The teacher-floater: Let’s define best practices
by Elizabeth Morgan Russell
What, you may ask, is a teacher-floater? This person, often called simply a floater, is a teacher who works in more than one classroom, at the same center, on a regular basis. Floaters employed by a specific program are sometimes referred to as permanent substitutes. They may act as lead teachers, co-teachers, or assistant teachers in the classroom. They are included in the staff-to-child ratio, provide direct child care and education services, and support the lead teacher.
Although teacher-floaters are an integral part of the early care and education team, best practice guidelines for floaters are nonexistent. A best practice is a strategy or procedure that leads to success in a field. Providing quality care for young children is a measure of success in the field of early care and education. We searched local, state, and national resources and found nothing that specifically addressed best practices for teacher-floaters and their unique needs and challenges.
Starting the discussion
The purpose of this article is to begin a discussion among early care and education professionals about best practices for this teaching role. This is important because all the teaching staff in the classroom contribute to the quality of child care experienced by the children (Shim, Hestenes, and Cassidy 2004).
To get started, we first gathered information from several teachers with floating experience. We asked them about floater responsibilities, training/education, and challenges as well as benefits unique to their role as floaters. We asked them what support floaters need from their supervisor/director, other teachers, and parents.
In addition, we found that the best practices for co-teaching/team-teaching and substitute teaching were pertinent, and so we pulled extensively from that literature.
The good news is that teachers with floater experience voiced meaningful benefits:
You are able to work with all classrooms, age groups, and teaching styles to get a better idea of what age group you would prefer to work with in the future.
Every day is a unique experience. It is never like the day before and there are always new challenges and opportunities. The most rewarding part is when the children yell out your name in joy and when you receive your first art work from them. It is a rewarding feeling when you receive that recognition from children and create a relationship with them.
What follows is a summary of information and strategies you may find helpful if you are interested in developing best practices for teacher-floaters as well as addressing their needs and challenges. Implications for best practices appear at the end of this article.
If you hire/supervise teacher-floaters
Be welcoming. Boykin (2003) urges directors to set the stage for success right from the start. She suggests that directors provide a notebook filled with pertinent information at the beginning of the orientation. The notebook for floaters ideally will include information about the following:
Expectations unique to the teacher-floater role
how and when they will be informed of their daily assignment(s)
their specific responsibilities
the importance of flexibility
the importance of their role to the overall program functioning
the benefits of being a teacher-floater
Every classroom in which the teacher-floater will work
names and ages of children in each classroom
names and backgrounds of teachers in each classroom
daily schedule for each classroom
current parent letters for each classroom
curriculum for each classroom
developmental information related to each age group
General information about the early care and education program
program mission statement and vision
physical layout of the program
ages of children served in the program
guidelines for working with parents
The teacher-floater can add material to the notebook throughout the orientation and beyond.
If teacher-floaters have already been working in your program, a similar notebook could be provided. They would benefit from a coherent overview of each classroom, as well as the entire program. Such an overview would help address two issues raised by teacher-floaters: They often work with multiple age groups, and they may not know in which classroom they will work until they arrive that day. As one teacher-floater wrote:
You can be pulled out of your usual room and placed in three or five different classrooms at once without any knowledge. It is difficult to keep up with the schedule changes they arrange without notifying you. It is especially difficult because you have to mentally prepare for each classroom you go into so as to be prepared as soon as you walk through the door.
Be innovative. Try a nontraditional approach to orienting teacher-floaters. Carter (2001) suggests that directors spread orientation over several days, beginning with an overview of the program’s mission, vision, and values. Rules for interacting with, assessing, and guiding children as well as interacting with parents can be reviewed via pertinent journal articles (See, for example, the Texas Child Care Quarterly index at www.childcarequarterly.com/index_curriculum.html) and DVDs (such as those offered by the National Association for the Education of Young Children at www.naeyc.org/search/apachesolr_multisitesearch/dvds).
The orientation ideally would include time observing and visiting in each classroom where the teacher-floater will be working. Time in the classroom can be spent familiarizing the teacher-floater with the children and schedules, practicing program assessments and documentation methods, as well as analyzing guidance measures. Classroom observations/visits can alternate with time for reading the staff and parent handbooks as well as writing an autobiography. The autobiography, including work-related education and experiences, can be posted on the parent bulletin board (Carter 2001).
An added benefit of the observation and visit times is familiarity. The more familiar teacher-floaters are to the children and teachers in the classrooms where they’ll be teaching, the more comfortable the children, teachers, and teacher-floaters will be (Gresham, Donihoo, and Cox 2008). As one teacher-floater pointed out:
Being the new, unfamiliar person in the classroom can cause a lot of children to become shy and disengaged. It is difficult when you go from classroom to classroom and are unable to form a bond with the children.
