Seven Simple Steps for Successful Substitute Teaching


Seven Simple Steps for Successful Substitute TeachingA bit burnt out from being a stay-at-home mom and running a modest in-home business, but still unable to coordinate a return to college to complete my teaching degree, I began to explore the idea of substitute teaching. I had enough credit hours to qualify for subbing in our school district. One background check, fingerprinting, and orientation later, and I was in the classroom.

There I stood, that bright fall morning, in front of twenty-some third-graders. And I just knew I’d be able to encourage them and wow them into acting like bright-faced little angels, hanging on to my every word. They were going to love me because I was the sub and all students love subs, right?


An hour in and several frazzled nerves later, and I had quickly realized that all the orientating and philosophizing in the world is nothing compared to actually being in the den with the lions. (Yes, I did just compare elementary students to flesh-tearing beasts, and if you have subbed in elementary school before, you understand why I might categorize them this way.)

I made it through the day, a bit worse for the wear, but nonetheless determined not to give up. I really wanted to give this thing a go! And now, nearly three years later – and after hundreds of hours in dozens and dozens of different classrooms from preschool through high school – I have learned to not only love what I do, but how to survive, and even flourish, as a substitute teacher.

Seven Simple Steps for Successful Substitute Teaching

1. Arrive early.

I try to be in the classroom 30 to 45 minutes before students arrive. This gives me time to review the lesson plans and track down other teachers or administrators (or that custodian with a key for the locked room) if I have any questions or concerns.

2. Communicate with teachers as much, and as often, as possible.

If you are given an assignment a few days in advance, or you begin subbing regularly in a single school, take the time to get to know the teachers. Utilize e-mail, or if you know you will be in Ms. Smith’s class tomorrow, stop by on your way out after your day in Mr. Jones’ class, introduce yourself, and ask if there is anything you need to know for the upcoming assignment.

Openly communicating with the teaching staff goes hand-in-hand with number three:

3. Document everything.

I am a note taker, so this is a no-brainer for me. As the day progresses and just before I leave, I compose a letter for the teacher, letting him or her know what we accomplished, any issues we may have had (behavioral or otherwise), and any stand-out students for that day.

The first year that I subbed, I was in an 80-school district with several hundred subs that utilized the Subfinder system (an automated messaging system for teacher absence reporting and substitute teacher placement). I created personalized stationary in a desktop publishing program, printed up a slew, and kept my resource binder stocked. At the top, I included my name, phone number, and Subfinder ID number so that they could contact me or request me for future assignments.

4. Take control of the classroom.

There is a fine line between being too dictatorial and too lax in a classroom, especially when you are only going to be there one day and may never see those students again. And they know this! Sometimes, I look at a class and say, “Listen, I am not here to be your friend. I am here to make sure you learn something and get your work done for the day, even though your teacher isn’t present. If I get to be your friend in the process, it’s a bonus. But if not, that’s okay with me.”

They are going to be talkative and they are going to push – at any age and grade! Don’t be afraid to push back. At the beginning of a long term assignment two years ago, I had to call security on a half dozen eighth graders who decided that they didn’t have to listen to me because I was “just a sub”. I called their bluff, they were escorted out, and the little darlings were a much different group the next day and for the remainder of the term.

Often times you are going to have to be tough at the onset. I have found that it saves time and effort (and my voice!) if I state the rules and expectations up front. I also let them know that we may do things differently than usual because I am not their teacher. I try to stick with what they are used to, but I also let them know that I am not “Ms. Baker” and if we veer a bit off course for the day, just hang on for the ride.

Occasionally I bring treats to reward good behavior (save the sweet ones for the end of the day), and I’ve also used games and activities. I usually let middle and high school students know up front that if we get through the work for that day, they can chat it up at the end of class. But if they talk when they are supposed to be working, they wasted their “free time”, and we will work till the end.

Being able to control the class also helps insure you are asked to return. No teacher or administrator wants to leave their classrooms in the hands of someone who lets the students run all over them.

5. Be flexible and ready to improvise.

You get to the classroom and there isn’t a lesson plan in sight (you later find out that the teacher’s two-year-old started puking that morning, so she emailed the plans, but since the school’s network is down, those very plans are floating somewhere in cyberspace). Or the phone rings at 8:00 AM and they ask you to sub for high school music. Oh, and class begins in 15 minutes and your commute is ten (and you are still in your pjs).

The art of substitute teaching is often the art of improvisation. Many schools require teachers to keep an emergency lesson plan accessible for subs, but I have only seen this in actuality about 50% of the time. And even the best of lesson plans needs adjusting at times. This can be a bit daunting, but this can also be an opportunity to be creative and actually teach (often subs are only given “busy work” to assign to the class).

Before you ever enter a classroom, consider checking out teacher resource websites to compile a resource binder of grade-appropriate activities. Some school districts provide a binder or resource packet at orientation, which is a handy place to begin collecting and storing activities and games, puzzle sheets, and basic lesson plans.

It is also a good idea to take a change of clothes with you. They may have called you in for PE that morning, but by the time you arrive, they have decided you will be in a Literature class (and sweats just won’t do). Take it in stride and be ready for changes in assignment and schedule (and the occasional fire drill).

6. Take advantage of any and all training offered.

The first district I subbed in offered monthly training classes in a variety of areas – and it was free! This was an amazing resource. It built confidence, and it provided a peek into the curriculums the schools were using. If it has been a while since you were in school, you are in for a surprise when you look through that third grade math book.

And if nothing else, if you are a parent with school-aged children, it might just help you help your kids with their homework!

7. Don’t be afraid to say yes. Or no.

When you first begin subbing, accept assignments for as many grades and schools as possible. You may be surprised by what you enjoy the most.

When I first signed on, I thought I would prefer elementary school. I was registered at my boys’ school and the calls just weren’t coming in. But my daughter’s middle school always had openings.

Middle schoolers? Are you kidding me?!

I finally took the plunge and quickly realized that I liked that age the most. So, do not limit yourself (to grades or subjects), at least not at first.

However, as soon as you know your preferences and limitations, do not be afraid to decline that assignment. And do not feel guilty about it! Part of the beauty of substitute teaching is that you can choose when you work. If you are responsible and dependable, even when you have to turn a job down because of that dentist appointment or sick kid at home, they will call back. If you do your job and do it well, and you will not lack for assignments (usually more than you want!).

One final thought:

Have fun!

If you have been subbing and you find that you are dreading that early morning phone call, this may not be the vocation for you. But if you find yourself all charged up by the idea that you could be stepping into a new classroom never really knowing what you might find, but loving the challenge, you are on your way to being a successful and confident substitute teacher.

(And believe me, our schools need more just like you!)


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