Asking for Help

Alex T. ValencicBlog, Connect Better, Lead Better, Manage Better


  • Having clear expectations doesn’t mean you won’t need help.
  • Be willing to ask students, teachers, and leaders for help.
  • Know when to resolve issues on your own and when to reach out for support.

Establishing expectations in a classroom is an incredibly important first step in building a community of learners. Whether that community will be together for the entire year, a semester, or just a day, expectations are important. Every time a new person enters the learning space, the community has changed, and it is necessary to once again establish expectations. It is generally a good idea to involve all of the community members in this work. Younger students may need more support in understanding what those expectations should be than older students.

Every time a new person enters the learning space, the community has changed, and it is necessary to once again establish expectations. Click To Tweet

When I worked as a substitute teacher, I started each day with an introduction to the students so that they understood who I was and why I was there. (You can read more about how I did this here.) After introducing myself to the students, I would go over the expectations for the day. (If you aren’t sure how to do this, check out this blog post.)

Teach Expectations

Of course, having everything in place and all of the expectations clearly established doesn’t mean that everything will work out. I once heard this quip from an experienced educator: “My lesson plans are always perfect–until the students arrive.” Our students are little humans still learning how to “people.” That means that they are going to make mistakes, and they are going to need help working through those mistakes. Dr. Bryan Pearlman, educator, author, and educational psychologist expert, has shared this Tom Herner quote on social media many times:

One of the greatest challenges for substitute teachers is that they don’t know the students nearly as well as the other students in the classroom or the other adults in the building. So how do they go about teaching how to behave in ways that are socially acceptable, especially when what is socially acceptable in one setting may not be socially acceptable in another? It may be tempting to take the easy way out and issue draconian punishments to individuals or to the entire class. But there is a better way.

The answer is to ask for help. There are three groups of people that the substitute can reach out to for support: the students, the teachers, and the leaders.

Ask the Students

The students in the classroom are the experts on the learning community. They have been there longer than anyone else. And in many cases, they know each other even better than their teachers do because they have been in school with each other for several years.

Will students try to take advantage of substitute teachers? Probably. Not a day went by in my three years of substitute teaching that students didn’t tell me that they were allowed to work in groups. This happened even if the teacher specifically said in the lesson plans that they absolutely could not work in groups. But, really, that is a minor thing and is more a reflection of students wanting to see what the substitute teacher will allow than actively trying to subvert the rules.

This can be circumvented by sharing the sub plans with the students at the beginning of the day when you are introducing yourself and setting expectations! Tell the students that you may need help. Ask them what they would normally do if their teacher was there. Then, as long as they aren’t advocating for something that will cause harm, be willing to go with it. The students will feel respected. And students who feel respected are often much more willing to work with you instead of against you.

Ask Other Teachers

The other teachers on your team or in the building likely know the students. You can say something like, “I am struggling with Hannah’s behavior today; do you have any suggestions for what I can do to help her be more successful?” If it is an issue with the entire class, you can consider asking what the teachers do to help students walk peacefully in the halls or transition from one task to another.

Ask Building Leaders

There will likely be instances of severe misbehavior that justifies seeking support from building leaders. Most classrooms have a button to call the office. Make sure you know the routine or process for doing this before students arrive. Don’t be afraid to ask leaders to help you with students who may need to be removed from the classroom for a period of time. This isn’t a sign of weakness. It is an admission that students often respond better to those with whom they have relationships than to those who are nearly strangers.

Tips for Teachers

Classroom teachers, prepare your class ahead of time for your absence. Encourage them to offer help to the substitute, but only if they are asked. Make a note in your plans of which students are most likely to help. (If you have students who may present a challenge, make note of this, too. But be sure to still leave room for all of your students to succeed and to surprise you!)

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Tips for Administrators

Visit the substitute teacher before the start of the day. Make sure they know how they can access you or other leaders for support. Visit the classroom early in the day to remind students of your expectations for them and to express your trust in the substitute teacher. Check-in throughout the day, especially during transitions to specials, lunch, or recess. If the substitute calls for assistance from the office, respond as soon as possible.

Know When to Ask For Help

Sometimes students will just need a simple reminder of the expectations. Other times, you can turn to students to ask what their teacher would do in such a situation. Then be willing to follow it. No matter what happens, the primary job of the substitute teacher is to make sure everyone is safe so that they can learn. By asking for help, there is a greater likelihood that the day will be one of learning and growth for the entire community of learners, whether the regular teacher is there or not!

About Alex T. Valencic

Alex Valencic is an educator, former small business owner, Boy Scout, volunteer drug prevention specialist, unrepentant bibliophile, and a geek of all things. He worked as a substitute teacher for three years before achieving his lifelong dream of teaching fourth grade, which he did for seven years in Urbana, Illinois, before accepting his current position as the Curriculum Coordinator for 21st Century Teaching and Learning in Freeport, Illinois, where he not only supports innovative educational practices in the classroom but also oversees social studies, science, and nearly all of the elective courses in the district.