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.

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How do I handle too many "special helpers?"

Dear Barbara,

I have previous teaching experience but have been out for more than ten years. I've been back subbing now for seven days on and off, grades 2-4 so far. I'm finding that while I'm able to control the class as a whole, I'm having trouble with too many children wanting to tell me “important” things. When I was the regular teacher, I knew what was what, and there was no reason for kids to constantly have something important to tell me. But I find that as the sub, if I allow no “tips,” I miss something that really was important. If I allow individuals to tell me everything, I have an almost constant stream of children with something to tell me. I'd say one out of every ten things was something I really needed to know, and if I'd allowed no one to tell me anything, I'd have missed something important.

To try to quell this stream of “tips,” I tell the children we're going to follow the teacher's wonderful plans she left (so they're not telling me about X they always do on Tuesdays, etc.). But there's just no way I can think of to tell them what is important for them to tell me and what's not (until I hear it).

I do already quite often say, “hands down.” But because these are young kids, there are a lot of transitions which tends to be when the “tips” come in. Some of the “tips” are in the form of a question. I'm just exhausted beyond belief by all this. It takes too much time, too.

Examples: Starting to explain their complicated behavior system. Asking if we're going to gym. Asking if they can do X, Y, or Z that the teacher allows. Telling me they usually do this activity in pairs. Asking if they can go to the bathroom. Telling me they forgot the book at home. Telling me the teacher lets them take individualized comprehension tests on the computer throughout the day when they're done with their classwork early. Telling me they have a paper cut. Telling me they need to go now to Mrs. M for Resource.

Several of those were things I needed to know. Quite a few were unnecessary and just slow us down and wear me out since this goes on throughout the day. I would say I'm getting 10-20 tips and questions an hour. Maybe 1-3 were necessary.

A friend suggested I write out the schedule on the board to stop at least that type of question/tip. That would be great except I rarely have time (due to my morning schedule with my own family) or the board space to write out a schedule.

For me, this is such a problem it's ruining the day for me. I actually like the other aspects of subbing and wish I had the mental energy to listen to the occasional child tell me about their new puppy at home and that type of thing. But with so much of this going on all day, a sweet moment like that just becomes part of the barrage, so to speak.



Lori in Illinois

Hi Lori,

I understand exactly what you mean about the "tips". Students try to be helpful. Sometimes they try to outdo one another. Their "help" becomes another problem for you to manage.

I have a wonderful solution for you:

Choose a "special helper". That student will be by your side for most of the morning, as you navigate your way through the attendance and lunch count, morning routine, etc. By mid morning, you will be able to work without your helper, but he/she will be "on call" when you are unsure of a routine. Your special helper should be instructed to raise a quiet hand or signal you if you are making a huge mistake in procedure.

Be sure to tell the class that only the special helper may give you tips. That will stop the chaos.

Sometimes I like to choose 2 special helpers. They can work together, or one will be the morning helper, the other for the afternoon.

A colleague of mine has another spin on the special helper technique. She chooses one helper who is an obvious well behaved student, and the other will be a more difficult student. She asks them both to move their desks next to hers for the day. It is considered an honor, and usually that difficult student will want to rise to the occasion!

I know that this "tip" will make your day go more smoothly!


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