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Classroom Management for Substitute Teachers: The 5 minute relationship

When I started out as a teacher, I was a sub for our school district. This meant that I could get called to any classroom, anywhere, literally any time of day.

My specializations are Secondary Theatre, English, and Counseling; however, I have been called in to Math, PE, Kindergarten, Middle School Art, Elementary French immersion, Foods... the list goes on and on.

One of the most difficult parts of subbing is classroom management. How do you build relationships in only a few minutes when you may only be in the classroom the one day? We know that relationship is the key to effective classroom management, but it is especially challenging as a sub! Relationships with the students can be the difference between surviving the day and getting more work from the teacher (after students talk you up when their regular teacher is back) or leaving in tears, swearing off that class or that school forever. (And believe me, I've been both...)

Here are some things I've found that help to build relationships in the first 5 minutes that help the day go smoothly. I've tailored this to middle or high school, but it can be adjusted for any grade level. (Read through to the bottom for some bonus sub tips!)

Minute 1:

Introduce yourself (obviously), but do so in a way that reflects who you are! Merely saying "Hi, my name is ..." is both dry, and doesn't set a tone for the class. Behaviour issues arise from anxiety over change more so than kids just trying to challenge the sub. Although this may be a part of it, I would say the majority of the behaviour stuff comes from students no longer knowing what the expectations are or who this adult at the front of the room, claiming to be their teacher for the day, is...

This is why the introduction is so important. Take the first minute to introduce yourself in a way that tells kids what they can expect from you and set the tone for the class.

For example, I start by saying hi to every student who walks through the door. Every. Single. One. If they're late? That's not my issue today. They get a "hi" and can find a seat or make their way to their assigned seat.

I wait for the bell, and tell students my name. I use my first name, so I tell students my first and last name, and say they can call me what they're comfortable with, but I prefer my first name. I then tell students what my area of expertise actually is. If I'm in a math class? I tell students that math is not my skillset, but I'll do my best to help them when I can. If I'm in an elementary class? I tell students I'm excited to work with a younger group today - I'm used to high school kids! (They'll inevitably have questions about this - take the time to answer them!)

Minute 2:

When it's time to take attendance, allow students to introduce themselves and tell you their pronouns, and then you can find their name on the attendance sheet. Some students may go by a name different than what is on the sheet, or they may have a pronunciation that is different than you're used to. Allow students to tell you their name, make a note of contradictions on the attendance sheet or write the phonetic spelling so you don't screw it up.

In elementary school, this may lend itself to students messing with you - giving false names, giving their friend's name, etc. So what? Let them play for a moment, then set the boundary and explain the importance of knowing who is who. They'll pivot and also know you have a sense of humour.

If a student arrives after you've done the attendance, ask their name and make sure they check in at the office (or whatever the school policy is) so they don't get an absence on their record. The student will appreciate your attention to that detail, and also appreciate that you're looking out for them, not shaming them, for being late.

Minute 3:

Ask students what their class structure usually looks like. Do they have a certain format they usually follow? Say, 10 minutes of silent reading or homework completion, followed by the lesson? You'll likely have teacher notes telling you this, but giving students autonomy over the explanation can help them feel like they're helping you know what's up - rather than you coming in, as the newcomer, telling them how it will be. They are the experts on the class they attend every day - you are not. Don't pretend to be.

If there's a discrepancy between what the teacher has given and what the students say, draw attention to it. Simply saying "your teacher mentioned that you should be done your projects for homework and you're not to have more time today... I think we're supposed to move on... but I'll make a note for your teacher and let them know that most of you needed more time on the projects." This will let students know you're not totally oblivious, but also let them know that you're in their corner (while also making sure you're communicating accurate info to their regular teacher).

Minute 4:

Have a set of guidelines and expectations that students in any class should follow for you. This may be slightly different than their usual class, or even different from what you would do if you had your own classroom. That's okay! You just want to be clear with your expectations to ease students' anxieties and uncertainties about how you'll handle things. Keep the rules short, and don't have too many.

Mine looks like this:

- Let me know if you need to leave the room - In case of emergency, I don't know all of you yet, and I need to know who is here and who is not!

- If I can't help you with something you're working on, feel free to ask another classmate! But please keep your voices low so you don't disrupt others who are working!

- Please keep your cell-phones away, unless you are looking something up for your projects/ the work you're doing.

* I'll typically follow the usual classroom teacher's guidelines, if I know them, and I tell students this. I'll add mine if I wasn't left with classroom guidelines or if they're not included in the guidelines I was left. I may also add mine as an addendum. For instance, if they have a no-cell policy, I'll use that instead of my rule. If they have a hall-pass rule, I'll tack that on to my "leave the room" rule. I follow the usual classroom teacher's guidelines, if I know them, and I will tell students this.

Minute 5:

Let students set the pace for the day. As someone who now calls subs, I always give more than the class can complete, in the event the sub needs some extra tasks or the lesson bombs and they have to pivot. However, I also expect that I'll have to spend at least the first 15-20 minutes of the next class reviewing material, as the sub may have not been an expert in my subject. This means that you have flexibility in how quickly you move through material. Take pauses to check in with students regularly, give more time than they may normally have on tasks, etc. Allow them to set the pace, as this will allow tensions and anxieties to ease. It doesn't take long to establish the pace; this happens as soon as you dive into the lesson or the work block. Just take it slow, and allow students to adjust tempo as needed.


Some extra tips that may be useful in your work as a sub!

  1. Always have backup lesson plans that can be used for cross-curricular subjects! Teachers don't always have time to leave a plan! I liked finding unique and wacky news stories, establishing discussion questions, and some key points to cover. I then have a mix of tasks we could complete for an array of subjects.

  2. Bring a children's book or story with you. This can be used in elementary school for pretty much any subject. I chose a story about a dragon, and had an art activity, writing activity, drama game, and discussion questions that could be adjusted for any elementary grade and could take use through a full day of school, if needed!

  3. Get business cards made and leave them at each place you sub (unless you don't want to be called back to that classroom!)

  4. The more detailed the notes, the better! Classroom teachers always appreciate a lot of info. I will specifically call back a sub if they've given me a detailed play by play of the day, even if they don't typically teach my subject. If they give a quick "thanks for the call," they won't be getting another one...

  5. Make friends with the office staff! They are the ones that will help you understand the school policy and protocols, emergency procedures, and quirks of the building. (They are also the ones who suggest subs to teachers who don't know who to call, but have to leave in an emergency!) We all know, office staff actually run the school...

I hope these tips were useful for you! Being a sub is never easy - but I've found these strategies help make it easier in the first 5 minutes!


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