The Substitute Teacher Syndrome

By Sean O’Shea

Ok, first off, I know there are some amazing substitute teachers out there, so please no angry comments from those of you who are awesome!

That said, I think most of us are familiar with the massive atmosphere shift our classroom would undergo when a substitute teacher would show up when we were in school. There was a palpable sense of relief (relief from the usual demands and accountability of our regular teacher/program), and a corresponding excitement about the perception of “looseness” and cracks in the rules that could be exploited.

Now why on earth would a classroom full of the same kids – who just yesterday were respectful, obedient, polite, deferential, and happy to work within the framework of the rules of the classroom – suddenly turn into a bunch of pushy, bratty, opportunistic wild things?

It’s simple. We’re programmed to follow believable leadership and authority, and we’re also programmed to ignore and push against non-believable leadership and authority. It’s in our survival DNA. It’s also in our opportunistic DNA. What can be taken advantage of will be taken advantage of.

The regular teacher, who has been doing the gig for years, has a sense of confidence, certainty, no hesitation, and an air of believability. Step over the bounds, act the fool, and surely consequences shall befall you. He or she exudes this vibe, and the children naturally respect it.

The substitute teacher on the other hand is a part-timer. He or she is likely far less confident and sure. Not having done this for years and years as his or her main gig, he or she hasn’t mastered the fine art of leading…of controlling the room, of being certain, of creating respect by way of presentation and confidence.

And it shows. It shows in the hesitation. It shows in the self-doubt. It shows in the trying to make friends rather than establish rules. It shows in the lack of certainty in their words and movements. It shows in the inability to confidently issue consequences. It shows in the overall energy of the substitute – and it’s this uncertainty, hesitation, and lack of confident energy the kids see. And it’s what makes the the sub vulnerable.

The kids see it, and the kids eat it up. They prey on it. And why shouldn’t they? If you’re not able to be a believable leader, you have to expect pushback. That’s the law of the jungle. Uncertain leaders get led.

And it’s the same with our dogs. We’ve all heard about the dog behaving brilliantly with the trainer and then abominably with the owner the next moment. It’s the exact same thing. The trainer is the experienced teacher. Confident, certain, not hesitating, sure of what to do and when and exactly how to do it. That confidence and certainty is obvious to the dog, and like the kids in the classroom, he or she tends to comply nicely, and most importantly, offers their best work and best selves. Like magic.

The owner on the other hand smacks of the substitute teacher. They’re part-timers. They’re uncertain about the commands, the mechanics, the timing, the sharing of consequences etc. And of course, all this uncertainty and lack of confidence is super apparent to the dog. And so he or she naturally takes advantage of what can be taken advantage of, offering far less than their best work or their best selves.

It’s the substitute teacher syndrome.

So if you’re looking to get your dog and your relationship back into a great space, you gotta get out of the substitute teacher zone. You’ve gotta become the real deal. The experienced, certain, confident teacher/leader that naturally – by way of what you’ve earned, learned and cultivated – causes your dog to behave differently. There are no shortcuts to this. Just ask the substitute teacher. You only get the awesome classroom (and the awesome dog) by putting in the continuous hard work to become the awesome leader, the certain leader, the confident leader, the believable leader.

Lots of practice and hard work is the only gateway to this promised land.


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  1. It’s true. I taught tough, tough gang kids for years. My classroom was productive, fun, and peaceful and yet, these same peaceful, productive students tried (and sort of succeeded) to set fire to a substitute teacher one morning. A look of mine could stop a giggle but her yelling just egged them on. My first dog trainer lamented that I couldn’t bring the same confidence to training my dog.I was the substitute teacher. Oddly enough I couldn’t, until your videos. Watching you. Watching you some times have to work harder than others helped me learn how to carry myself. Walking like “George Jefferson” gave me a bearing that my dog, Buddie, and I could work from. Now, my dog watches me for that same “look” that my students did, and wait for the same encouraging praise.

    • Thanks for sharing that Beth! And I’m so glad our videos (and the George Jefferson!) were helpful! Proud of you. 🙂

  2. My school-room days are very far behind me, but I do remember how we used to treat substitute teachers. I felt sorry for most of them; but that didn’t make much difference. Fast forward 40 or 50 years and I see the need for consistent leadership for my younger dog. (The older one is a senior sweetie who knows and follows the rules.)

  3. Elisha said:

    We love your blogs. We have our balanced dog training business in Paraguay (originally from AZ). We really enjoy reading your blogs and they help us with understanding issues we experience when training a dog or training the human (much harder than the dog). In Paraguay the cultural is very different than the mindset in America when it comes to work ethic. A good amount of our clients have maids, or houseworkers that the client passes off the responsibility too. This is a HUGE issue. Basically it’s a substitute for the substitute…. Ah! Reading this will help me with how we word the importance of dedication, and hard worker for the success of the dog. The cultural norm is something we are really trying to overcome. It not only can create issues for the dog’s success but also for us as trainers so we can become better at what we do.

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