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

Posts tagged “Substitutes

Empowering Students

I was out of the classroom all day last Wednesday. I had a great substitute, a former Wiley teacher that many of my students know because they had her in first grade: Miss C, who has been mentioned in this blog more than once. While things were generally okay, there were still struggles and challenges while I was gone that I wished had not happened.

I was out of the classroom again this afternoon, and I had Miss C, who is now married but is known by the same name (at least for the time being), but I wanted to see if I could help the students have more success. One thing I had thought about was empowering them to make choices on their own.

I had one student who likes to work in another teacher’s room when he is feeling overwhelmed by peers around him. I gave him two passes that he could use, one during reading workshop and one during writing workshop. I reminded him who the substitute would be and encouraged him to stay in the room to help as needed but made sure he knew he could use his passes if he needed to.

Another student often gets bored in class and needs something to do to feel like he is contributing in a helpful way. So I gave him the task of putting mail in the mailboxes and in helping Miss C with technology issues if they happened again.

A third student had a math assessment he needed to complete. He knew that he would be able to use his Chromebook once the assessment was completed, and so he had an incentive to complete his work.

And so it went. Students were given specific tasks and were encouraged to do their best while I was gone. I left the room right before lunch, with students excited to help their former teacher and show their current teacher what they could do.

The report I got at the end of the day was that the students were awesome. They worked on reading, vocabulary, and writing. They helped the substitute, they cleaned the room at the end of the day, and they generally followed directions, met expectations, and showed that they knew what they were expected to do.

I have often been asked about my approach to student discipline. I am not shy about stating that my approach is one of encouraging actual discipline: self-control, self-regulation, and pro-social skills. Discipline is helping student treat others with respect and dignity and to advocate for themselves when they feel that they are not being treated with respect and dignity. Too often, teachers use “discipline” to mean “punishment.” What I heard from my friend and substitute today was that my students showed that they have the discipline to do what is expected when they are empowered to do it. They didn’t need threats of punishment or retribution; they only needed to know what to do, how to do it, and why it should be done. Knowing they can do it in the classroom, I hope they realise that they can do it anywhere!

Does it work every day? No, of course not. My students are children who are still learning. I am still learning and I am 35 years old as of last Friday. I don’t ask for perfection; I ask only for effort. I am pleased that my students responded by rising to the occasion!

Oh, By The Way…

I was absent from my classroom this morning. It was a planned absence to meet with members of a district committee. I have tried to warn my students ahead of time when I know I will be gone and make sure that we have reviewed expectations for when there is a substitute teacher.

I forgot to do that this time.


I also forgot to make a post on Class Dojo to let the parents who are connected know that I would be absent so they could help their children mentally prepare for the slight change of plans during the morning.

Also oops.

Amazingly, my unannounced absence did not result in mass panic or chaos in my classroom. In fact, my substitute gave me a fairly decent report. He shared that a few students had a rough start to the morning but they quickly corrected their behaviour and had a good morning. It probably helped that Tuesdays and Thursdays are the days the students have P.E. in the morning, followed immediately by Fine Arts (currently music). That means that the students aren’t really in the classroom until 9:30 am, which left just two hours of the morning.

So, what did my students do in class while I was gone? They practiced multiplication of multi-digit whole numbers by a single-digit number, they had a morning recess. and they had a class discussion about force, motion, emphasising pushing, pulling, gravity, and friction. In other words, a very typical Tuesday.

All in all, I’m glad that my “Oh, by the way, I’m going to be gone tomorrow” conversation that I forgot to have with students turned out to be not such a big deal. I have three more half-day absences with this same teacher substituting for me, so I am hopeful that each subsequent absence will be even better!

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.

Adjusting to a Substitute

This has been an odd year for me in terms of time away from the classroom. For the past four years, I have been on various committees and inquiry groups and task forces that have met during school hours that I have had at least one full-day or half-day absence a month throughout the year. That changed this year when my district’s administration made the decision to move most of the meetings to after-school hours, cut back on the frequency of said meetings, and the inquiry group I had been a part of was disbanded when funding requirements changed. As a result, I have had very few absences, other than my once-a-week special education collaboration meeting and my once-every-three weeks Response to Intervention meeting. In fact, I have had two sick days and one personal day for the entire year.

As a result of all of this, my class has not had to adjust to substitute teachers very often. Even with our fine arts/library schedule, those teachers have not been gone very often, either, and so the students have gotten very comfortable with the same teachers being there all day every day.

That changed this week. Our dance teacher has been with the fifth grade students at the Krannert Art Museum as part of their Week at the Museum (KAM-WAM) integrated arts project. The students go to the library each Monday so this was the third day with a substitute teacher for dance. The first day was a bit rocky. Some students had to be removed from the class and others had to be moved away from peers. I remember talking to the substitute about it (a retired teacher from our district) and he expressed concerns about what the rest of the week would be like.

Yesterday was totally different, though. I went to pick them up and they were quietly working on their assignment. They lined up and he said, “So, should I brag on you to your teacher?” The students cheered and he told me how great it had gone. (At least one student who had been sent out of the room the day before I approached him at the start, apologised for his previous behaviour, and promised to do better. And he did!)

