How to Survive a Tough Classroom as a Sub

Swing EducationClassroom Management8 Comments

Maybe you’ve known it from the minute you walked in the door. Maybe it’s only as you’re wrapping up your first lesson. There’s no denying it, though: this class is hard to handle. Whether they’re spirited fourth graders who won’t sit down or (seemingly) apathetic tenth graders who won’t look up, any classroom can be set on the right course.

Here are 5 tips to get things on track when you’re facing a challenging classroom.

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1. Establish clear boundaries.

They won’t often admit it, but most students want to know exactly what the expectations are and the consequences for ignoring expectations–especially when a new person is in charge. Set an optimistic and assured tone from the start by going over expectations as part of your introduction and the day’s plan.

In addition to establishing that you will uphold the school and classroom policies, don’t be afraid to add specifics of your own: “It’s important to me that you don’t speak over your classmates.” (Rather than the more general “Show courtesy to your classmates,” for example.)

The consequences for uncooperative students will vary depending on the school’s policies, but know the policies going in, establish with the class that you know them, and, most importantly, be prepared to follow through.

Don’t make it harder on yourself by giving idle warnings! If a classroom observes that you do not follow through with what you say, you lose credibility.

2. Use your team.

As a substitute teacher, you are one on a team of many. The administrators and staff want to see you succeed. Don’t be afraid to lean on the people who are there to support you. While it may be tempting to “prove yourself” by handling a challenging situation on your own, remember that no one outside of your classroom realizes you are in a challenging situation unless you let them know. Feeling supported will give you the confidence you need to face any challenges thrown your way:

  • At check-in, be sure you know who to contact if you need assistance and how to contact them.
  • Introduce yourself to teachers whose classrooms are next to yours.
  • Give yourself time to ensure that the classroom teacher has left behind adequate plans, behavioral expectations, and any other instructions you need before starting class. If this isn’t the case, reach out immediately for help.

3. Focus on the positive.

The Pareto Principle says that roughly 20% of the actions produce 80% of results.  If you apply the 80/20 rule to a classroom, you will find that, typically, only a few students can take up the majority of your time–if you let them.

Especially when you’re getting to know a new class, a handful of challenging students can feel like “everyone,” but chances are good that you’re overlooking students who are doing exactly what they should be doing. Make a conscious effort to recognize and engage with these students. Not only will they receive the attention they deserve, but you will also set an example for the rest of the class as to what gets your attention in the first place.

4. Get them writing.

It’s a slam dunk: you’ll hone their writing skills (among other benefits) while getting them focused and quiet. Bloom’s Taxonomy, a theory of learning, underscores how writing and reflection help students apply knowledge and analyze it. To make sure students stay on task, announce that you’ll be asking them to share their writing with the class or that you’ll be collecting their work. Pick a topic related to the material or go broad with reflective questions, like:

  • What about the material we are learning is new to me? What did I already know?
  • What are the connections between what we’re learning and other parts of my life?
  • What questions do I have about our topic today?

Even if students have come to class totally unprepared, they’ll be able to respond to at least one of these. You can be prepared, though: know that writing in class often takes longer than you’d expect. They’ll be engaged and quiet for the duration of the writing time.

5. Go Zen.

If your students seem restless or uncooperative, consider focusing them using a mindfulness exercise. Research shows mindfulness can reduce bullying, enhance focus, and improve social skills. A few ideas for working it into your lesson:

  • Listen to a mindfulness meditation. Insight Timer is an app that offers over 10,000 free meditations, including ones geared specifically for kids. Let students choose the topic by voting to get them excited.
  • Do yoga. Students will be glad to get out of their desks. Simple poses can be done by even the youngest children.
  • Go on a “safari.” A mindfulness walk is an opportunity to get kids present. Go on a brief walk around the classroom and ask them to quietly notice everything they can. The wildflowers out the windows? The flickering overhead light? All can be observed as a way to draw students into the learning environment.

*Pro tip: Are they too restless for mindfulness? Put on some music and have them dance out their extra energy with a 5-minute dance party!

