Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Substitute Teaching

I have had my first experience substitute teaching, and it was ... challenging. I felt like the class make-up was similar to my own—there's the class clown, the ones who don't really think they need to be there, and the majority of the class is ready to listen and learn. And yet ... just 3 or 4 disruptive students is all it takes to ruin a class, I've learned.

No matter that discipline isn't an issue in my class. This wasn't my class, and the minority was determined not to listen to me. One student kept texting on his cell phone, two others wouldn't stop talking, another kept in his headphones so he could listen to his MP3 player (loud enough that I could hear it) through the entire lecture. I had to ask one student to close out of Facebook during an in-class, graded essay. Twice.

I treated them as if they were my class in that I didn't accept any of that crap. In retrospect, it might have been easier if I had left alone the ones who were not disrupting the class, but only their own education. Instead, I put my foot down about all non-class activities and took a stand.

The first two days did not go very well. Lots of time wasted on arguing with recalcitrant students and not nearly enough time actually spent on lessons. The night before the third class, my stomach was tied in knots. Should I keep up my strict policy? Should I back down and just try to make it through the last two classes? What if the regular professor never came back from jury duty?!?

After talking it over with some other professors and family, I decided to stick to my guns. I would keep the same policies, but with definitive repercussions for breaking any rules. The first instance would get a warning and point deduction. The second instance, a student would be asked to leave class (or escorted out by Public Safety, if necessary). My goal was to spend as little time on discipline as possible, and focus on actually teaching.

I tossed and turned all night. The next morning, when I wrote the old rules/new consequences on the board before class started, my hands were shaking a bit. I figured it would all turn out fine .... or go terribly wrong. And I had absolutely no idea which. I turned from writing on the board and began the lesson a few minutes later without ever discussing what I had written.

And it was fine. The last two days, it felt like I was in charge of the class. We did focus on the lesson and not on arguments about cell phones and headphones.

I still don't know if I made the right decisions the entire time. Maybe I should have been more lax from the beginning and only focused on the students who wanted to learn, disciplining just when the entire class was disrupted .... I'm sure there's many things, both small and large, that I could have done differently. But in the end, I think it turned out to be a good experience.

Wednesday night, after my in-class success, I got an email from the regular professor, urging me to call his cell phone ASAP. My heart sank. Was he on a jury and wouldn't be coming back until Thanksgiving?!? I swallowed hard and dialed.

Actually, he was just calling to say that he had been released early from jury duty, and could take the Thursday class if I wanted him to. I smiled and declined his offer; I wanted to finish out the week, as intended. I was happy, however, to inform his class at the end of Thursday's class that he would be back next week, so this class was my last with them. I wished them all well, and suggested that I might see a few of them in my own class next semester.

I think that could be the most telling measure of my success— if any of those students choose to sign up for my class next semester, then I think I will have been truly successful in my substitute teaching. But even if they don't, I made it through with my dignity (mostly) intact. That is also a measure of success, in my book!


Jonathan said...

If only some students realised that teachers are real people too, schools would be much happier places for that small minority.

Of course we all know too that kids can be cruel little *!?!?"'s too...

Jennifer said...

When I first started reading your post, my initial reaction was just to tell the students to leave the classroom. I think you made the right call. And if the students actually followed the guidelines you wrote on the board, sounds like you were a success. :)

M. Lubbers said...

Jonathan: A student asked me the other day why I come to class and I said, "For the paycheck!" Half joking, half serious. And he got all offended, because professors are supposed to have noble goals, while students do everything they can to get out of work and skip class ... some students, anyway. Is it wrong to work because I need the money?!?

Jen: I think it did turn out okay, after all. If I go the rest of the semester without substituting, though, I'll be happy with that!