Chaos in the Classroom, 3 Quick Tips for Pre-K through 3rd Grade Classroom Management for a Substitute Teacher

Have you ever walked into a classroom and found 20 kids running, jumping and dancing around while yelling and talking as loudly as they can?  Ha! I have!  This was my experience last Friday with my Substitute Teaching job.

I haven’t subbed much, maybe a total of 6 times, this was my 7th, and it was mayhem.  I am not a teacher by trade, I am a biologist, so teaching was never really in my wheelhouse. But after raising two kids, for some reason I thought I could handle substitute teaching.

In my own house I can take away a kindle or iPad when my kids are acting out, but in a classroom full of kids that I don’t know, discipline is not so easily carried out, especially when I don’t even know most of their names.  So here are a few ways I have found to keep control of a classroom while substitute teaching.  These are tips I have read about on other sites and tried out in the grades I have taught, Pre-K through 3rd.

Tip 1:  Take control of the classroom.

Yeah, that is a lot easier to write than it is to actually implement.  I have read this on every blog about classroom management, “kids can smell weakness from a mile away”.  I believe this is true depending on the grade you are subbing for.  When I subbed my one and only time for 3rd grade, the kids literally walked in, looked at me and said, “yeah, she’s nice.”  They already had me pegged.

In the school where I was subbing, the third grade classes rotate teachers, so I only had each group of kids for about an hour and a half.  The first group of kids were the ones that pegged me right away.  I was doomed before I even began.  They were the ones dancing, jumping and singing all around the classroom.  Calming them down was virtually impossible, so the hour was quite challenging.  We made it through the work the teacher had assigned, but it was not easy to get them to work independently.  So instead we went through all the work as a class with me reading most of the articles and answering questions for them.  Not a good start to the day.

When the second class entered, I was not standing near the door.  I was out in the hallway speaking with a teacher down the hall.  When I entered the classroom, all of the kids were sitting on the rug, huh?  This was totally different than the first group.  I asked what they were doing and they explained that they did this every Friday.  They sat on the rug and took turns talking about what they were going to do in the coming weekend.  Gee!  Interesting how the first class forgot to mention this!

But I wasn’t so lucky as to have them all remain peaceful and perfect for the whole block, especially after the fact that they had a substitute sank in.  As we went around letting kids talk one by one, other kids started talking out of turn, laying down on the carpet, not listening to the person who was speaking.  At one point there were three girls laying on the carpet giggling and whispering through one of the children’s presentation of what they would be doing over their weekend.  I walked into the middle of the carpet, bent down to look directly at the girls and told them they each needed to find a separate corner of carpet to sit on and pay attention because they were being rude to their other classmates.  After that, things went remarkably smoothly.  But I didn’t understand why yet.

Then the third group came in.  They were just like the first, running around, yelling, roughhousing.  So it was another long block.  But at the end of the day, here is what I learned about control in the classroom.

First… at first glance, every child that sees you in their teacher’s chair will view you as weak and immediately start taking advantage and celebrating that the teacher is not there that day.  So instead of waiting for the kids to enter and see you, instead, let them all enter as they normally would without you there.  Wait down the hall so they don’t see you.  More than likely they will do what they are supposed to do, put their books away, turn in any papers, and sit in their seats because they think their teacher is coming in shortly to start the class.  This will at least start the class off better than them celebrating that they have a substitute. This also gives you the element of surprise and the chance to make and entrance.  Walk in with all the confidence in the world and state who you are and what you expect of them up front.  I believe this is why the second block went so much better than the 1st and 3rd blocks.

Second… find some way to SHOW them you are in control.  I once met an older man who subbed and told me that when he entered a classroom he walked in after all the kids were already there and slammed the door as hard as he could so the kids knew he was in charge and expected their attention.  Now, I can see possibly doing that with older kids, which is who he subbed for, but with little kids this would probably be excessive.  What I realized I did in the second block is a nicer way of gaining the students attention.  I made a show of my dominance and confidence by splitting up the girls who were talking and giggling in the second block.  What I did was not big or showy or mean, but it was enough for the kids in the class to realize that I would not put up with them acting up and that there would be consequences for their actions.  As a matter of fact, in that particular class, the students worked quietly in pairs, reading and answering questions on their own, without me guiding them through the lesson.  The other two classes expected me to do the work for them, so I believe the second group of kids understood that they were to act respectfully and as if their normal teacher was there due to the fact that I was in control of that class…not them.  The other two classes, not so much.  But now I know what to do next time.

Hopefully you can find a way to show the class you are subbing for that you are in control by finding a way to enter the room with confidence after the kids are already settled into their seats.  This helps display yourself as a person of power in the classroom.  Also, simply correcting a problem early on (and in front of the class) before you lose control will help the students realize you are the one in charge and you expect them to behave or there will be consequences.

