Substitute Teachers

Substitute Teachers: challenges and student perspective

         Substitute teachers are near and dear to my heart. One of my jobs as a psychologist in a large urban school district was training substitute teachers on classroom management. And now my son is a substitute teacher, while getting his teaching credential.  
         There are many myths about subbing, like "Don't smile for the first day." I advise the opposite.  Even if you are facing a challenging group of adolescents, smile and tell them that you're so happy to be there, because this is your favorite age group and the teacher has said so many great things about them. It's hard to be evil to someone who likes you.
         One of the many strategies is to put a few sample notes home on the board, e.g. "________________ was so helpful today in the class. I appreciate the positive attitude and helpful behavior." The sub states that he or she loves to send positive notes home or to leave them for the regular teacher. The sub then invites students who want such a note to let him or her know at sometime during the day. Amazing what this motivates in a classroom.
         So, I was very impressed by the letter that my niece's fifth grade daughter wrote about a long-term sub when the teacher was out with knee surgery. Granted, she is an exceptionally thoughtful and bright child, but I thought the information and perspective would be valuable to anyone who is doing substitute teaching (and to teachers selecting a long-term sub)
         Thanks to Sophia.

Dear Mrs. G.,
We are writing this letter first to welcome you back, and we are very delighted to see you again as our fifth grade teacher!  We hope you had a full recovery and are feeling much better.
The second reason we write this letter is to express our concern regarding the atmosphere of the class during your absence.  While we understand that filling in as a substitute teacher is not an easy job, we feel that there was a very high level of stress.  This stress made learning difficult and made the classroom very unpleasant at times. We believe many of our actions were interpreted as misbehavior, and numerous pink slips were distributed to students who have never been reprimanded for behavioral issues. For example, good-hearted joking and fun was not tolerated and was regarded as bad behavior. The threat of receiving the punishment of pink slips added a lot of tension on us, and some of us took it very hard. The class felt controlled by the fear of earning a pink slip. Even for those of us who were not the subject of a pink slip, the situation of seeing our classmates being treated unfairly and our classmates’ reactions to the punishment were upsetting to the point of deep sorrow for each other.
I, as our anonymous writer, felt this sorrow throughout your absence. Though I didn’t get a pink slip during this period of time, I did watch many of my classmates receive them. I watched sobbing out of agony after class, recognition to everyone that you need to stop talking, even if you were trying to work and your tablemate wants to start a conversation, groups drawing together on the back of their papers while waiting for others to finish their sprints, but then misinterpreted for passing notes. Also, as mentioned before, humor was not accepted.
I am still very stressed from what happened the Thursday this paragraph is being written. I also keep this name anonymous. I felt as if I needed to converse this issue with a group of students. Because of this I felt compelled to write this letter. Honestly, I feel we tried really hard to be on our best behavior and show respect in the beginning, but every day class got stricter and stricter, and we slowly became restless. Finally I realized that it wasn’t that we were bad students, but that we actually really missed you and we wanted our normal routine. I personally feel that the class was not run by reward and kept calm, as you would do.
Thank you for taking this time to read this letter, you have no idea how incredibly pleased we are to have you back. Next time you have a sub, we would appreciate it if you were able to vary it with different people, if you have a choice. We look forward for better times with you this school year.

Teachers: Classroom management without group punishment

Finding Your Marbles: Group Punishment or Group Reward
by Susan DeMersseman, Ph.D.
Punishing a group of students for one's misbehavior is standard practice for many teachers, but it can have negative effects. Starting with a jar of marbles, the author has devised a system of group rewards which can change student attitudes for the better.

