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Overcoming the Substitute Teacher Effect: Proactive Strategies for Improving Classroom Management and Student Behavior

October 18, 2023   •   Insights

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Substitute teaching can be a challenging yet rewarding experience. However, one common obstacle that substitute teachers often encounter is known as the "Substitute Teacher Effect." This phenomenon refers to the tendency of students to behave more poorly when a substitute teacher is leading the class. Students may take the opportunity to misbehave, play pranks, tune out, or otherwise create headaches for the person who is temporarily responsible for their learning. The Substitute Teacher Effect can present significant challenges, particularly in terms of classroom management.

Why does this occur? We asked several middle- and high-school students for their honest input. Students indicated that the presence of a sub makes them feel freer to push the envelope and act out. They also shared that the disruption to the regular routine can be both unsettling and exciting. The greater the lack of clarity, expectations, and confidence on the part of the sub, the more inclined students are to resort to disruptive behavior to test boundaries or seek clarification. Peer pressure also plays a role. 

Students expressed sentiments such as: “There aren’t any real consequences if we cause trouble or ignore the sub’s directions. The sub doesn’t have real authority over us,” “The sub didn’t know what they were doing. We didn’t even learn anything,” and “There’s a pretty common agreement among all the kids that we’re going to have some fun harassing any substitute who shows up. It’s almost like a tradition at our school.” 

These insights, however cringe-worthy, may help shed light on how best to alleviate the Substitute Teacher Effect. By understanding what drives some students to behave poorly when a sub is in charge, we can address the root of the problem. 

Here are some proactive strategies for substitutes, along with ways in which full-time teachers and school leaders can work to support them—resulting in a more harmonious and productive learning environment for all. 

Advice for Substitutes to Combat the Substitute Teacher Effect

Establish Clear Expectations:

One of the keys to successful classroom management is setting clear expectations from the start. Before the regular teacher's absence, collaborate with them to gain insight into the classroom rules and routines. (This may not be possible in all cases, but substitutes who return to the same school repeatedly can begin to build familiarity with certain teachers and their routines, which can help.) When you enter the classroom, explain your role as a temporary instructor and emphasize the importance of maintaining respect and cooperation. Establishing clear guidelines creates a framework that can help curb disruptive behavior.

Be Prepared:

Arrive early to familiarize yourself with the lesson plans, materials, and classroom layout. If possible, review the subject matter and anticipate potential challenges. This proactive approach will enhance your confidence and allow you to deliver a structured and engaging lesson. Students who see your preparedness are more likely to respond positively and view you as a capable authority figure.

Build Rapport and Engage with Students:

Developing a positive rapport with students is fundamental to effective classroom management. Take the time to learn students’ names, show genuine interest in their thoughts and opinions, and actively engage with them during class discussions. By establishing a connection with students, you foster a sense of trust and mutual respect. This, in turn, reduces the likelihood of disruptive behavior, as students are more likely to comply with instructions from someone they trust.

Utilize Positive Reinforcement:

Positive reinforcement is a powerful tool in shaping behavior. Acknowledge and praise students for their efforts, participation, and achievements. By focusing on the positive aspects of their behavior, you create a supportive and encouraging atmosphere. Encourage self-discipline and motivate students to strive for their best. Celebrate successes and provide constructive feedback when necessary. Seek out classroom leaders who are responsive and polite, and encourage them to use their leadership skills to influence the rest of the class. When students feel appreciated and valued, they are more likely to exhibit positive behavior and engage in the learning process.

Implement Active Learning Strategies:

Incorporate interactive and hands-on learning activities to maintain student engagement and minimize problematic behavior. Active learning strategies such as group discussions, debates, role play, and collaborative projects encourage student involvement and make the classroom experience more enjoyable. By actively participating in the learning process, students are less likely to become disengaged or misbehave. Furthermore, these strategies promote critical thinking, problem-solving, and a sense of ownership.

