“It’s kind of hard here, isn’t? You have to figure out a lot on your own, don’t you?” The other sub was older than me, in her forties at least, but she was looking to me for advice. She’s right; we subs aren’t given much guidance, but I hadn’t really thought about it until she started asking her questions. I know how to manage a classroom, even if I don’t know the particulars of school policies, so I just do what comes naturally. And between all the moving, subbing, and starting over, I’ve had a lot of practice at making a good first impression on a room full of teenagers.
I connect well with my students. It’s probably my biggest strength in the classroom and a trait that has carried me well over the years. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve walked into a new class for the first time, either as a sub or as a long-term teacher. While I’ve never really had the opportunity to see if I have staying power beyond one year, I do know that I can make a good first impression.
So in the spirit of the Weekly Writing Challenge, this advice goes out to my fellow substitutes, or to anyone else who may need to walk to into a high school classroom for the first time.
1. Come in with a smile. Now, I’ve heard the quips about not letting students see you smile in the first week, and I understand the reasoning. Students need to know to take you seriously. They need to know you mean business. But I’ve learned that I can be firm without being grumpy. A smile lets the teens know I enjoy my job, and I enjoy sharing a room with them. That’s important.
2. Be confident, or pretend to be. I’ve used my theater and acting experience in the classroom more times than I should admit. The first time I walk into a new classroom, I play a part. That doesn’t mean I’m fake or insincere. It just means I’m deliberate about my vocal tones and facial expressions. I stand or move deliberately instead of shifting restlessly. I speak to be noticed, projecting my voice without adding in the angry tone that makes students think I’m “yelling”. I stand next to or in front of podiums and tables in the front of the room, instead of hiding behind them. Study what confidence looks like and do that, no matter what you’re feeling on the inside.
3. Focus on results. Remember that your job is not about power plays or proving you’re in charge. I know I’m the one in charge, so I don’t need to prove it to anyone, even the students. Directly asserting my authority and forcing a power struggle sometimes causes more problems than it solves. Instead, experience has taught me that there are more effective ways of getting the results and student behavior I want. Here are some of my favorite strategies:
- The awkward silence. Even in the best of classes, students will keep talking while I’m trying to start class. Generally, if I suddenly cut off mid-sentence and just look at the culprits during the following awkward silence, either they’ll quiet down on their own or their classmates will bring them in line for me. Either way, I’ve avoided a disruptive confrontation, and I’ve still gotten the results I want.
- Consequences without anger. As a teacher, I could assign a referral slip or send a student to the dean while laughing at the behavior that lead to the punishment. Students knew that their actions determined the consequences, not my emotions. When I sub, I generally announce something to the effect of “I’m not going to yell or be mean, but I do take notes, so don’t do anything you wouldn’t want me to write down for the teacher.” And then I follow through. I take notes. Maybe I’ll look at a kid and smile, then write something down. As often as not, that alone is enough to get them to change their behavior. It’s funny how nervous they get when they don’t know what I’m writing.
- Diffuse before you punish. While this isn’t always possible, it is much easier to stop a bad situation before it starts than it is to deal with the consequences afterwards. I’ve been in classrooms where the tension between two students was palpable, and in my head I was just waiting for them to break into a fist fight. Sometimes, a quiet comment to one or the other was much more effective than sternly ordering them to stop. That being said, I’m not afraid to be stern if I think it will be more effective in getting what I want.
- Engage their empathy. When a student is doing something that could result in injury, here’s what I usually say: “Please stop. I really don’t want to fill out the paperwork if you get hurt.” That tends to lead to a joking discussion about my lack of concern for their well-being, but the fact of the matter is, they stopped. If I tell them to stop rough-housing or leaning too far back in their chairs because they might get hurt, they don’t really care. However, if I show them how their getting hurt would inconvenience me, they’re much more likely to stop. And I’ve gotten my results without a power struggle.
- Embrace the banter. High school students want to banter. As a complete stranger to the students, I’ve been asked questions ranging from how long I dated my first boyfriend to if I’ve ever been in jail. I’ve been jokingly asked to give them opinions on clothes, or tell them my life story, or give them a free period instead of the assigned lesson plan. I’ve seen other subs who sternly shoot down these comments because they aren’t on task with the lesson. I’ve found, though, that if I chuckle and indulge the banter for a minute and then ask the students to focus and get to work, they’ll do it with much less complaint. Again, I’ve gotten my results and avoided a power struggle.
4. Finally, enjoy the good and brush off the bad. Teachers often joke about how teens don’t see us as real people. Our students often don’t think of us as human beings with lives outside the school or feelings that can get hurt. This is also true for subs. If students get the sense that they’ll be able to get under the sub’s skin, they’ll do it just because they can – and it has nothing to do with you personally. So don’t take it personally! That’s what they want! Remember that those little whippersnappers have no impact whatsoever on your quality of life. You can go home at the end of the day and forget about their existence completely. So laugh at their attempts to bug you and tell them to get back to work.
Teens and teachers, what advice would you give for making a good first impression in the classroom?