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Classroom Management Tips, Advice and Strategies for Substitute teachers

By Edited Mar 28, 2016 4 6

 Substitute teachers have the toughest job in any school. They can be called upon at 10 minutes notice, they tend to be given the worst classes, they do not know the school’s discipline and management systems and the students have had too many bad experiences with poor substitute teachers in the past.

Classroom Management – 101

Teachers on a permanent or temporary contract have the same classes every week. The students know that their teacher knows the ropes. They will still push the boundaries of acceptable behaviour, but usually not for the first two lessons. These teachers have a ‘grace period’ of two lessons to establish their authority in the classroom.

As a substitute teacher you have no ‘grace period’. You have to establish yourself in the classroom in 3 seconds flat. The class know they are unlikely to ever see you again, that you are unfamiliar with the school and that you are unsure of yourself in their classroom. You are an unwelcome intruder in their familiar space.

Therefore, you go in and you DOMINATE that classroom. You expect perfect behaviour. Everything about your posture, where you stand and the way you move and speak must proclaim that YOU are the person in charge of this classroom.

How do you dominate 35 sixteen year old students who have already seen off six previous substitute teachers before you and have plans to see you off the premises today?

You use the most assertive body language imaginable. Assertive is not the same as aggressive. Your assertive body language will subdue any troublemakers. Aggressive body language would increase the students’ own aggression levels and could end in someone being injured.

Classroom Management Tips – 102 (Learn the Moves)

Ideally any substitute or supply teacher should be in the classroom before the students. A successful substitute teacher will stand at the front of the room as the students enter and make sure the students see you are watching them. Do not read your notes or anything else in this absolutely crucial meeting phase.

Eye Contact

Actively WATCH the students. Eyeball each one. Make sure that each student gives you eye contact back and that they break the eye contact first. This is establishing that you are not frightened, that you are the dominant person in the room. Most students will never have encountered this from any previous temporary teacher. You are already disassociating yourself from their previous, poorly prepared, substitute teachers and are establishing your credentials as a TEACHER and that you are there to TEACH, rather than just to maintain a poor semblance of order.

Stand Still

Do not move, at all. By your stillness you are again establishing dominance over the group. They will become unsettled after a few seconds.

Keep Your Hands Visible

Stand with your hands by your sides. This takes practise not to feel uncomfortable, so PRACTISE it until it becomes a natural body posture for you. This is another dominance cue to the students.

Keep Your Thumbs Visible

This one really does take practise. It has to come across as a natural posture to the class. Again, practise this on your own until it becomes your natural way of standing.

This is a massively powerful dominance posture. It is used by politicians, generals and anyone who has to dominate a large group. Make primitive and powerful body language, non-verbal communication, signals work for you as a substitute teacher.

Your survival as a teacher depends on dominating that classroom, so use every weapon you can to do that. If you fail to dominate the group, rest assured that one of the students will and that will make your life impossible. That is how the students have driven off the six substitute teachers before you.

Strategies for Substitute Teachers -103 (Talk the Talk)

You now have the class of students silent and have established yourself as dominant and different from any substitute teacher they have ever met.

You can now get on with the job of teaching. The classroom domination body language is a necessary precursor to successful teaching.

You can still blow it. You must be well prepared, well as prepared as it is possible for a substitute teacher to be, with class changes at almost no notice and teaching a subject you last thought about when you were sixteen years old yourself.

Keep on top of the dominant body language throughout the lesson. Add a smile as well, now that you have established who’s in charge. Smiling is another confidence signal to your students, and the instinct is for them to smile back. If they are smiling they will automatically be looking on you in a more positive light.

Move around the room, but slowly, still keeping your hands visible. Rapid movement around the room causes stress and agitation in any group, so slow and steady does the trick.

Avoid excessive hand movements if you are talking to the class. Slow hand movements are another signal of your confidence.

Talk slightly more slowly than usual. Rushing your speech is a well-recognized sign of nervousness. Better to talk more slowly than and appear confident. If you are nervous, talking slightly more slowly will disguise it, and disguise it you MUST. Slower speech also helps the students to become used to your voice, your accent and reduces problems caused by echoes in the classroom.

Strategies for Substitute Teachers -104 (Walk the Walk)

The end of the lesson is approaching. Your first lesson as a substitute teacher with this group of students is nearly over. Finishing the lesson on your terms is nearly as important as starting it was.

You want to get out of there, the students want out, but remain patient. Think about your body language all the time. As a substitute teacher you are always vulnerable and can never let down your guard.

Dismiss the class in an orderly manner. Stand by the door and make eye contact with each student. You are reminding them, in case you see them again, that you are not any ordinary substitute teacher, but a teacher who has dominated the group and the classroom from start to finish.


Move on to your next class and start all over again.



Jul 26, 2010 2:39pm
I sent this to a young substitute teacher that I know. He's talented, driven and hopeful for the future of education. Here's what he said about this article:
That was an interesting article; I especially liked that it got into specifics about setting the tone, as opposed to the standard flaky motivational words (don't know if that made sense or not).

It is amazing how body language can be used to establish dominance. I'll have to practice some of that for the fall.
Jul 26, 2010 2:57pm
Thanks Vaughn. His comment makes perfect sense. No Bull in this field. There are lots of educational theorists who would disagree with my approach, but my approach works, and I have seen students trying to follow all the educational clap-trap really blow it.
Nov 3, 2012 3:04pm
Thank you so much for writing this much needed article. I recently earned my teaching credential in music, but I haven't been able to find work, so I decided to try substitute teaching. I went on my very first assignment yesterday and I had the worst day ever. I was assigned to teach five periods of seventh grade English, but very little teaching was accomplished. I followed the advice of so many and greeted each student at the door with a "Good Morning" as I handed out their first assignment. By the time everyone entered the room, chaos had already been established. They wouldn't pipe down long enough for me to speak even one complete sentence. I tried yelling over them, although I know better than to do so, and this resulted in a sore throat. I had a fresh start with each period, but nearly the same results each time. Students would not even listen to their assignment, much less do the work. I felt powerless and embarrassed. I don't have a very commanding presence in general and several kids said that I was "too nice." In spite of assigning detention and enforcing consequences for disobeying the rules, I could not establish any order. I've been thinking about this all night and I came to the conclusion that something about my appearance or demeanor sends out the wrong message to students. After reading your article, I now understand that I did NONE of the things you mentioned and that might actually be the problem. Thank you so much for getting this all down and sharing it. I am scheduled for a few assignments next week and I am eager to give your advice a try. Thank you for giving me hope.
Nov 3, 2012 11:25pm
Good luck, but remember you make your own luck. I am glad you think the ideas I have laid out are useful. They are real, not based on any airy fairy educational clap-trap. These points are what separates good teachers from the rest.
Thank you for the comment and please do let me know how it works out today - Phil
Nov 5, 2012 8:21pm
good article! I liked the section regarding body language...very powerful body cues are not just useful in the classroom, but EVERYWHERE. it is used in courtship and dating, in business interactions, in everyday interactions with strangers! the person that masters it or even comes close will be successful.
Nov 5, 2012 10:26pm
Thank you David. You are right, of course. Classroom teaching is just one case where young teachers with no body language or management training are put into a situation where they are driven to tears. It drives me mad that teachers start off without any training in REAL classroom management. It is like "If they are good, they will find it on their own", but surely a few pointers would help . . .
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