Today was a repeat of yesterday. I was so happy! The students seemed to have all adjusted to the fact that they were going to have a different teacher for dance this week, they were okay with him being different from the teacher they were used to, and they realised that the expectations were still the same. Tomorrow will be their last day with a sub and I am fully expecting it to be another awesome day. I am looking forward to reporting to their regular dance teacher that they really pulled it all together and had a fantastic week!

This also makes me more comfortable with a few upcoming absences. I am confident that my students will be able to handle themselves responsibly, treat the substitute respectfully, and accomplish all the things that they will be asked to do.

How do you adjust for changes in your regular schedule?

Illinois JAC 2015 – Day One

Today was the first time this academic year that I was gone for the entire day. I am actually surprised that I made it all the way to the middle/end of November without an absence, but I guess that many of the district committees and task forces and professional groups I have been a part of for four years have stopped having meetings that lasted either an entire day or a half day.

To prepare my students for my absence, I told them that it was going to be happening all this week then we spent about half an hour yesterday discussing the students’ responsibilities when a substitute teacher is there, as well as the substitute teacher’s responsibilities. I shared with students what the day should be like for them, going over the schedule and making sure they knew what I expected of them. And, of course, I left detailed plans for my substitute, since I still remember well the terror I experienced when I worked as a substitute and walked into a classroom where there were no plans left for me. (Sorry, Urbana teachers; I don’t remember the name of the teacher I was subbing for that day.)

It is now almost 10 pm on Friday night and I didn’t get any phone calls, text messages, or emails about my class, so I am hoping that it means that my students made it through the day without duct-taping the substitute to the wall or setting the room on fire.

So, what took me away from my classroom today? It was the first day of the 83rd Joint Annual Conference of the Illinois Association of School Boards, the Illinois Association of School Administrators, and the the Illinois Association of School Business Officers (often called the Triple I Conference or the Illinois Joint Annual Conference, abbreviated on Twitter as ILjac15 because JACIASBIASAIASBO2015 is a bit over the top). This was my third year attending as a guest of Washington Grade School District 52, where my mother is in her 15th year on the school board. (Of course, since I am in an educational administration program, my hope is that one day I will attend as a member of the IASA and/or as a representative of my own school district!)

Due to traffic and other delays, I wasn’t able to make it to some of the early panel sessions held today, but I did get to hear the first general session speaker, DeDe Murcer Moffett, who spoke passionately about the need to have people in your life who help you snap out of it when you start wallowing in doubt or regret, push you forward, and encourage you to succeed. She calls these people your snappers and pushers and it got me wondering who my snappers and pushers are. I thought about my amazing colleagues in my building and my district and the support that we offer each other. I thought about the fantastic teachers I had in my own educational career and the equally fantastic teachers that I have the privilege of working with in my building and my district. Then I thought about whether or not I am a snapper and a pusher in my role in my school as a teacher, a technology specialist, a union representative, and a member of the building leadership team. I’d like to think that I am.

It was a great way to kick off a conference that I look forward to attending each year! (I also ran into my district deputy superintendent and got to chat a few minutes about the awesome recognition that the district received for the Urbana Early Childhood Center. And somehow managed to forget to introduce my wife. Oops. Sorry!) I’m definitely looking forward to tomorrow’s sessions on family and community engagement, technology, wellness, and student-led conferences!

Student Guest Post 4: Why We Love Mr. Valencic

This is the fourth guest post written by students. I have a feeling that these particular students were trying to flatter me. I appreciate the compliments, even if it is a bit difficult to follow.

Mr. Valencic  is nice and sweet.   And he love us no matter what. on Thursday  Mr.Valencic  had to o to a meeting and we had a sub for when we were in 3rd grade  and he is so nice and we were doing math. And he was so cool  Because he let a kid  teach because he was talking to his friends and he was so nice that what he does in 3rd grade. Now we are in mr .V class and he  is coolest because he is a movie star and he came 1st place and he is a nice teacher because he is a  movie star forever. And he is a super hero of teaching. and he the loves kids and teachers.

As always, I did not make any changes to what they wrote. I think what I am going to start doing is having the class edit the post for mechanics (not style) on the following Monday.

Have a wonderful weekend!

New (Temporary) Principal

Our building principal has been involved in education for a long time. She’s done just about everything there is to do. She’s been the principal of our building for about six years now, I believe. She has been a constant presence in our building since I started here and I think our entire school community has grown accustomed to her way of doing this. Unfortunately, she has had to take a leave of absence to attend to personal family matters. This is going to be a tough transition for our school family, but we all want to support our principal in doing what is best for her family at this time.

In the interval, we will have a substitute principal who has worked in Urbana and Champaign schools in the past and was actually here at Wiley back in December for about a week. I am grateful to have someone in the building who is familiar with our school and our community helping out as we enter the last quarter of the year! I am also glad that our district superintendent has made a commitment to support our entire school community during this time.

Change can be challenging, especially when it comes without warning. But we are strong and we will do what we always do: take it, roll with it, and continue onward.

But there are some things that I know won’t change:

  • The students aren’t going to give up on their challenge to complete 1,000,000 math problems by the end of May so that I can finally get my hair cut again! (Yep, we are doing another challenge to shave Mr. Valencic’s head!)
  • The students aren’t going to give up on their goal to earn the colours needed for our second annual Wiley Colour Run at the end of the year!
  • The teachers and students are still going to prepare for an amazing kickball game!
  • Students and teachers are still going to work together, learn together, and grow together.

It is going to be a good nine weeks. Happy Spring!