We are teaching in unique times, my friends. There is a nationwide labor shortage and that includes educators. Substitute teachers are scarce. Teacher morale is low. Turnover is high. I’ve noticed in my art education group, I am seeing comments that many teachers are landing their first art teacher position during this shortage. In addition, some positions are going unfilled and teachers are being asked to take on an extra class. So, taking over for a class that hasn’t had the best experience to date is a challenge. I know, because I’ve done it and lived to tell.

So, my situation involved a teacher who had surgery and experienced complications. The teacher had a long-term sub but he couldn’t do the whole leave. I was in a place in my life where I could and so I stepped in to complete the last six weeks of this long-term substitute position. It was clear to me that although the classes had a substitute, things had clearly been declining. Students’ behaviors were suspect with lots of noise, talking, messes, and dubious quality art. And those were the good classes! The worst class was disrespectful, inattentive, and unruly. I had my work cut out for me.

What worked for me? Well, I happened at the time to have access to a bright insightful middle school guru, my daughter. Most of my life was spent predominantly with high school students. I wasn’t used to six graders who had the attention span of a gnat. They also had no idea of the time and place to ask a question that wasn’t relevant to the whole class. So, in voicing these frustrations my guru shared some best practices with me.

Create a class agenda.
My sixth graders didn’t have art every day and I was being asked repeatedly, “What are we doing today?” At my guru’s suggestion, I started to project the agenda for the day and what they would need in terms of tools and materials. It included an agenda but also things that might otherwise slip my mind. For example, I listed students’ names who needed to turn in an overdue project. It included homework to write down. It was magical.

“Us” problem versus “You”  problem
So, sixth graders are very much still evolving growing children who have not mastered social skills. My sixth graders didn’t understand that really specific individual project questions don’t need to be addressed in front of the whole class. High schoolers didn’t do this, it was puzzling to me. Again, my guru told me about a teacher that responded to every hand wagging by asking if the question was an “us” problem, which means it’s worthwhile for everyone to hear? Or is it a “You” problem that will be best addressed with the teacher one-on-one?

Create a behavior contract
So, for my worst class, an 8th-grade class, I felt the behaviors were a lot less impulsive and a lot more “fun” for them. For that class, I decided I would stop the class and review a behavior contract. Each student was provided with a sheet that outlines a basic set of reasonable behavior expectations and  human “rights.”  Like, the right not to be bullied. Students understood bullying to be something that happened between students. I pointed out that constantly talking over me is a type of bullying. I could see the wheels turning. I told them they could sign the contract in full understanding of the expectations going forward or they were invited to visit guidance and explain why they couldn’t agree to the contract.

Ask for help
I was experienced enough to know the situation of these classes weren’t created by me and didn’t have to be solved all by me either. I did needed to take the lead however.  I hatched my plan of the behavior contract and letter to parents that I emailed the same day I introduced the behavior contract. This was all discussed and run past an administrator and the art department chairperson. I also invited that administrator into my worst class to show the class I had the administration’s support. The administrator was agreeable but were no show in this case. I have in the past called on administrators who were helpful and supportive in getting a derailed class back on track and good administrators will help.

The email that I sent to parents simply stated that the classes had experienced a lot of change, detailed my teaching experience, and asked parents to discuss what behaviors they would expect from their children. I received some supportive and thankful emails in response and one complaint. The good news is, I saw an immediate change in the class for the better. By the end, I truly won over all but one student. The class didn’t have the best artwork or perfect behavior but it was all manageable normal middle school challenges.

Create calm and caring classrooms
Create classroom routines. Students thrive with structure. Use their names specifically. “James, at the beginning of class we review the class agenda altogether. Can you sit and join us?”  Don’t yell, don’t let students talk over you. Wait them out if you must. Be calm. Play calming music. Build relationships so students know you care. It can take time. This is not won and done in one day.

Don’t expect a trophy
On my last day in this substitute position, a teacher across the hall who I had almost no contact with came over and told me he heard me working on the classes every day and told me what a great job I did. I was super touched. I know I could hear his lessons daily and so I know he had the unique perspective of eavesdropping on my classes and it was such a sweet and unexpected validation of all my work. But, like so much we do, we don’t know if it’s making a difference or if anyone knows or cares. I am here to tell you you made a difference if you are ever in this situation.