Common Ground: There’s no substitute for experience

About a year ago, I wrote about my experience as a “very green” substitute teacher.

In that column, I recalled the second-grade student who called me “that nice lady,” and the ecstatic expressions among her classmates who figured that they could pull my leg and twist my arm.

I would be swarmed by students, tapping my arms and my back, begging me to let them lead the line, pass out the spelling worksheets, go to the bathroom or pull the conduct clips for the “kids who act up.”

I caved every time.

Instead of enlisting one or two helpers, I amassed about a dozen do-gooders who wanted to show me how to run the classroom.

“Mrs. Chante, you’re supposed to do spelling first,” one told me.

“Nah um,” said another. “That’s not right. We always go to reading centers first.”

Other young voices added their opinions about what they thought they needed to be done.

A teacher peeked into the room and told the students to sit, listen and get quiet.

That seven-hour schoolday seemed to last an eternity.

The children talked over my lessons, and everyone had to make an emergency trip to the bathroom. “But, I can’t hold it,” they’d tell me. I believed each and every one them.

But things have changed this school year.

Thanks to the time I’ve spent observing teachers, seeking advice for handling a classroom and tutoring children, I’m a much more firm substitute who can give directives and keep a classroom busy, on-task and fairly quiet.

Students no longer argue to be the teacher’s pet for the day because I give them the rules in the morning before class starts.

When students run to me, begging for a chance to lead the line or pass out the papers, I tell the them to sit quietly.

“Only the children who are quiet, who listen, who are respectful and who sit in their seats get privileges,” I tell them.

When students ask to go to the bathroom, I ask them if they are willing to give up five minutes of their recess in return. Their answers usually let me know if they are serious or not.

I watched other teachers use these tried-and true-strategies to gain control of their classrooms — a challenging task. Now teaching the lessons for the day is no longer jeopardized by their behavior and conduct.

Throughout class, however, my biggest distraction is usually the pencil sharpener bolted to the wall. It seems to draw students like the roller coaster in an amusement park.

But I’ve wised up. Now I sharpen the pencils myself.

Substitute teaching is not easy, but by using a few basic classroom strategies — firmness and persistence — it’s possible to make managing a classroom a more pleasant experience.

Chante Dionne Warren is a freelance writer. She can be reached at