but to jump through the hoops necessary in my area to earn substitute teacher status. What I have learned in the months since I started is that I love what I do and intend to make it my full time career, but it has not been a smooth ride; as a matter of fact, I came very close to quitting just a few weeks after I started.
I had received an opportunity to fill in for a teacher for a whole week, a rare treat for a new sub. The good news was that I knew where I would be working every day that week, the bad news was that it was at a middle school and I had not yet taught at the level. How bad can it be? I thought. I was about to find out.
During the course of that week, I made just about every major mistake a sub can make. Fortunately, I learned from those mistakes and I am happy to pass those lessons on. On Monday morning I arrived early to make sure I had time to review the teacher’s plans and make preparations for the day. I have since learned that these first few minutes are critical for creating a strategy for the day. At the time I was taking the philosophy that the time between bells belonged to the student, but the class time was mine. This proved to be a huge mistake. I have since learned to consider my classroom a sacred place set aside for learning. As soon as kids cross the threshold of my class, they need to be ready to work. I now write their assignment on the board and stand by the door telling them to get started as soon as they enter. Lesson one: the easiest way to get and maintain control of the classroom is to get students on task as soon as they enter your classroom.
Since I had failed to prepare in this way on that fateful Monday, I entered the class to a cacophony of sound and motion. Paper airplanes were flying, pencils were being sharpened, no one was at their desk and everyone was talking at once. My entering the room did not change that, as a matter of fact, I was barely noticed. I walked to the front of the class thinking my mere presence at my proper station would bring the room to order. Nothing. During that entire week, I never seemed to be in control of the class. Everyday was a wrestling match to get and maintain order. I have since learned a number of techniques for getting order,,but one of my favorites is this: always carry a coach’s whistle.
From the time they are little, kids are conditioned to respond to a coach’s whistle, so a quick toot will get everyone’s instant attention. Most are also capable of delivering a punishing blast, especially indoors and kids know this. I almost never have to use my whistle; just putting it to my lips is usually enough to get their attention. On the occasion when that doesn’t suffice, a quick blast will do the trick nicely.
My latest tool to assist in classroom management is another item you wouldn’t normally think of for this purpose: a stopwatch. Why? There is a very big difference between telling students they have twenty minutes to work on a 10 question quiz and telling them they have two minutes to get the first question done. Setting short term goals with a set time limit helps students focus their attention on the work at hand. Of course, this tool is easily used, but with a bit of discretion it can be both powerful and effective.
My final bit of advice is this: look at every classroom management tool you can, have as many as possible to pull out in any given situation. You never know what will work and what will not, so you need to be prepared to change strategies at a moments if your students aren’t responding they way you want. I can stand at the front of a high school class with my hands behind my back and a stern look on my face and break the room to a standstill. The same tactic in a 1st grade class would have no effect whatsoever. Fortunately, I have a different set of tools for that age group and so should you, if you hope to be successful.