Classroom Management for Supply Teachers, Substitute Teachers and Cover Supervisors

classroom management Mar 23, 2023

Classroom management can be especially hard when you’re a supply or substitute teacher.  You don’t know the class, so don’t know the malleable students from the challenging ones.  What’s more, these students don’t know you and some of them are going to test your boundaries.  They’re going to find it fun to see how much they can get away with.   

So how do you manage to gain respect in the classroom as one of these stand-in teachers?  Here are some of the most effective ways I’ve employed to whip a new, unfamiliar class into shape.  

1. Have a backup plan 

When you bound cheerfully into that first cover class, you’d better have a hoard of ‘extra’ backup activities stuffed up your sleeves.  Don’t be that supply teacher who turns up to kill time with a video lesson, only to discover that the media player has given up the ghost and boredom has given birth to an outbreak of attention-seeking, disruptive behaviour.  

Choosing the wrong movie or documentary is a recipe for disengaged disaster.  Even the right one won’t always make them forget one of their favourite equations:   

Supply teacher + video lesson= playtime! 

A lesson that affords opportunities for disruption, overseen by a teacher lacking the long-term commitment to the class to call them out on their behaviour?  To some pupils that’s the recipe for a free lesson – and for the unprepared stand-in teacher, a recipe for anarchy.   

So, know what you’re supposed to be doing with the class, but have a backup plan in place too, just in case the original activities are too hard or too easy, or you’re missing some key information.  It’s going to happen eventually.   

2. Get there before the kids do 

Before you start your first lesson as a cover teacher, make sure you turn up early so that you can scope out what’s to come.  And do your research; ask questions, bugging anyone and everyone you can to find out more about the class.  Don’t just catch up on where the kids are at with the syllabus; go into private-investigator mode to see if you can't get some inside information on the behaviour profile of the class.   

Who’s going to kick off first? Which kids are going to be on your side? Which student is struggling with a learning point?  

If you already know these things ahead of time, you can plan in strategies for managing specific types of behaviour or prepare different levels of activities for those who you think might need them. You can prepare a group activity where you’ve already planned on ensuring that the bright sparks are paired with the ones who need a little more help. You can make sure you don’t inadvertently group together the troublemakers. 

 3. Meet and greet 

When the students begin to arrive, be at the door to meet and greet them as they enter your classroom.  Greet them with a smile, too, but if they start asking questions like, “Who are you?”, “Where’s our teacher?”, “What are we doing today?”, then avoid those as much as possible until everybody’s settled.  Tell them that you’re going to introduce yourself to the class once everybody’s sitting quietly in their seats.  Don’t waste time answering the same questions to each new student that comes through the door.  

4. Introduce yourself 

With supply teaching, it can be very tempting to just launch straight into the lesson and pretend that you’re not filling somebody’s shoes.  But no matter how much you ignore it, the students will not; you’re a break to the routine so they’ll want to know who you are, why their usual teacher isn’t around, and what’s going on.  So,take some time to introduce yourself. Write your name on the board and tell them a little about yourself. Tell them you’re sorry that their usual teacher isn’t around, but that you’re going to make sure they don’t miss out on any learning.   

5. Stop negative behaviour early  

Kids who fly in through the door like Iron Man, or plonk themselves down and promptly glue their face to their phone, or pull out make-up and hairbrush – or all of the above – need to be dealt with immediately. Head straight over and thank them for finding their seats so quickly and settling down.  Then set out the behaviour you’d expect to see: “Well done for finding your seat so quickly.  Now, if you can put your phone away and get ready for the lesson, that’d be great.  Thank you.”  This will help to show your students that you recognise good behaviour, but that you are also ready to immediately address any unwanted behaviour.   

6. Know your students’ names 

When I worked as a sub myself the one strategy that helped me most was getting to know students as quickly as possible. It all starts with relationships, so rather than diving straight into the curriculum, begin with some ‘getting to know you’ type activities or games – or both.  It gets you off on the right foot with a positive start.  

If you can, you should learn their names - all their names - as soon as possible; and it can be done in as little as five or ten minutes if you concentrate on it and make it a priority.  As soon as you start calling them all by their first names ten or fifteen minutes into the lesson, they are amazed.  It’s an instant bridge-builder and shows them right away that you’re not just killing time till their regular teacher comes back., you obviously care. 

Here’s a quick tip for getting those names quickly.  Start with a seating plan. Draw a quick sketch of the room with all the desks in place and then pass it round the room so that all students can add their names next to each desk. You’ll also want one child you feel you can trust to confirm the seating plan too so that you know it tallies with the register - some children think it's hilarious to give a false name. Next, get them engrossed in a simple activity that frees you for five or ten minutes - a word search, cloze exercise or similar which won't require your assistance.  While they’re engaged in the activity, go around the seating plan putting a face to the names.  

