When the Teacher Is Away

dsc_0274For years, I had wanted to travel with my father to India, his native country. Finally, I had the opportunity—but the trip meant I would miss five days of school right after winter break. I was so excited, but more than a little daunted by the challenge of preparing my third graders for such a long absence. I knew that even those students who usually do well at self-management often struggle when a guest teacher is in charge.

As I thought about my time away, I realized that during my absence I wanted the children not just to “behave for the guest teacher” but to grow in their ability to independently reflect on and make choices about their own behavior. To make the most of that opportunity, I’d need to do more than prepare detailed plans for Mrs. Jordan, our guest teacher. I’d also need to prepare the class—and individual students—for success.

Preparing the Class

A few days before leaving, I told the class about my trip. As we discussed how our class community looks when I’m away, the students acknowledged that although they have fairly good days with guest teachers, their behavior does change. We listed common problems: “We’re too loud,” “Some kids call out more,” “We talk more during work times,” and “Sometimes we don’t follow directions.” Charting their ideas, I was struck with how accurately they described the same behaviors noted by past guest teachers.

We made a second list with solutions to these problems: “If it’s hard to do your work because you’re talking, move to a different work spot,” “Listen to your voice level,” “When the guest teacher asks for help, raise your hand so she can call on one person.” I posted the chart in our meeting area so Mrs. Jordan could pull it out to remind the class of our brainstormed solutions.

Choosing Individual Behavior Goals

I also wanted individual students to think about their particular challenges when I am away—controlling their voice levels, listening to directions, etc. Building on a reflection process that was already part of our guest teacher routine, each student chose one behavior goal to work on while I was in India.

We created individual written contracts with each student’s goal at the top and boxes for each day I would be gone. Mrs. Jordan would use the boxes to note how students were doing with their goals. On the back of the contract, students would rate their behavior on a scale of 1 to 5 and explain their reasons for the rating. I hoped these contracts would help students focus on their goal and reflect on their behavior daily.

Reflecting and Reconnecting

The first thing I did when I returned to school was sit down with my students’ contracts and reflections. I’d already talked with Mrs. Jordan, so I knew that with just a few minor bumps, the week had gone smoothly. As I began reading, I saw how closely students’ reflections aligned with Mrs. Jordan’s notes. Hajar gave herself a 3 because “I talked a little bit, but not a lot.” Ethan rated himself a 5 because “I did my best on every worksheet I got or thing to do.” Kidus said he didn’t follow directions a few times, so he gave himself a 4. I was impressed by how reflective and aware of their own behavior the children were. (See an example of the individual written contract I used.)

During language arts, I briefly reconnected with each student in individual meetings. We discussed how the week went and how they did with their behavior goal. One student said she should have moved away from another student because they kept talking. Another realized he didn’t get much done, so we talked about how he could make up the work. After these mini-conferences, several students had strategies to try the next time I was out.

Growing Toward Greater Independence

As we wrapped up our first day back together in our closing circle, I told the students what a great job they’d done reflecting on their behavior and working on their self-regulation. They were becoming independent—they didn’t need me there to remind them to follow the rules or manage their own behavior because they were doing it themselves. Since my trip, leaving the class with a guest teacher has an even more relaxed feel than before. I’ve heard students say, “We’re really good at being with guest teachers!” It’s become part of their class identity—a sure sign of their growing confidence and competence.


Suzy Ghosh teaches third grade students at Bush Hill Elementary School in Alexandria, Virginia. She is a Responsive Classroom consulting teacher.

Tags: Classroom Rules, Independence, Responsibililty, Substitute Teacher

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