Yesterday I volunteered to be a substitute teacher in a local private school.  After a snowstorm grounded me at home, and a seventh-grade teacher had an unfortunate injury, I found myself in front of 25 energetic middle school students.

The day reminded and taught me a lot about how I teach and also prompted me to think about some ways schools can make it easier for substitute teachers.

Here are a few of my thoughts.

What Schools Can do to Set Up Substitute Teachers For Success

Go Out Of Your Way to Support Your Substitute Teacher For Success.  A few minutes after I got to my classroom, the school principal visited me, welcomed me to the school, and took the time to just chat about the students I’d be seeing.  She had a million fires to put out—the school was in real need of more substitutes—but she took the time to put me at ease.

That little gesture was worth a lot. She made me feel good about being in the school, welcome, and I started the day a little more at ease.

Then, throughout the day, even though I was in a portable away from the school, other teachers sought me out to provide support. One teacher made sure I found the staff lounge. One teacher had a nice conversation with me over lunch about teaching English.

One teacher offered to teach math for me on his planning time when I told him I wasn’t great at math. I told him I’d be OK and he should use the little planning time he had, yet still, he kindly made a point of dropping by just to make sure I was fine.

Each of these actions were simple little acts, but each one made me feel welcome, and as any substitute teacher can tell you, it can feel lonely in the classroom even though there all those squirming bodies in front of you.

Provide As Much Information As You Can.  This is probably a dream, and it would have been impossible in my case since I didn’t volunteer until after the school day yesterday, but I would have loved to have had an email the night before class that described what I would be teaching. Then, I could have done some planning ahead of time.  Better plans = better teaching, and the more I know, the better prepared I can be.

Provide Guidelines on Different Kinds of Learning Experiences.  Sixth period I monitored a students’ study hour.  I’m pretty sure that meant the students were supposed to do their homework, but many told me they didn’t have homework, and that left me a bit high and dry.  Students in middle school with nothing to do can be a problem waiting to happen.  I came up with a plan, but it would have helped to have had a description of what study hour is and what students need to be doing when they don’t have homework to do. As always, the more that can be done to help the sub know what to do, the easier subbing might be.

What I Learned About Being A Substitute Teacher

Relationships Are Essential.  Most of the time, my students kindly and respectfully did what I asked them to do.  Part of the reason, I think, is that I did my best to quickly build a relationship with them. I particularly paid attention to positive ratio of interaction, but one simple strategy seemed to work wonders.  I asked all the students to write their names on name tents, and I called on them by name, right from the start. When students heard their name, they sat up and smiled.

I worked hard to memorize their names, and when they quizzed me in the cafeteria and I knew, I could see it made them happy.  It’s a little thing, but using name tents might have been the best idea I had.  I actually think the students were more inclined to stay on task because of this little strategy.

Be Extremely Clear About How Students Give Each Other Feedback. In one class, the students gave little presentations.  I asked them to give each other “thunderous applause,” but for one student, the joker of the class, they offered up paltry applause, kind of joking back at him.  He was a resilient kid, but I could see he was a little crushed by his colleagues. I was disappointed with myself.

I should have been really clear on what applause looks like, modeled it, explained that everyone gets a lot of applause and why, and had the students practice it.  Like so much of teaching, I didn’t realize my mistake until it was too late, but I hope I’ll remember next time.

Compelling Content and Activities Are Crucial.  I could feel myself losing the class right in the first few minutes, and I knew I had to catch their attention, so I pulled out an old trick of mine, memory pegs, which are a lot of fun and also, I think, useful.  The kids enjoyed learning how to do something they didn’t think they could do, and they were a lot more engaged from that point on.  What I learned was that from now on I’ll always have a few highly engaging, simple activities up my sleeve just in case I need to get the kids’ attention, which I probably will have to do every time.

It’s Harder Than It Looks.  Policy makers who think teachers will be “motivated” by rewards for higher test scores should spend a couple days subbing.  Something like a small financial reward would be the last thing on the mind of a teacher standing in front of 25 (or 40) middle school students.  A more basic concern is survival.  Substitute teaching is a bit like riding a wild animal. You just do everything you can think of to stay on top. Teachers need better support, like instructional coaches and meaningful opportunities for collaboration, not old-time carrots and sticks forms of motivation.

All in all, my day was wonderful.  The school could not have been more supportive. And, as usually is the case in schools, the students were the best part. At the start of the day, hoping to set a positive tone, I asked the students to write down what they like most about learning.  One student wrote this:

 “Knowledge leads to wisdom; wisdom leads to understanding, and I love to understand things. I want to be wise and have some answers.”

Profound words for anyone, let alone a young teenager.  Don’t we all want what he or she wanted—to have some wisdom and some answers?  I hope I gained a bit of knowledge yesterday.  Many of you who read this column may have started as substitute teachers.  What helped you, or could have helped you, succeed? What did you learn?  We’d love to hear.