I find it really useful to link their names to an image in your mind - the weirder or more colourful the better, and then link those images together.  For example, if you have a child called Robert, you might picture him dressed as a robber in a striped jumper, carrying a huge swag bag, creeping round the room.  It sounds silly, but I assure you it works!  

With this method you should be able to rattle off all the first names of a class of 30 students with relative ease.   

If you’d like 5 other methods for learning students’ names super-fast go here:   

7. Don’t overdo the ‘management’ 

If your mind is already on keeping control of the class, take care not to stride in with all guns blazing.  These kids don’t know you and they’re tuned-in to try to test your boundaries as a substitute teacher.  Marching in like Robocop to start ‘laying down the law’ will immediately put up a barrier between you and the students; and that is a bad beginning that is not easy to recover from.  

8. Keep your cool 

Okay, this is more a piece of crucial advice than a technique or strategy to remember when you step foot into that room.  Some students are going to be waiting for you to lose your cool.  Think back to school; we all know that winding up the supply teacher was seen as a challenge and you don’t want to give them the satisfaction.  As soon as they pull on that string, if something gives, then they’re just going to keep tugging and tugging, and you’ll have lost the group.  Act confidently and hold your head up high, and don’t let any minor niggles shake that confidence.  

The only exception here really is if you’re on long-term cover.  Maintain that unflappable attitude day-in, day-out and you might start being seen as a pushover.  At this point, you could do a bunch of things that I’ve talked about before in one of my other books, ‘Take Control of the Noisy Class’.  You could use a counter system – give each kid 3-5 counters and deduct one each time they cross the line.  Tell the class that if anyone runs out of counters, they all get extra homework.  The threat of unpopularity alone should help here.  

Another thing you should do for long-term assignments is to establish some ground rules for what is and what isn’t accepted behaviour. But don’t just dogmatically assign the rules yourself; have the class come up with them by turning it into a group activity. You’ll probably get somebody who protests, with ‘But  that’s not how our usual teacher does it’.  The important thing here is to remind them, ‘This is how I run things and expect you to behave. Once your usual teacher is back, things can go back to the way they were’. 

9.  Identify troublemakers early 

Perhaps ‘troublemakers’ is a little harsh, but we all know that some students are naturally more challenging than others.  So, when your class arrives, give the group a once-over and try to figure out who these more challenging students might be.  These are the ones you’re going to want to get on your side as soon as possible.  Let them know who you are and assign them a task or responsibility. Maybe they can help you find teaching resources, textbooks, equipment, or stationery.  And make sure that you praise and thank them once they’re done.  

 10. Understand the usual praise and responses 

If you’re a supply teacher in a new school you’re not going to be that familiar with how everything works – and this includes the school’s praise and reward system, as well as how the place deals with bad behaviour.  Your students are not idiots – though we’ve all encountered the exceptions that prove this rule – and they’re going to know this, too. Spend some time understanding how praise and punishment works at the school, and let your new class know that you’re ready to use the system if needed.  They’ll be less likely to challenge and push you if they know that there will be consequences. But don’t just focus on the negative; let them know how they can succeed and receive praise in your classroom in the same way they would with their usual teacher.  

As a quick band-aid, you could bring an army of stickers with you. Though your students might always admit it, I’ve yet to find a kid who doesn’t like receiving a sticker for good work.  So, bring them in and use them to reinforce good behaviour wherever it occurs in your classroom.  For a new teacher who isn’t all that familiar with the praise system, these are a great trick to have up your sleeve. 

11. Use your usual routines 

Even though you’re only filling in for another teacher, you could be with the class for at least a couple of lessons or longer.  Just because it’s a temporary class for you, don’t be afraid to use those routines we’ve established as part of your classroom management plan, as they can save you headaches at those transition points we have talked about.  Teach these to the students before you teach anything else, and make sure that they all know what behaviour is expected.  

 12. Set expectations for students on report 

Inevitably, you’re going to come across miscreants on report for their behaviour, and these could be some of the students who are likely to give you the hardest time as a supply teacher.  So, find out who they are early, before they have chance to cause you any issues.  Ask them, “What should I expect from you today if I’m going to give you a good report?”  Set those expectations early, especially if there’s little to no evidence on their report or they’ve been having a bad day.  That said, the same applies if they’ve been doing well.  If they’ve been having a positive day, then be sure to tell them that – and tell them that you want to be able to add to those existing positive comments with another good report.  

13. Leave on a positive note 

When you finish any lesson with your temporary class, you should leave on a good note.  Don’t stalk out of the door in gloomy silence, making it obvious that you didn’t want to be there.  Praise those who have behaved well and accomplished good work.  Be at the door to say goodbye and offer a smile, too.  If it’s your last lesson with them, tell them that you’re going to pass on any positive praise to their usual teacher.  Don’t leave on bad terms; you’ll only be shooting any future supply teacher in the foot before they’ve even had a chance!  And you never know, this might not be the last time that you cross paths with this class – in which case you would rather have them welcome your return than regret it!   

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