Children expect their teachers to call them by name (Neugebauer 1991). You can accomplish this by giving each child a name tag. Quick and cheap name tags can be made with masking tape. Write the child’s first name on a piece of tape and attach it to the back of the child’s shirt for easier viewing (Neugebauer 1991).
Be a role model. Model and educate teaching staff how to supervise the teacher-floater (Boykin 2003). At a minimum, supervising teachers ideally would know how to provide constructive feedback as well as the following (McCormick et al. 2001):
notice and re-examine their interactions with peers,
discuss and evaluate options objectively,
follow through on agreements and responsibilities in a timely fashion,
foster trust with co-workers,
find areas of agreement, and
talk to, listen to, and respect differences among teachers.
Being respected and having ongoing communication were needs voiced by multiple teacher-floaters. When asked what kinds of support, one teacher wrote that she needed:
respect from and to see eye-to-eye with my director/supervisor,
respect, team work, and communication from my co-workers, and
respect, team work, and communication from other teacher-floaters.
Respect can be shown to teacher-floaters in multiple ways. For example, invite teacher-floaters to join “staff meetings, training sessions, and staff and parent social occasions” (Neugebauer 1991). Provide training the teacher-floaters in your program need to develop professionally. Those we contacted expressed interest in seminars about child development, age-appropriate guidance and activities, and conflict management for children.
Be a communicator. Stay in contact with the teacher-floater and the supervising/lead teacher throughout the orientation and beyond (Carter 2001). Listen to their concerns, be impartial, and assist them in resolving any differences using the problem-solving approach summarized below (McCormick et al. 2001). It is reminiscent of the approach teachers use to help young children settle disagreements with peers.
If you are a teacher who works with a teacher-floater
Be welcoming. Bowden (2014), Boykin (2003), Carter (2001), and Neugebauer (1991) have suggested multiple ways to welcome substitute teachers. Many of these same strategies can be used with teacher-floaters:
Prior to the teacher-floater’s arrival, talk to the children about their new teacher. Express anticipation and pleasure about the new teacher.
Help the children make name tags that can be pinned or taped to the back of their clothing.
Brainstorm with the children how they can welcome the new teacher.
Introduce the teacher-floater to the children when he or she arrives.
Greet the teacher-floater every time he or she arrives and say goodbye when he or she leaves for the day.
Introduce the teacher-floater to parents.
If time permits, inform parents of the teacher-floater’s start date prior to his or her arrival. Communicate the responsibilities and hours of the teacher-floater to parents in person and in writing. This step will help them have realistic expectations about what information the teacher-floater can provide about their children. It is equally important that you carefully consider what information you ask the teacher-floater to share with parents.
One teacher-floater shared her thoughts about passing along information about children to their parents:
It is difficult to give parents bad news because you are unaware of what the cause was. They will get frustrated and take it out on you or bombard you with a ton of questions. It’s difficult because you can see the look in their face and that is how they will see you when interacting with you in the future. That you are incompetent.
Create a space for the teacher-floater’s belongings and teaching materials. Provide written information that the teacher-floater can add to the orientation notebook, such as the following:
a detailed schedule of the entire day,
a copy of the weekly activity schedule,
a roll sheet containing children’s photos, and,
a list of each child’s interests.
These welcoming strategies will convey to the teacher-floater that he or she is part of the teaching team (Bowden 2014).
Being welcoming also fosters a positive start to a new working relationship. It conveys respect and models your expectations for teacher-to-teacher interactions. For example, to model the importance of regular communication between teachers, create a system for letting the teacher-floater know how the children’s day has gone prior to his or her arrival. This could be a written or verbal system. Create a written system for sharing information you want communicated to parents.
Be a team player. Teachers who work as a harmonious team are more likely to provide high quality care and enjoy teaching. Specifically, harmonious team-teaching is linked to “greater quality of the socialization and communicative environment and use of space and materials for learning” (McCormick, Noonan, Ogata, and Heck 2001). Teachers who are in harmony with each other are more responsive to and sensitive with the children in their care.
In contrast, friction can have a negative impact on you, the children, and the teacher-floater. For example, one teacher-floater wrote the following about challenges with co-workers:
Some will contradict what you are doing and it will make you feel bad. It is especially difficult when it is in front of the children or parents. It makes you feel belittled and questions why you do what you do. Sometimes you may feel helpless and that you are not needed in the classroom.