Consistency and Firmness:

While building rapport and using positive reinforcement is essential, establishing and maintaining firm boundaries is equally important. Consistency in enforcing classroom rules and consequences is crucial to curbing disruptive behavior. Clearly communicate the consequences of misbehavior and follow through on any disciplinary actions when necessary. When students recognize that you are consistent and fair in your approach, they are more likely to respect your authority and adhere to the established rules.

Seek Support and Collaboration:

Substitute teaching can be a demanding job, and it's important to recognize that you don't have to face these challenges alone. Seek support from other teachers, administrators, or fellow substitutes. Share your experiences, ask for advice, and learn from the collective wisdom of your colleagues. Collaboration and professional development opportunities can enhance your skills and provide valuable insights into effective classroom management techniques.

Advice for Full-Time Teachers and School Leaders to Combat the Substitute Teacher Effect

Full-time classroom teachers and school leaders also play a crucial role in reducing the Substitute Teacher Effect. Here are some valuable pieces of advice:

Foster a Positive Classroom Culture:

Full-time classroom teachers should focus on cultivating a positive and inclusive classroom culture throughout the school year. By creating an environment that values respect, collaboration, and empathy, students are more likely to uphold these principles even in the absence of their regular teacher. Emphasize the importance of treating substitute teachers with the same respect they show to their full-time teachers.

Prepare Students for Absences:

Proactively prepare students for the possibility of teacher absences. Educate them about the purpose and importance of substitute teachers, emphasizing that they are there to continue the learning process. Regularly discuss and reinforce expectations for behavior and engagement during substitute-led classes. This will help students understand their responsibilities and minimize any disruptions.

Provide Detailed Lesson Plans:

When teachers know in advance about an upcoming absence, they should provide detailed and comprehensive lesson plans for the substitute teacher. Clear instructions, including objectives, materials, and suggested strategies, will enable the substitute to deliver a structured and meaningful lesson. Well-structured lessons are less likely to lead to classroom disruptions, as students will have a clear focus and purpose.

Share Classroom Management Strategies:

Full-time teachers should freely share classroom management strategies and techniques that are effective in their classrooms with substitute teachers. By providing insights into the routines, rules, and strategies that work best with specific groups of students, full-time teachers can empower substitutes to establish a positive and productive learning environment. Collaboration between full-time and substitute teachers can be invaluable in maintaining consistency and reducing disruptions.

Encourage Communication:

Full-time teachers and school leaders should foster open lines of communication with substitute teachers. Encourage substitute teachers to provide feedback about their experiences and challenges in managing the classroom. Full-time teachers can offer support and guidance based on their knowledge of the students and the classroom dynamics. This feedback loop allows for continuous improvement and a collaborative approach to address the Substitute Teacher Effect.

Provide Professional Development:

School leaders should consider offering professional development opportunities specifically tailored for substitute teachers. These sessions can focus on effective classroom management strategies, building positive relationships with students, and navigating challenges unique to substitute teaching. By investing in the professional growth of substitute teachers, schools can enhance the overall quality of instruction during absences and minimize disruptive behavior.

Recognize and Appreciate Substitute Teachers:

Full-time teachers and school leaders should acknowledge and appreciate the contributions of substitute teachers. Recognize their essential role in maintaining continuity of learning when teachers are absent. Celebrate their successes and publicly acknowledge their efforts in creating a positive classroom environment. Substitute teachers are more likely to establish a positive rapport with students, reducing disruptive behavior when they feel valued and supported.

The phenomenon of the Substitute Teacher Effect is not new, and it is unlikely to vanish overnight. These strategies won’t work perfectly in all situations and may not deter every student. But by implementing these practices and collaborating effectively, full-time teachers, school leaders, and substitutes can go a long way toward reducing the Substitute Teacher Effect and creating a supportive and inclusive school culture where substitute teachers are respected and valued.

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Want more insights into how best to approach substitute management, attract more substitutes, and create more sustainable school environments? Download our guide, Combating the Substitute Teacher Shortage with Strategic Substitute Management, and keep your eyes on our blog for more articles and resources!

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