The Reluctant Reader and the Substitute Teacher

A reader asks:

Dear Dr. Ellie,

I recently started substitute teaching on all levels, from high school down to elementary, including special ed. My first gig, shortly after the start of the school year, was a 2nd grade class (so basically it was a terminal 1st grade class still gearing up). Most of the kids really impressed me, but there was one little fella that seemed bound and determined to be a behavior problem right from the get-go. He wouldn’t listen to instructions, wouldn’t sit still, and was basically constantly causing a disturbance. He obviously wasn’t dumb, because some of the ploys he came up with would make a high-schooler proud. Also, when it came to art, his ability to concentrate was obvious. But when it came to reading time, it became apparent that he was very much behind the others, and it obviously frustrated him, made it difficult to progress in other areas, and affected his self-esteem in negative ways.

Like I said, I was a substitute, and new at it at that. But it was obvious even to me that he needs help. Given my limited perspective, I suppose it’s possible that the regular teacher can, and is, providing it. Or someone else is. But there was no indication of either the day I was there.

So here’s the question: should I have tried to bring my observations to someone else? Another teacher perhaps? Or the principal? In the end I decided it would have been too presumptuous of me under the circumstances. But I still think about it.

The Conflicted Docent

Dear Conflicted,First, I want to congratulate you on being the first person to post a question. Thank you.

Now for an answer:

Do not beat yourself up. This was a delicate situation: you wanted to help the child; and you wanted to be asked back to this school. In these times of teacher scrutiny and the given state’s “The Test,” you don’t want to cross the regular teacher. It was OK to say nothing.
This type of situation will surely occur again. Next time, I would leave the teacher a private note on top of his/her desk asking about the particular student, and suggesting that a note be added to the substitute folder (or lesson plan book, or whatever the school uses to provide classroom information to substitutes) with tips for managing the student during reading. This way, if the teacher has not noticed the child’s problem (early in the school year this may be the case), you have let him/her know that there isa problem; also, you have left a great suggestion regarding substitutes without involving administration.For future reference:

Here are some tips for involving reluctant students in reading lessons (or literature lessons at the secondary level).
If the activity is to read silently and discuss afterwards, as a substitute I would ignore the “silently” and ask students to volunteer to read a few paragraphs at a time aloud. Tell the other readers to follow along. This way, the student can follow along without calling attention to him/herself. Announcing voluntary reading takes the pressure off of poorer readers and includes them in any discussion activity that follows. Make sure to let the note your modification in your daily report to the teacher. (At the secondary level, if the activity involves discussion of a passage assigned for homework, have a few students summarize the selection.)If a reading activity includes a list of names to call on for out-loud reading, ask for volunteers anyway. Your purpose is to advance the learning program, not put it on hold. Behavior problems will weaken goal attainment by setting the class a day behind.

“Teacher’s Bag of Tricks” and Classroom Management
Kids love to take advantage of a substitute, although students through third grade naturally tend to be kind to them. From fourth grade on, kids progressively become more interested in tricking the substitute. Thus, at all levels teachers need to make it clear to their classes that harassing a replacement will not be tolerated and will affect grades and/or result in detention.
The substitute teacher should also let students know misbehavior will be reported to the regular teacher and/or school principal. Then follow through, as appropriate. You are not there to be the students’ friend; you have an obligation to your employer. Don’t be mean–just be assertive.
My pre-service teachers had to develop a “teacher’s bag of tricks,” especially if they were/would be substitute teaching. This is a physical tote bag or backpack into which items are placed to make a substitute’s day easier, or a regular teacher’s “bad hair day” go more smoothly. Into this bag go a book of short stories (the scarier/weirder the better), one or more DVDs of PG-rated movies with school-related themes (throw in a VHS tape or two, just in case), index cards listing “emergency” learning activities color-coded by subject or age group, props to enrich stories or stimulate discussion, and any fun creative teaching activities you know. As you gain experience, you will remove from this bag and add to it. The idea is to maintain both an interest in learning and a semblance of order in naturally chaotic situations.
Hopefully, I have helped alleviate your conscience and provided useful information for future episodes. Best wishes for successful substitute teaching!!

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