Teachers who are able to collaborate with each other are more likely to create and sustain a harmonious teaching team (McCormick, Noonan, Ogata, and Heck 2001). Striving for team harmony can cultivate characteristics of successful collaborators, including the following:
being open to changes and new ideas,
being confident in their knowledge and skills,
practicing flexibility in making schedule and other changes,
acting professionally with children, other teachers, and parents,
planning developmentally appropriate activities,
supporting other teachers, and
being dedicated to teaching.
Having a teacher-floater in the classroom creates an opportunity for team-teaching, which is associated with higher levels of child care quality than the traditional lead teacher/assistant teacher model (Shim, Hestenes, and Cassidy 2004). A classroom teacher who collaborates with the teacher-floater can experiment with team-teaching models. Common to all these models is the focus on providing quality care for young children.
Multiple team-teaching models apply to early care and education (adapted from Sileo 2011):
One teach. One observe. While one teacher moves about the classroom, the other observes and documents children’s engagement with materials, each other, and the teacher. The observer can also complete sections of a developmental checklist based upon his or her observations.
Parallel teaching. Both teachers engage the children in teacher-directed, small-group activities. For example, teachers can play age-appropriate table games with groups of older children.
Station teaching. During free play, one teacher can supervise a specific activity, such as cooking, while the other teacher moves about the entire room.
One teach. One assist. During large group time, one teacher can lead the group while the other teacher helps individual children to stay engaged, as needed.
Be a problem-solver. Not all teachers “know how to work, communicate and collaborate with other adults,” but those wanting to take steps toward collaboration can find problem solving models (McCormick et al. 2001).
Disagreements between teachers are inevitable. For example, they may differ over the division of labor. Sileo (2011) suggests teachers follow a seven-step process when resolving differences:
1. Identify the issue. Teachers state their perceptions of the problem. They listen quietly and respectfully to each other. Example: Angelina, the teacher-floater, asserts that she is being assigned whatever Elise, the lead teacher, “doesn’t want to do.” She feels that her abilities and knowledge are being underused.
Elise responds that, as the lead teacher, she has the responsibility for ensuring that the children meet their developmental outcomes. She feels answerable to the children, parents, and the program.
2. Develop alternative courses of action. Teachers brainstorm possible ways to address the problem. The status quo is an option. Example: Angelina and Elise identify three potential courses of action:
1. Continue the same division of responsibilities.
2. Provide opportunities for Angelina to plan
3. Provide opportunities for Angeline to plan and implement activities.
3. Analyze the risks and benefits of each course of action. Teachers discuss the possible outcomes of each option. Outcomes include positive and negative consequences for the working relationship. Example: They agree that continuing the same division of responsibilities is unfair to Angelina. Elise is hesitant about implementing Angelina’s activities without her oversight.
4. Choose a course of action. Teachers agree upon which option to implement. They set a deadline for checking back with each other. Example: They compromise on the second option: Angelina will plan three activities and Elise will provide feedback about them.
5. Take action. Teachers implement the chosen option. Example: Angelina plans three activities over the next week, and Elise reviews them for developmental appropriateness.
6. Evaluate results of the action. Teachers discuss the outcomes of the chosen option. Outcomes include their feelings. Example: Elise is pleased that all three activities are developmentally appropriate and are geared to the interests of the children in their care. Angelina is excited about the feedback.
7. Assume responsibility for the consequences, correct potentially negative consequences, or re-engage in the decision-making process. Teachers agree upon the next steps. Example: Elise and Angelina agree to a new division of responsibilities. Angelina will plan and implement three activities each week. Elise will take over some of the less appealing jobs such as cleaning paint pots and the easel. They will try this new division for one month and then meet to reevaluate their plan.
If you are a teacher who is a floater
Be informed. Children thrive on routines, and young children will need your guidance throughout the day. Prior to your first day of teaching, obtain or create detailed copies of the daily schedule for each of your classrooms. Additionally, if not provided, ask the director or teachers about the school’s mission and each classroom’s teaching philosophy, curriculum, and guidance policies. Take time to familiarize yourself with each of these essential components of best practices (Gresham, Donihoo, and Cox 2008).
Additionally, be familiar with the director’s and classroom teachers’ expectations for your responsibilities, which may vary from class to class. When asked about their responsibilities, teacher-floaters wrote they were responsible for the following:
conducting class and providing the same help and teachings the classroom teachers apply,
maintaining the safety, health, and overall positive development of the children under their care before they go home from the child care facility,
assisting the main classroom teacher in carrying out daily activities/curriculum with the children, and
responding effectively to any of the children’s needs and guiding them to be socially competent.
