Usability

What’s happening in your kid’s class: Substitutes vs. Students

How serious are we about educating our youth? You hear it time and time again that the children are our future and most precious resources. It is important that they receive an excellent education. What happens when the teacher is out for weeks and a substitute comes in to take their place? How will the substitute treated? Will the students learn? The observation for this ethnography occurred at a local middle school. Over the course of one week, 7th and 8th grade student interaction was observed and documented. Observations occurred during peak times of the day: class changes, lunch, and dismissal.


The school in this study has many accomplishments. Passing standardized test scores, award winning athletic clubs and teams, and STEM classes. Yet, there is a growing problem that many schools are facing around the nation. How to handle the disintegrating relationship between substitutes and students. Substitute teachers are a valuable component in our educational system. Many come to our schools with degrees in a variety of subjects including education, and many have a genuine interest in the success of our students. Yet, substitutes are feeling the brunt of student abuse. The goal of this ethnography is to observe how students interact with substitutes and what remedies are available to improve the relationship and promote learning when the regular teacher is not available.
This year, a shocking video emerged showing Chicago high school students bullying a teacher. It caused shock and outrage across the nation. The substitute teacher was cursed at, had a desk held over head and was told not to call for help. Several questions emerged. Why isn’t security patrolling the halls? Are our children this out of control? Should substitutes (and teachers for that matter) be armed? Countless questions run through your mind and one cannot help but wonder if anyone is safe in our nation’s schools.
teacher bullied
Image 1: Images from Chicago substitute teacher being bullied on video

The students in the observed school for this ethnography are not using weapons like desks to combat substitutes but they are causing a lot of problems which lead substitutes to refuse to return ultimately preventing students from learning. One hundred and thirteen students were observed over the course of this week. At first knowledge of the class having a substitute, the students pumped their fists in the air and made comments like “Yes” signaling their excitement. It is well known that many students view days with substitutes as a free day or a day of terror (all directed at the substitute). These verbal and non-verbal actions came from male and female students of all races, learning abilities and backgrounds. As one student commented in an informal interview regarding this subject, “It is the bad kid and the good kid” who misbehave even when they know it’s not the right thing to do. Of these misbehaving students, three males enrolled in eighth grade stood out.
On most days the behavior they exhibited was appalling. They kicked on the door (after being denied entry), disturbed other classes, attempted to force entry into classrooms, and overall made the substitute’s tenure in the classroom a nightmare.

'I presume you're the substitute teacher?'
Image 2: Interaction between office and substitute

It brings back to focus, the incident in Chicago. Those high school students were once middle school students. These negative behaviors did not form overnight. They were allowed to fester. The good news is two of these male students displayed positive turn-around behavior by mid-week of the observation. Since this time, one of the boys has formed a nice relationship with the substitute and is following all directives. Likewise, class behavior has improved across the board as the students and substitute have begun to build positive relationships. They are learning about each other’s background and working on classroom assignments of high student interest.
So what’s the answer? Is it carrying weapons, or retaining a substitute from hell like Viola Swamp, made famous in Harry Allard’s books? The answer to these questions is a resounding No! If you ask students, substitutes and teachers the answer is simple: Respect! viola_swamp2

Image 3: Viola Swamp from “Miss Nelson is Missing” by Harry Allard.

Students must respect the substitute and treat them like they would their regular teacher. Substitutes must come into the classroom with the goal of making connections with the students. Once administrators join in and provide positive support, all parties involved will display mutual respect and the classroom can be one focused on learning.