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How I Handled...

Working With a Substitute
Who Was Getting
Poor Reviews from Teachers

Substitute teaching is hard work. Good subs -- especially at the middle school level -- are as rare as hens' teeth! That's why I decided to work with a sub whose classroom management skills were going to do him in. I felt he was "salvageable," if he was willing to work with me.

The Problem:

Mr. Green (not his real name) has been a substitute teacher in our school for four years. He's done a good job for us -- until this year. Out of the blue, I started getting negative feedback about his performance. Teachers were very concerned about the quality of his work. He was not following lesson plans teachers left behind, and he was having difficulty with classroom management. By all reports, his work had slipped into the "poor" category.

The Solution:

Finding good substitutes at the middle school level can be very difficult; good substitutes are as rare as hens' teeth. I had enough evidence to terminate Mr. Green, but I thought I might be able to work with him and salvage a substitute who had demonstrated success in the past.

The first thing I did, in an effort to discern just what the problem was, was to contact every teacher Mr. Green had worked for this school year. Over and over I heard that his classroom management seemed to be the main problem. He could not follow the lesson plans if the kids were out of control. And ask any middle school teacher; middle schoolers can be relentless and unforgiving -- especially if they think they can get the better of a teacher or substitute.

I called Mr. Green into my office to talk about his classroom management problems. In the course of our conversation, he admitted to me that his confidence had been shaken; he was about ready to throw in the towel.

I was prepared to share a few strategies I thought might help him. But our district also offers staff development programs for all employees. The program offers classes to help all staff with their classroom management skills, so I had him enroll in those courses. In the meantime, I told him I wanted to keep him on at our school. I would make sure he was assigned classes that wouldn't be too challenging so he could get back his confidence as he tried some of the new techniques and strategies he was learning.

There was one more element at work here -- one more reason to offer this substitute teacher all the assistance we could. You see, Mr. Green is a retiree. He does not need this job. He is not subbing to get his foot in the door to a full-time teaching position. In times when good subs are difficult to find, retired people like Mr. Green can be great resource to schools such as ours. For that reason, it benefits our school to work with substitutes like Mr. Green, to ensure that his experience is a good one. If his experience is a good one, he might spread the word to others.

So far so good, I'm pleased to report. He has been a work in progress since Christmas. He has attended the district's classroom management workshops; and he has progressed from handling the "easier" classes to taking on some of the "harder" classes in our school. I would not say he is perfect yet but, as we all know, substituting can be a very difficult test of patience and dedication.

The Reflection:

In the long run, I think it is better to work with your substitutes and try to improve them. The substitutes generally appreciate it; most of them can be taught to improve. We have several teachers at our school who started out as subs, then moved into full-time positions. I think that happens because we are willing to help our subs improve instead of using them up and "throwing" them away.

About the How I Handled... Team of Principal Problem Solvers
The How I Handled... series is intended to be practical resource for all principals and principals-to-be. Each week, members of Education World's How I Handled team share how they solved actual problems relating to school leadership, parent involvement, professional development, and a host of other "principal" responsibilities. Six principals comprise our How I Handled team; two of them are elementary school principals, two work at the middle level, and two are high school principals. Team members remain anonymous; in that way, they can share freely the range of issues/problems they are called on to solve each day.

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