It’s a common script in classrooms:
“Table B just lost a point because Jeremy did not put his book away on time.”
“The Bluebirds will go out to recess last, because Sherri is still talking.”
In my work as a school psychologist I often visit classrooms where children are seated in groups or at tables. Teachers regularly hand out rewards and punishments to the group based upon the behavior of one person. In some settings it is an accepted practice; but for many parents, teachers, and students it’s a controversial issue.
Group punishment remains a common tool teachers have in their arsenal of classroom management methods. The reasoning is that the group will get so disgusted with the“bad” kid that they will exert the needed pressure to keep him or her in line. It has a certain logic and it often works, but it can backfire. The innocent who are punished can become resentful toward the teacher or the target of the punishment. Even more dangerous, the misbehaving student—usually a low-status kid to begin with—will slip even further, become even more isolated, and then feel a need to act out again.
Some of the best teachers I’ve worked with used this strategy and it did work to some extent, but I feel certain that if offered the following alternative they would have found it preferable. The method I propose also uses the group, but as a cheerleading section rather than an angry mob ready to stone the culprit. Specifically, the teacher uses a glass jar and glass marbles (or some other concrete method of awarding points). The system works by allowing an individual child or table to earn points or rewards for the whole group. Points or marbles cannot be lost—only gained. The teacher gives the whole class points toward a special activity for the desired behavior of the individual class members.
Sometime the low-status child is not the cut-up, but the brainy, nerdy, or unattractive kid. But if that child is responsible for the group earning points toward a movie, an extra recess, or a popcorn party, the child’s status can be raised significantly. Teachers sometimes express a feeling of powerlessness to help the isolated student in a classroom. This is one concrete way to address that problem and to prevent the scapegoating that is so common when one child requires a lot of correction.
This strategy can work on target behaviors for every child in the class, not just the misbehavers. Go over the class list and identify for each student a target behavior, e.g. speaking up, sharing, getting in line, not disturbing other people’s things, staying with a task. Then look for these behaviors throughout the day and reward the group for the child who is improving on that behavior. It is also advisable, when working with a status issue, to recognize a low- and high-status kid at the same time:“Tina and Hannah just earned two marbles for the class, because they gathered the papers at their table so quietly and politely.” Associating all students with the reward system makes it more desirable.
Some teachers even allow students to reward each other with marbles. Eagerness for a reward may cause the youngsters to be a little overly generous initially, but you can guide this. For example, spend the first few minutes after lunch as a time for appreciations (it is too often the complaining time). This method helps children focus upon what is good in their classmates and in themselves, and it makes them feel more a part of the group.
An enormous issue in any classroom is inclusion or acceptance. I was recently interviewed for an article following a school shooting. The journalist asked, “What are children most afraid of?” She was obviously thinking in terms of violence, but with so many years of listening to the concerns of children I answered easily, “Being left out.” This positive method helps children feel more included and accepted by the group. With acceptance, children’s ability to learn increases as well. Such a method makes each child feel like part of the group and helps them recognize that their good efforts can support and encourage effort in others as well. Another wonderful side effect of this approach is that the teacher gets to listen to him or herself in positive rather than negative mode all day. We get more of whatever we shine the light on, and often the light shines back on us.

Susan DeMersseman, Ph.D., is a psychologist and writer in the San Francisco Bay area. She works with children and parents and conducts workshops on a wide range of subjects for parents and educators.
From Today's Catholic School  Teacher. April 2003

First Days of School. Teachers Care.

            When I do teacher workshops I am consistently impressed with how much they care, how much they want help to do a better job for the children they work with. There is not a bit of  ho hum energy in the crowd. I conducted one such a workshop today on building and maintaining community in the classroom and staff. At the end I always ask teachers to write down a few things they will take from the day.  It helps me know what resonates, but in writing it they also remind themselves of what was important to them. This group offered a long list, but there were some frequently mentioned points, ones that other teachers might find helpful. So here are a few things they took from the workshop that might be useful to share.
1.    Kids act as good as they know how. I say this in most workshops, but it is true and it helps us fight the right battle. To assume they “won’t” when they “can’t” causes us to waste lots of time thinking in terms of will rather than knowing it’s a matter of skill. When we get the interpretation right, then we can go about teaching the skill rather than trying to cajole or force an ability that isn’t there yet.
2.    They come that way. If you have more than one child you know this already. While we can shape and encourage qualities in a child we also need to respect the power of inborn, hardwired temperament – in children and in each other. Some differences that colleagues view as intentional are sometimes as basic in adults as they are in children. Understanding that makes for happier faculty rooms and classrooms.
3.    Life is short; childhood is shorter. Part of our jobs as we work hard to give youngsters a good education is also to protect that short and fragile period of childhood. On a recent show on aging one of the guests reported that we have added about 30 years to our lives. She pondered that maybe instead of 30 “senior” years we should add a little up front. To let children be there a little longer and to do the same for adolescence.
4.    It is important to remember how much children and we need to feel like we belong and that our efforts at creating an environment of inclusion can keep kids from doing some crazy things to fit in. I shared a story of a reporter who interviewed me after a violent episode at a school. She asked what kids were most afraid of, such as guns or knives. I answered without hesitation, “Being left out!”
5.    The importance of “small talk.” As we chat about our pets, gardens, favorite TV show or book we build relationships that help us deal with bigger issues from a place of familiarity and trust.
More to come from the notes, but if you know a teacher share this. If you are a teacher, thank you.