Dear Barbara ...
I've created the Dear Barbara column as a way for subs to get answers to questions about any subbing topic or suggestions that may help you solve a specific problem in substitute teaching.

If you'd like to submit a question, please click here and be sure to include your name and home town. Answers to the best questions will be published here.

How Can I "Play Detective" without Looking Foolish?

Dear Barbara,

I enjoyed your book, but I have a couple of questions that mystify me a bit. I'm a secondary English sub, and am afraid to introduce myself by doing as you suggest in the book, telling the class about me, as I don't know which classes I can trust. As you say in the book, much advice to the teacher of teenagers says not to smile until Christmas. I often feel I need to be as stern and threatening as possible.

One other problem I often have are students that secretively roll objects or make mouth sounds when the class is busy, and it would not seem effective to play detective. I've tried threatening to detain the class when the bell rings, but that threat never stops it. And when I move to the source of the sound, the source often moves too.

Thanks for the opportunity to communicate about this challenging job.


Dear Marilyn,

I'm glad you enjoyed the book!

Your concerns about subbing in secondary school are not unusual. It is a challenging age group. Let me address your questions one at a time.

1. It's important to set a tone when you meet each new group. Introducing yourself includes greeting students at the door. That's where you will make the first impression. Make eye contact with each student. When the bell rings, say good morning (or afternoon) and tell them your name and that you are happy to here today. Now you must assess what feels comfortable. If the group seems friendly, choose a few words to connect yourself with the class. “ My name is ….I see you are working on Night, by Elie Weisel. I remember reading that book a few years ago. It's one of my favorites. Let's begin.”
As you can see, the introduction should be very short to start with. As you continue to sub, you might get more personal, but only if it feels comfortable. With secondary students, you must be aware of the climate of the group.

2. When the students secretly roll objects or make silly noises with their mouths, they are testing you. Their goal is to get you to react. Here is your chance to show them that you are not easily upset. A confident sub would calmly say, “Those noises are very distracting. I would hate to waste your time by playing detective. If we can't complete the assigned work, you'll have to do it for homework.” Then immediately continue with your lesson. Begin to walk around the room and use proximity to discourage the noise making. If there are still one or two culprits, determine who is making the noise, speak to him/her privately and calmly, stating your expectations. “You need to pick up your pencil and complete today's work without any sounds.” If that student continues, send him to the office immediately.

The best way to handle disruptions is noncoercively. Don't threaten if you can't follow through. Keep your sense of humor. Notice good behaviors and reward them. Sometimes the best reward is a kind word of acknowledgement, such as 'thank you for doing such great work.”


Substitute Teaching from A to Z

How to Use this Book

Subbing Resources

Interesting Subbing Facts

Return to home page