And finally . . . stay calm.

It’s crucial that you remain collected and measured, even when the situation seems to be spinning out of control. Students are perceptive and easily pick up on a substitute’s confusion, frustration, or anger, which may further incite challenging behavior. Losing your patience will not result in anything but gossip for the lunch line.

Looking for more activities for the classroom? Check out our complete guide to classroom resources, curated just for substitute teachers.

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8 Comments on “How to Survive a Tough Classroom as a Sub”

  1. Nice but again I see that the focus is on elementary teaching with a token reference to high school. Dancing, meditating or expecting results from (even a good) writing prompt are unlikely to succeed in a tough secondary class. I wish someone would publish the text of an actual “lecture” or speech a sub might deliver to a high school class to successfully orient them to her expectations. That would be useful !

    1. Hi Kathleen,

      Thanks for the feedback! I’ve passed it along to our team — we’ll look into developing content that addresses that topic of setting proper expectations.

      (Swing Education Content and Community Marketing Manager)

  2. Yes– this all seems good, but if you have ever been in a class with middle school students who are defiant, ADHD, angry and depressed, these tips do not work. I have had classes where student are throwing chairs at one another and fighting and eating paper and writing on their desks and yelling. There has to be something else that can work with these kids.

  3. I have found that unfortunately, it takes time. Come back and each day is better. I have heard students say over and over “you don’t care about us, you’re just here for money”. If you care, they will see it when you come back day after day.
    I’ve been at the same schools over 5 years, took a year off to be at one specific school, and I’m starting over at the others. So yesterday was horrible, today I brought starbursts. Food makes friends! AND it doesnt even have to be for more than a couple weeks. During that time, approach students wherever you can and ask them something about them. Cooperative ones are interested in recognition, all are trying to trust you. With permission, I show up in other classrooms and just watch. They actually try to talk to me. If it’s appropriate I will
    This is a battle of trust.
    Learn their names.
    Remember something from a different day. Mention it.
    Don’t bargain, but try to get the situation turned into a negotiation. “No cell phone period!” Stated at the beginning of the class and why can eventually turn into an expectation that the cell phone is given back at the end of class. (We need to learn to trust each other and I know phones are a distraction. When we grow trust, the rule changes because I know you will do what you are supposed to and when the work is done, the phone is fine.) Enforcing the rule, the phones stop being a problem and they are excited to earn that trust. Just be sure to state they have earned the trust, and that you don’t want them to break that trust.
    Punishment = crime, as the saying goes.
    I’ve gotten so much cooperation with just telling them how many minutes the phone will be gone if they hand it to me, or the end of the day if admin has to come get it. I don’t mention it counts as insubordination, they already know.
    Get off the stage. Your class that day is “the stage” interacting with them anywhere but in your classroom and talking to them works!

    I have managed 5 high school classes in the conference room at the same time. I have managed classes in middle school where the behaviors were unacceptable. Time invested works. By week 2 (even 2 days a week) at the same school, everything calms down significantly.
    Given the nature of these challenges, it’s fun and kind of against the establishment (appeal to them and use “I’m a sub as an excuse”) I have to admit I had a paper ball war once, they agreed to leave alone the students that didn’t want to play, and even cleaned up every single scrap of paper so “WE” wouldn’t get in trouble.
    Middle school and high school in my nutshell. Hope this helps.

  4. Gonna have to agree with the others on here, but the advice on here doesn’t work in the real world. It reminds me of those war movies where the recruits go through hell, go to the front lines and are told to forget everything they learned. This sounds like someone who works in an office and doesn’t have to actually teach. You probably work for those companies that do personal development days for teachers

  5. Subbing for 5th graders and up is a whole other beast. If the students lack classroom management with their regular teacher then it makes our job even more difficult. But, teaching them about consequences, accountability, and following through in word and deed even if it means removing disrupters from the classroom, can help in a tough class. And, the students that are listening and being compliant, deserve to be in a learning environment without our time being consumed by misbehaving students.

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