The Number One Substitute Teaching Taboo You Should Break

This morning Ms. Paula, the substitute teacher coordinator for the school where I work the most, told me that one of the reasons she uses me as much as she does is because I am always at the school well before the first bell rings. I didn’t happen to tell her that I am usually a basket case until I have the teacher’s assignment in my hands and feel confident I understand what the teacher wants and that I can do as requested. As soon as that is done I can relax a little. What surprises me, and Ms. Paula too, are the subs that show up two minutes before the bell rings and expect to have a successful day. Common sense alone should dictate that you are going to need some time to prepare for the day ahead and that has certainly been confirmed in my experience.

However, there is something you are going to feel pressure to do that will, ultimately, not be in your best interest. On my first day of subbing, I was handed a map of the school with the classroom where I would be working circled, a sheet that showed me which hours and which grades I would be teaching, and an attendance sheet for each class. I asked when they needed the attendance and was told that it needed to be sent to the front office as soon after the class started as possible. For weeks, perhaps months, I diligently took the role as soon after the bell rung as possible until I learned I was making a big mistake. While it may be true that the front office it wants it early, that does not mean it has to be the first thing you do. Let me explain.

Your first and most important priority at the beginning of every class is to get the students on task. If you have come early, then you will have had the chance to read through the teacher’s instructions and posted the assignment on the board. That means that as soon as students enter your class you can point them to the board and ask them to get started.

Get this done first thing and you will find the rest of the hour goes by smoothly. Why? If you wait until after the bell rings to take attendance the students will know that no work can begin until you have finished taking attendance. The longer they can delay you, and they can be highly creative in this respect, the longer they can delay getting to work. On the other hand, if they are already working, then attendance is often nothing more than asking one of the students to tell you who is missing. By resisting my initial instinct to take role right away, I end up getting it done much quicker than I would if I had tried to take it the way most new subs do.

There are variations on this. Sometimes it is important to know where each person is sitting, so in those cases I will draw up a seating chart and walk around the room asking each student their name marking it on the chart as I do. It only takes them a moment to tell me and then they are right back to work. The seating chart can also come in handy if your school has a fire drill. Typically, if that happens, students are expected to walk out of the school in an orderly fashion, assemble at an agreed-upon location, and then you are expected to take role. If you have already sent the role to the office, you are out of luck… unless you have your handy seating chart.

Save yourself the hassle by resisting the urge to take attendance like other newbies (Bueller? Bueller? Ferris Bueller?) And get your students on task as soon as possible; even before the bell rings if you can. It will signal to them that you are a professional more than any other single thing you can do.

Natasha M. McKnight

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