Expect Better

Alex T. ValencicBlog, Manage Better


  • Students won’t know what you expect of them if you don’t tell them.
  • Including students in the work of establishing expectations will lead to better outcomes.
  • Teachers, administrators, and substitutes need to work together to establish clear expectations.

So. Many. Teachers.

Imagine a student who attends the same EC-12 district for their entire public education career. This student will likely have anywhere from 6 to 10 different teachers by the time they enter middle school. This number will double by the time they enter high school. And it could possibly double again by the time they are ready to graduate. That’s a lot of teachers, all of whom have their own unique take on classroom management, including routines, procedures, and expectations. (Does this number seem high to you? Grab a piece of paper and write down the names of all of the teachers you remember from your first days of school through high school graduation. How many did you list? Are you forgetting anyone? I remember the first time I did this; I was shocked at the number of teachers I had in my K-12 experience!)

Now imagine that student walks into class one day and discovers that their teacher is missing. In their place is someone they’ve never met before. *cue the scary music*

Know your limits. What are okay with students doing? And what are you not okay with? What are your expectations? How are you going to communicate these to students? Click To Tweet

How will the student react to this new adult in the classroom?

Well, that all depends on what the substitute teacher chooses to do. In my years of teaching, I have seen substitutes that fall under three broad categories:

  1. The substitute tries to copy the regular teacher’s routines, procedures, and expectations exactly.
  2. The substitute teacher doesn’t establish any routines, procedures, or expectations. They either assume students will do what they are “supposed” to do without being told or just rely on the office to take care of any problems.
  3. The substitute teacher familiarises themself with the teacher’s routines, procedures, and expectations and then integrates them into their own, making these slightly different approaches clear to all students.

Let’s examine each of these approaches separately and consider how they might play out in the classroom while the substitute teacher is there.

Substitute Teacher Approach #1 – Imitation

The substitute teacher sees all of the posters in the classroom that clearly lay out the routines, procedures, and expectations and is determined to follow them precisely. She tells the class they should do things just the way they would if their regular teacher was there and points out the established routines, procedures, and expectations. Things start off well. However, they start to go off the rails a bit when students ask if they can work with partners and there is nothing saying whether they can or cannot. The substitute decides to say no to this request because there is no clearly stated procedure saying if they can.

The students immediately insist that their teacher always lets them work with partners. Then a mutiny quickly begins forming. The substitute, unsure of what else to do, buzzes for the office to ask for help. The principal comes in to calm the class, makes some vague threats about consequences, and then leaves the substitute with a classroom of angry third graders who don’t know why this substitute won’t just let them do what their teacher lets them do. The rest of the day is spent with students drawing the substitute into power struggles over listening to music, flexible seating, using the bathroom, sharpening pencils, and working in the hall. At the end of the day, the substitute is questioning whether or not they will ever return to this particular classroom. They fume about the lack of classroom management and discipline.

Substitute Teacher Approach #2 – Say Nothing

The substitute teacher sees all of the posters in the classroom that clearly lay out the routines, procedures, and expectations. “Oh, good,” he thinks. “The students already know what to do and how to do it, so I don’t need to say anything about it.” About fifteen minutes into class, a student gets up to get a tissue in the middle of the lesson. “What are you doing?” the substitute wants to know. “Getting a tissue,” the student replies. “But you aren’t supposed to get up when I am teaching.” The student looks perplexed. “You never told us that!” The substitute explains that it is on the poster, and then other students chime in. “She doesn’t make us do those things!” “Those are from August! We haven’t done that since we got back from Winter Break!” Chaos ensues and the substitute pushes the call button for the office.

Substitute Teacher Approach #3 – Establish Expectations

The substitute teacher sees all of the posters in the classroom that clearly lay out the routines, procedures, and expectations. “Oh, interesting,” they say out loud. “These are some good guidelines, but I know things are going to be a bit different with me here. I better make sure I explain that when I introduce myself to the class!” After students arrive, the guest teacher gathers their attention and begins:

My name is Mr. Valencic, and I am the substitute teacher today. I am not sure where your regular teacher is. She may be home, or maybe she just went on a vacation to Hawaii. Either way, I am here today! Again, my name is Mr. Valencic. I am a certified teacher who has been hired by the school district to teach when your regular teachers are gone.

Now, I know that Miss Nelson has a way of doing things in the classroom, and I am confident that it works really well for all of you. But I want to let you in on a little secret. Are you ready? [The substitute lowers his voice and leans in.] I am not Miss Nelson! [Students gasp in mock surprise.] I know, I know, mind-blowing, right?

Okay, so here is the thing: That means that I am probably going to do things a little differently. I am going to do my best to use the same procedures and routines that you are familiar with, but if I do something different, I need you to be okay with that. Let’s start with the basics: Please, whatever you do, don’t duct tape anyone to the ceiling. Don’t get blood on the floor, and try your absolute hardest to not set anyone on fire. [Students laugh.]  Good? Good. Okay, so, what’s next? What are some routines I need to know?

The substitute then leads the class through a brief discussion on what to do if they need to use the restroom, get a drink, or sharpen a pencil. They talk about when it is appropriate to work with partners and what that looks like. They agree that students are not allowed to listen to music while on their Chromebooks because, even though Miss Nelson allows it, Mr. Valencic doesn’t have a way to monitor them to help keep them safe, so they just won’t do it when he is here.

The day proceeds, and while there are a few hiccoughs here and there, nobody calls the office in a panic. Nobody is duct-taped to the ceiling. No one gets blood on the floor, and not one person is set on fire. All in all, it was a successful day for students and for you as the guest teacher!

Tips for Teachers

Make sure you explain core expectations, routines, and procedures with your students the day before your planned absence. Have these explained in your sub plans, and encourage the substitute to read them out loud to students. Also, prepare your students for what it might be like to have a different person in the classroom and how he or she may not do things the same way you do.

[scroll down to keep reading]

Tips for Administrators

Check in with the substitute teacher first thing in the morning. Make sure they know what schoolwide expectations are in place. If you are a PBIS (positive behavior interventions and supports) school, make sure the PBIS matrices around the building are up-to-date and reflect the expectations that all staff have for all students. Let the guest teacher know the best way to reach you. Do you have a code system established for announcing different levels of need? Level 1 (send someone when you have time) up to Level 5 (SOS! Send help immediately!”) Share that you will be there to support them throughout the day, but you are trusting them to be the teacher in charge of the classroom and the students for the day.

Tips for Substitutes

Know your limits. What are okay with students doing? And what are you not okay with? What are your expectations? How are you going to communicate these to students? What will you do when the students push back against what you’ve established? Who can you ask for help? How will you ask for help? A book I highly recommend for every teacher is Setting Limits in the Classroom by Robert Mackenzie. If you need a quicker read, check out Chapter 11 of Teach Better by Chad Ostrowski, Tiffany Ott, Rae Hughart, and Jeff Gargas.

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.