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As a substitute teacher, you’ve probably encountered some students who are challenging to work with. You’ve tried everything, but no classroom management tactic has worked.

Greg Kates can relate. He’s one of our substitute teachers in Colorado who has taught both full classrooms and one-on-one as a paraprofessional.

In an interview about his experience as a substitute teacher, he shared how he approached challenges with tricky students and behavior.

Ultimately, his consistent warmth and positive reinforcement proved to be his most effective superpower.

We hope this 3rd episode in our Scoot Street blog series inspires you when you’re dealing with your troublemakers.

Getting to know Greg

What is your name and what kind of classroom do you help teach?

Greg: My name is Gregory Kates and with Scoot, I have been a one-on-one para, a science teacher, a math teacher at one point. Mostly science, para, language arts and English.

So what led you to start subbing?

I decided to start subbing because teaching was always my dream, but it always felt super inaccessible without a grad degree.

At first I was definitely concerned, but Scoot just jumped in and made my dream super accessible.

I’ve done long-term positions for Scoot too, which means I was basically doing what I would be doing with the license, without having one.

I think this is important because I’ve been through so many different classrooms, from stressful classrooms to more light classrooms, to all sorts of different students. Now with all that experience, when I become a real teacher, I know exactly what I’m doing.

What is your favorite thing about being a substitute teacher?

I love the students. They always make me happy. I get lots of words of affirmation as long as I’m trying hard to get lots of, “Mr. K, you’re really cool.” Or if I go to preschool, I’m leaving there with at least 10 notes or drawings.

If you try hard and you’re willing to create a relationship with the students, they’re always gonna treat you really nicely because you’re something new and interesting to them. And you’re not the same old, same old.

It’s fantastic. I love hanging out with students.

The other day, I was at school and they had a dance. Everyone was dancing. Some of the students started dancing. So I started dancing. I did the worm, I did a handstand and walked and they all got super excited.

You know, just seeing the bright, happy faces of all the students. That’d be the biggest part.

4 Examples of handling challenging student behavior

Could you share with me some examples of challenging, but rewarding experiences in the classroom?
Example 1 – Redirect energy to more positive activities

Greg: I was a para for a kid who was an incredible young student. He had down syndrome and he was super lively.

It was just all day, me running around making sure that he was okay. It was so incredible because I was able to be there for a long time and help him with every single thing he needed.

Also, I was able to help him get out of his shell, have more fun–in a way that’s constructive–[because he used to] like biting people a lot.

We started biting less, running more, biting less, dancing more. It was so great to be in his life.

Example 2 – Fight fire with patience and respect

Another example was with a student who had autism. There were a few times he would engage in physical altercations with me. And at first, it was difficult to see beyond that and I thought that was a really bad thing.

But after I showed him that I was here to help him and not just to be a destructive, authoritarian adult in his life, he ended up really liking me and being super loving. Loved hanging out every second.

Example 3 – Set expectations and understand the reasons behind student behavior

I used to work with another student who at first went up to me and said, “You know, I fight substitute teachers, right?”

Then I said, “Well, I don’t think that worked out very well for you. I don’t think that’d be very constructive. We’re trying to learn here,” in a nice tone.

I continued to check in with him, let him talk it out. I did the dance moves–that always gets kids laughing.

Soon enough we had an emotional bond and instead of what he was doing before–saying he was going to fight teachers or he was on his phone, which is not allowed–he did his [schoolwork] packet and then hung out with the rest of us!

Right now I’m painting a picture of the job being kind of hard, which it is, but it’s rewarding!

Example 4 – Compromise slightly to encourage students to be on task instead of just saying “no”

Lastly, I was with a student who wasn’t doing her work. She kept drawing. Her drawings were really good. She was super nice, well-behaved and quiet when I asked people to be quiet, but she still wasn’t doing her work.

So I got a little tired of it, but I couldn’t just keep saying no because sometimes you keep saying no and they do it anyway. And what do you have to do? You have to call culture or the dean and that doesn’t feel good. I try to do that as little as possible. It has to happen sometimes, but I try to make sure to handle the classroom myself.

She was drawing eyes, but I noticed that her eyes didn’t have the spot to really give it that realism. It gives it that pop because it’s the light reflecting off of the eyes.

So I showed her how to draw that. She got really excited, finished her drawing, and put it away and did her work.

Greg’s takeaway

Greg: Seeing all these incredible students responding to feedback is amazing. When I let loose occasionally, do the worm, draw with them, they learn to participate and love you after that.

And that’s just what a student has given me.
Just a place to try a million things, make a bunch of mistakes, learn from them, grow and create a million great relationships with these students.

Closing advice

What advice would you give to someone subbing for the very first time?

Greg: Go for it because it’s an incredible experience. You will make a lot of mistakes, but you’ll learn a lot.

As long as you respect the students, help them, and learn to not just be this super rules-oriented, crazy person. Just meet them with compassion and empathy. Sky’s the limit. These kids will love you forever.

If you could describe your experience with Scoot in one word, what would it be?

Greg: Rewarding. I feel like that’s gotta be the word.

Subbing is a very hard job in a lot of aspects, but if you’re focused and you have the right mindset, it’s so incredible and it’s better than anything I’ve ever done by far.

The team at Scoot is so supportive. The nature of subbing is that many of us have lots of gifts and skills to bring, but we’re not real teachers, so we can’t do everything right.

But Scoot has given me a million opportunities. They’ve been super supportive at every turn. If I ever have a problem, they’ve just given me feedback. They don’t look for reasons to be mad at me.

This opportunity has made my dreams come true. I’m on the fast track to becoming a teacher and I never thought that’d be possible for a while. Without Scoot, I would’ve continued being a construction worker, just hanging out.


Never underestimate the difference of kindness you can make for your students.

Remember to stay the course and stick by these methods:

  • Set expectations: Don’t be afraid to tell your students what constructive behavior is. But always remember to keep a gentle and firm tone. And take note when you’re repeating yourself too much.
  • Build relationships with your kids: Show them you love and care. They’ll grow to trust you and feel encouraged to be on better behavior. Being interested in their interests is a good place to start!
  • Compromise: Work with them to encourage good behavior and cooperation. If that means adjusting expectations, communicate that to them. For example, if you have a talkative group, allow them to work together or in pairs quietly.

Want to sub with us?

We hope this interview has encouraged you if you’re an educator yourself! If you’re thinking about teaching, consider applying to Scoot Education.

We’re a substitute teacher staffing company dedicated to creating exceptional experiences in education.

As a Scoot sub, you’ll get ultimate flexibility in your work schedule, 1-on-1 support through a personal Education Consultant, and market leading pay.

Apply today!