Be friendly. Knowing that high teacher turnover is an ongoing problem, remember that some children may be wary of you until you are a consistent part of their classroom experience. You may be able to enhance their trust by greeting each child when you arrive and saying goodbye to each child before you leave. As part of your parting ritual, let them know when you’ll return.
Parents expect their children’s teachers to know about their children’s day. You may both feel frustrated when you cannot answer questions related to the children’s entire day. You can lessen parents’ and your own levels of frustration by informing them of the limits of your knowledge and authority as soon as possible. For example, when introducing yourself to parents in person and via a brief note, include the hours you work. You might say, for example, “Hi. I’m Matilda, the new afternoon teacher. I can answer your questions about Mina’s afternoon.”
Be prepared. Although the classroom teacher is responsible for planning activities, you can assemble the props and resources you’ll need to lead transitions between activities, to substitute for activities that do not go as planned, or expand upon planned activities. Being prepared in this way will allow you to step in when the classroom teacher must unexpectedly leave the room or the playground. In other words, be prepared for the unexpected in each classroom where you are working (Gresham, Donihoo, and Cox 2008).
Preparation also allows you to demonstrate professionalism and teaching expertise. You may be hoping the part-time floater position will be a stepping stone to a full-time lead teacher or co-teacher position. Demonstrating your teaching competence can make a positive impression on the other teachers, your supervisor, and the director (Gresham, Donihoo, and Cox 2008; Boykin 2003).
Be professional. Although there may be times when you will be asked to do less appealing chores such as cleaning the gerbil cage, try to do so with a grin. If a change in the division of labor is warranted, approach the issue with professionalism, as outlined above.
Implications for best practices
Classroom teachers, teacher-floaters, directors, and other interested members of the early care and education community may consider best practices for the teacher-floater position as suggested below:
Provide a thorough orientation geared to the teacher-floater role.
• Include times to observe and visit each classroom in which the teacher-floater will be working.
• Provide clear expectations of the teacher-floater’s role and responsibilities.
• Introduce the teacher-floater to the classroom teachers, children, and parents.
• Inform parents of the limits of the teacher-floater’s roles and responsibilities.
• Equip teacher-floaters with written information specific to each classroom in which they will work.
Provide as much advance notice of their daily assignment(s) as possible.
Limit the number of classrooms in which teachers “float.”
Model respect for the teacher-floater.
Teach classroom teachers how to support and supervise fellow teachers.
Teach all teachers how to problem-solve with fellow teachers.
Identify and use the pertinent knowledge, skills, and talents of teacher-floaters.
Communicate with the teacher-floater on a regular basis.
Provide professional development opportunities.
Develop a teacher-to-teacher communication system.
Negotiate a fair division of classroom labor.
Experiment with team-teaching.
If you are questioning how you would find the time and resources needed to implement best practices, you may want to consider the time and funds you currently spend in recruiting and training new teacher-floaters (Carter 2001).
Join the discussion
Teacher-floaters are an integral part of the early care and education team. How to best support them and use their skills and knowledge are topics that require further discussion. We encourage you and your colleagues to discuss and elaborate upon the best practices suggested here.
Bowden, Shelly Hudson. 2014. A top ten list for helping substitute teachers. Young Children, 69 (1), 28-31.
Boykin, Celia Martin. 2003. Setting the stage for a substitute’s success. Child Care Information Exchange, September/October, 74-77.
Carter, Margie. 2001. Right from the start: Changing our approach to staff orientation. Child Care Information Exchange, 9, 79-81.
Gresham, Jeanie, John Donihoo, and Tanisha Cox. 2008. Five strategies to enhance your substitute teaching. Education Digest, January, 34-38.
McCormick, Linda, Mary Jo Noonan, Veronica Ogata, and Ronald Heck. 2001. Co-teacher relationship and program quality: Implications for preparing teachers for inclusive preschool settings. Education and Training in Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities, 36 (2), 119-132.
Neugebauer, Bonnie. 1991. Substitutes—we’re the real thing! 1991. Child Care Information Exchange, November/December, 19-25.
Shim, Jonghee, Linda Hestenes, and Deborah Cassidy. 2004. Teacher structure and child care quality in preschool classrooms. Journal of Research in Childhood Education, 19 (2), 143-157.
Sileo, Jane M. 2011. Co-teaching: Getting to know your partner. Council for Exceptional Children, 41 (5), 32-38.
About the author
Elizabeth Morgan Russell, Ph.D., teaches graduate students in the School of Family and Consumer Sciences at Texas State University. She has presented at local, state, and national conferences, and taught preschoolers for more than ten years.