The adventures of a fourth grade teacher in East Central Illinois.

Trust the Students

Long-time readers of this blog know that I worked as a substitute teacher for three years before I started my full-time teaching career at Wiley, where I am now in my sixth year. Whenever anyone asks me about my experiences as a substitute, I tell them that I loved it and, if it were a possibility, that is, a job with all of the salary and benefits, I would do the job full-time. There is something thrilling about going into a new classroom every day or visiting the same classroom over the course of the year and taking on the challenge of providing quality instruction.

I will always treasure this email from a high school teacher sent on April 1, 2011, regarding an assignment I took the day before:

Thank you for covering my classes yesterday.
I must thank you for your very detailed sub notes and your willingness to follow my directions and work with the students to make sure those tasks were accomplished.  I greatly appreciate everything you did to help me and the students (and I KNOW they can be difficult).  Of the three days I was gone, yesterday went the best, and that was due to you.  I would love to have you sub for me again in the future!

I proceeded to sub for this teacher several times over the rest of the year, including once more than week because her young child had the stomach flu. I later learned that, not only had I followed her directions that day and made sure the assigned tasks were completed, but I also had helped the students complete the tasks for the previous two days before I came.

Of  course, I absolutely love my job as a full-time classroom teacher, also. (There are times I wish I had two or three of me just so I could do all of the teaching jobs I wish I could do!) But because of my previous experience as a substitute, I find myself holding substitutes in my own room to a very high standard:

  • If a substitute does not leave me any notes about what happened, I will probably not accept them in my room again.
  • If the substitute clearly ignored my detailed lesson plans, I am going to complain to my principal and request that they not be allowed to sub for me again.
  • If the substitute engages in power struggles with my students, I am probably going to find a new person to fill in for me when I have to leave. The substitute is an adult; the students are children. There is no reason to engage in a power struggle with them.
  • If the substitute does not treat my students with respect, I know that the students will have a hard time respecting them, and so I will find someone else.

If a substitute does not do any of those things–that is, if he or she leaves a note with what happened, followed my plans, worked with my students, and treated them with respect, that person will move to the top of my list as a preferred substitute.

When I think of this list, I think the last one is actually the most important. I don’t expect my students to like the substitute teacher. I don’t expect the substitute teacher to like the students. (I don’t expect that of my relationship with my students, either.) But I do expect them to respect one another. I expect my substitutes to trust the students to do what is right.

We have classroom expectations and school-wide expectations. These are things that we believe the students will do, not rules to tell them what they should not do. I expect my students to be safe, respectful, and responsible. I expect them to help others, which includes substitute teachers. And I expect the substitute teachers to be safe, respectful, and responsible and to not only help my students, but also ask them for their help.

I know there are students who try to take advantage of substitute teachers. I know that such students are in my own classroom. But they are the minority. The whole class should not be punished because of a few who are trying to take advantage of a situation. And, honestly, most of the time? The things students are trying to “get away with” are so insignificant that I would direct the substitute’s attention to bullet point three: don’t engage in power struggles!

I have regular times each week I have to leave my classroom, and I have a few times in the coming months that I will be gone for personal or professional reasons. So I know I need to spend more time teaching my students how to keep working and moving forward when I am gone. But I also need to teach my substitutes to trust my students.

They know what they are supposed to do. Let them do it.


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