A Plea to Substitute Teachers

I am writing, with concern, about the quality of substitute teachers that are being provided to our school systems.  It is evident that the substitutes provided are ill - equipped to work with elementary and primary age children.  They lack an understanding of children, learning, and classroom management.

Learning in the twenty-first century is quite different from learning in the twentieth century. Twenty-first century learning means that children will be required to work cooperatively.  It also means that they will be required to share ideas, include everyone in the group, and share materials.  At times this may mean that there will be disagreements.  The children at many elementary schools have been taught strategies to deal with this including time-out,  calming strategies, and conflict resolution.  Because they are children they may need to be reminded to use these strategies.  It can be difficult listening to children disagree, but it is empowering for them to resolve disagreements on their own.  

A calm voice is necessary when working children in elementary and primary schools.  I have heard numerous substitutes scream and/or yell at the students.  They scream at the children for things such as in-completion of work, talking to a classmate, not paying attention, and getting out of their seat.  While I understand that all children (and adults) engage in misbehavior, screaming is an inappropriate way to respond to it.  This also includes demanding a child be removed from a classroom for a minor misbehavior such as silliness, calling out, or getting out of their seat. More appropriate strategies to stop misbehavior would include:
  • speaking only when all children are silent.
  • looking at the child/group of children who are engaging in misbehavior.
  • calmly saying a child’s name.
  • calmly reminding what needs to be done. “Pencils are for writing.”
  • asking what needs to be done, or how something should be used.  “What does Writer’s Workshop look like?”
  • redirecting the child/children back to the task at hand.  “Read your book.”
  • reinforcing what the children (individually and as a group) are doing well.  “I noticed everyone quickly put away the math materials.”
  • issuing a consequence.  Separate chatty children.  Take away a material when it is being misused.  Use time-out so the children can regain their self-control because time-out is a strategy, not a punishment.
Human beings in general, but children especially respond poorly to threats and punishment.

Elementary and primary - aged children require a constant, interactive presence in the classroom.  Most substitute teachers do not do this.  I have seen many substitutes sit at the teacher’s desk and shout directives from the chair.  Some sit and read the newspaper and others stand in a corner drinking their cup of coffee while the children are supposedly working. This type of adult behavior creates problems in any classroom: an increase in noise level and behavior problems, decrease in amount and quality of completed student work.  If substitute teachers were to walk around the classroom, and possibly talk to the students about what they are doing, many of these things could be avoided and create a calmer learning environment. When children see an adult is actively monitoring and/or interested in their learning they feel as if what is being done with the substitute is of value and thus pay more attention to it.

Lastly, because of misbehaviors that arise due to the lack of classroom management many substitute teachers consequently conduct themselves unethically as they divulge information regarding specific children.  They speak negatively to school staff members about the children; stating that they would never substitute again for them.  They state how rude, disrespectful, and undisciplined particular children are.  If a substitute teacher feels compelled to make statements such as these, it should be communicated to the principal or classroom teacher.  

I appreciate the time and effort substitute teachers employ when standing in for a classroom teacher.  However, it would be beneficial for them as well as the children for them to be armed with more current and positive forms of classroom management and twenty-first century learning. 


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