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When Is a Sub Not a Sub?

By Chick Moorman and Thomas Haller

Students who find substitute teachers replacing their real teacher for a day do not always treat them with the respect they deserve. The appearance of a sub is often the signal for students to engage in a series of behaviors they would typically not choose if the normal classroom teacher were present. Sitting in different seats, answering to different names, initiating power struggles, refusing to follow directions, ignoring directions, talking more and working less are just a few of the antics that some students choose in the presence of a substitute teacher.

Part of the problem can be traced to the word substitute. The prefix sub often indicates inferior, not as good as, or next best. If you played subpar, you played below average. A substandard performance points to one that was below your standard. When the advertised special is sold out, you are often offered a substitute. When a star player is injured the coach puts in a substitute. That being the case, it is not surprising that students learn to view a substitute teacher as being a level or two below their normal teacher.

That's why Laurie Tandrup, a fifth-grade teacher at Onoway Elementary School in Alberta, Canada, does not have a substitute teacher when she is ill or goes to a professional meeting. Instead, when she is absent, the fifth graders have a GUEST teacher. And Laurie's students have been taught to treat a guest teacher like they would be expected to treat any other guest -- with respect.

Laurie believes that if you want a behavior you have to teach a behavior. So the last time she knew in advance that she was going to be absent she prepared her nine- and ten-year-olds for the event. Laurie began her preparations the day before she would be gone. She invited students to help brainstorm a list of what it would look like and sound like to respect the guest teacher. Students decided that respect in this case would look like following directions, sitting in your seat, working on assignments, finishing work, and raising hands to ask and answer questions. Their list of sounds like behaviors included one person talking at a time, asking for help if needed, asking for permission to do things, and saying please and thank you. The class practiced the behaviors for a portion of the day. Debriefing followed, feedback was given and the list adjusted slightly.

Next, Laurie enlisted her students' input in planning the day. They took each subject (math, language arts, physical education, etc.) and planned what they wanted to have happen while the guest teacher was there. The lessons had to fit Laurie's criteria of being related, rigorous, and relevant. The criteria were satisfied as students decided to use computers to do research for an essay during language arts time, make corrections and skill-practice for math, and do warmup running and skill-challenges for physical education. By involving students in crafting their own day, Laurie built ownership for the design of the day. She empowered her students, creating less need for them to exercise power at the expense of the guest teacher.

Finally, this second-year teacher asked students to come up with a rubric detailing how they could tell if the day they designed turned out to be an excellent day, a good day, an average day, or a day that needed much improvement. Students, with her help, created behavioral descriptors for each level.

Laurie left a detailed note for the guest teacher to let him know what to expect. She then designed a few debriefing questions that she would use when she returned the day after the appearance of the guest teacher. Her brief list included:

1. Rate on a scale of 1-10 the degree to which you respected the guest teacher. Explain your rating by telling why you chose that number.
2. What is one thing that you did to respect the guest teacher yesterday? Why do you think that was important?
3. What is one improvement you feel our class could make next time to show increased respect for the guest teacher?

The morning of her return to the classroom, Laurie placed the debriefing questions on the board. Students were asked to write their reactions on paper. A lively discussion followed. The processing of the previous day’s experience helped students look at their behaviors and learn from them.

All of Laurie's students helped design, create, and evaluate their day. All had an experience with assessing their own behavior. All had an opportunity to think critically about the behaviors they chose. All had an experience with learning how to show respect for a guest teacher.

When is a sub not a sub? When they become a guest teacher, of course.


Chick Moorman and Thomas Haller are the co-authors of Teaching the Attraction Principle to Children: Practical Strategies for Parents and Teachers to Help Children Manifest a Better World. They are two of the world's foremost authorities on raising responsible, caring, confident children. They publish a free monthly e-zine for educators and another for parents. To sign up for them or learn more about the seminars they offer teachers and parents, visit their websites today: and