Tip 2:  Do NOT lose your temper.

Again, this is much easier to write than it is to carry out in a classroom of 20 or so kids that are celebrating the day without their teacher.  I have never lost my temper in a classroom.  I have, however, lost my temper with a group of kids while on a field trip for my daughter’s class.  That experience was how I learned to never lose my temper in a classroom.

We were visiting the local Nature Center so the kids could learn about scientific procedure.  As a chaperone, I had a group of 8 fifth graders with me and we were to follow a volunteer guide through the woods.  This guide was quite young and mild mannered.  She knew all about scientific procedure, but since she was quiet and reserved, she had a hard time keeping the attention of the kids in the group.

To preface this situation, all of the chaperones were given instructions before our outings in the woods.  We were told that in order for this to be a success, the kids needed to pay attention.  They asked that the parent chaperones use any methods that we would use with our own children to keep order and keep the kids on task.

Ha!  Don’t ever listen to someone who says this because as a mom and in hindsight, I know that I treat my kids differently than I would ever treat someone else’s kids.  The outing with the guide was just like my subbing classes.  Out of control and nobody listening because we were not with their teacher and not sitting behind a desk.  It was like they had never been out of the classroom before so they were going to get the most out of their time of freedom.  The boys were running and roughhousing with each other.  The girls were whispering and giggling together.  Nobody was listening to our guide.  I continually tried to refocus them and get them to pay attention.  Heck, I wanted to hear what the guide was saying myself, but that wasn’t happening because there was complete chaos.  So, I did what I never should have done but what I would have done with my own kids.  I lost my temper.  And when I did, I lost the respect of the kids in my group.

I yelled at them all, “I AM PRETTY SURE THAT I CANNOT HEAR WHAT OUR GUIDE IS SAYING AND IF I CANNOT HEAR WHAT SHE IS SAYING IT MEANS THAT EVERYONE IS BEING TOO LOUD!  NOW WE ARE HERE TO LEARN, SO YOU ALL NEED TO STOP MESSING AROUND AND LISTEN!!”  After that, all of the kids looked at me warily (except my daughter of course, she was very on task after that).  It was like they were just waiting for me to lose it again.  I started thinking, gosh, I wonder if I traumatized some of these kids.  I wonder if they come from abusive homes or possibly they have NEVER had anyone yell at them before and don’t know how to handle it.  Let me just say, losing my temper was probably the single worst thing I could have done in that situation.  The kids in that group will never view me the same way, and the person they see now is not the person I want them to see when they look at me.

I lost my temper with 8 kids in a small group and the guilt I felt was immense.  I can’t imagine losing my temper with a full classroom and the kinds of looks I would get after that.  Not to mention, I am sure the kids talk to their teachers about what kind of substitute you are.  If you want to continue subbing for the school and teachers you currently work for, you must conduct yourself professionally and calmly.  I have always believed that if you treat others with respect and compassion, they will treat you with the same.  This is no different with kids.  In a classroom full of kids that you are subbing for one day at a time, this respect and compassion may not happen right away.  But, if you are subbing in the same school and classrooms frequently, you will begin to earn their respect.  Be patient, be calm, and move on from the things that try to send you over the edge.

Tip 3:  Have a “go to” kid.

Not every classroom is full of heathens.  Most of the kids in these classes you will find are quite well behaved.  They know the rules, and better yet, can help you when you need it.  In all of the classes I have subbed for, there has been at least one or two kids that were recommended to me either by the teacher themselves or by another teacher in the same grade.  These kids were a huge help.  Write their names down and use them as your “go to” when you have questions about how things are done in the classroom.

That does not mean that in front of the whole class you start asking this student questions about the lesson plan, because if you do, you will lose the respect of the rest of the class.  Instead, call that student up to the desk or out into the hall for a few minutes for a private conversation.  Point blank tell them that the teacher named them as a good person to ask about how things are run in the classroom so that the day goes a bit more smoothly.  These children can be sparkling gems in your day of chaotic muck since they know everything about the class from having to be there everyday.   They know the discipline methods, the routine for the day, what time you go to different classes for specials or different subjects (this depends on the grade).  I had one little boy in my kindergarten class that walked a little girl down to the nurse’s office for me because she had never been there and didn’t know where to go.  I have had kids that are able to help me with the technology in the classroom which I am fairly good at, but there are times that a teacher will use a program that I am not familiar with so I will ask my “go to” kids for help.  Utilize the “go to” kids as much as possible, they can be your greatest ally.

I hope these three tips are something you can use to help make your substituting days less chaotic!  For me, these are the three things that I have found right away that help me with classroom management, but I know there are many more ideas out there that I can’t wait to try.  I will post more tips that have or have not helped me in my undertaking of Substitute Teaching as I try them out in the classrooms.  Until next time!  Be Patient. Be Calm. Move On.

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