Top Tips for Substitute Teachers

Substitute teachers face some of the greatest challenges of all educators. Students often view substitutes as uninvolved and not professional, and they feel like it’s easy to get away with more when subs are in the classroom. Students often don’t pay attention to or respect subs, and they commonly get off task or just outright refuse to do classwork. They tend to think that having a substitute means a free day of messing around in class or just watching a movie, even though the teacher and sub may have other specific plans. No matter if you’re subbing for first grade or twelfth, you are sure to face plenty of challenges when you’re taking the place of a teacher for a day or for an extended period of time. We know you want to learn how to be a successful substitute teacher, and learning that can seem overwhelming. From preparation to setting expectations to classroom management, you can avoid some of the biggest challenges of being a substitute teacher with these helpful tips for substitute teachers.

Arrive Early

It can be hard to get to the classroom early when you’re subbing, especially if the regular teacher called in late or something occurred during the day that required your services. If you can, get to the classroom as early as possible. Spend that time going over lesson plans, looking over attendance sheets, and familiarizing yourself with the layout of the classroom. Be sure that you understand what the lesson plans will consist of and what you will be expected to teach and explain to the students. If you’re unsure of the concepts that need to be taught, take a few moments to read more about them or look them up online to ensure you have a thorough grasp and understanding of what you’ll be teaching. Many teachers have substitute folders as well, so take some time to look through that (if applicable) and see what the teacher wants you to know before you begin teaching.

Be As Prepared As Possible

This goes along with arriving early, but it also has to do with being prepared in case the teacher you’re filling in for doesn’t have a set lesson plan. Sometimes teachers get off schedule with the lesson plan and you may not know where they are, or they may have planned something in their mind but left nothing for a substitute. Other times, in extreme situations, you may not have access to lesson plans or the teacher may have planned absolutely nothing for that particular day. While students will likely try to convince a substitute to let them have a “study period” or just “take a break” from normal class, it is in your best interest to keep the class organized and on task as much as possible. Especially if you sub a lot, you should have a few tricks in your back pocket for filling the time when necessary. Grade-appropriate activities, puzzles or logic challenges, educational games, review activities, and more will help you keep the students focused even if you have to deviate from what they would have normally done that day.

Set Expectations Immediately

Asserting yourself right from the start will give you better results in terms of classroom behavior and student respect. Whether the teacher you’re subbing for has a solid behavior management plan or not, you’re a new person and you can implement your own rules. Students always try to pull a fast one on substitute teachers, but setting your expectations right at the start of class time and sticking to them will show students that you mean business and they cannot attempt to run all over you. This tip is particularly important if you’ve taken on a long-term subbing position or you hope to substitute regularly at a particular school. Substitutes quickly get reputations amongst students, and although you may want to be liked, your subbing experience will be far more enjoyable if you set appropriate expectations from the get-go and fully expect students to adhere to those standards.

Follow Through

This one can be tricky, especially if you’re only in the classroom for a day. If you tell the class something, whether that’s a negative consequence based on poor behavior or a positive reward for good listening, you absolutely must follow through. Just like in parenting, if you don’t follow through and stand by what you said, your students will see right through you very quickly and they will lose their respect for you and their willingness to listen to you.

Stay on Task

If you’ve been given a specific lesson plan to complete as a substitute, be sure to stick to it as much as possible. It may take you longer to get through a particular lesson than it would the regular teacher, but that is perfectly fine. The key is that you stay on task and keep your students focused on the task at hand. Deviating from lesson plans or even normal classroom protocol can cause mass chaos, especially for a substitute, and it often leads to unfortunate expectations for you the next time you sub in that class. Try your best to fill every second of the class time with specific activities or assignments so that students don’t even have a chance to lose focus and get off task. If this means teaching to the bell and not giving students time to pack up, that is okay. The second you lose students’ focus, your job becomes immensely more difficult.

Learn Students’ Names

This tip can be challenging, especially if you’re in a large middle school or high school with multiple students, and even more so if you’re switching classrooms every day. But this tip is an important one, especially if you’re a supply substitute who takes on long-term subbing positions. Students want to be remembered and recognized (and not just for their bad behavior), so do your best to remember their names. Even if you can’t remember a name but you have a student in more than one class, be sure to note that you recognize them and are just struggling with their name. This will make them feel like you care about them as people and will help them respect you more willingly and easily. You can even make notes on a piece of paper or a role sheet so you can constantly learn new names each time you’re at a school or in a classroom.

Have Perspective & a Sense of Humor

Substitute teaching is not for the faint of heart. If you go into each day of subbing convinced you’re going to change the world and have the most glorious day ever, you’re going to be sorely disappointed. Subbing can definitely have many amazing moments and there are days where you feel like you have truly made a huge difference in a student’s life. But one of the most helpful tips for substitute teachers is to have perspective in every situation and maintain your sense of humor to the best of your ability. Try to take things lightly, even when they feel very heavy, and remember that every difficult circumstance is only temporary. Eventually, the students will go home and the day will be over and everything will be okay. If you need a break or need assistance with a challenging student or situation, ask a nearby teacher or administrator to help you. No matter what, remember that you are helping these students grow and learn, if only in a small way, and you are doing a great job and you are appreciated.

Leave Detailed Notes for Teachers

This is one of the basics of subbing 101, but a lot of substitutes forget to leave detailed notes for the teachers they subbed for. Maybe the day was exhausting or you had somewhere to be so you left quickly, but do your best to let the teacher know what you got accomplished that day, if any students were particularly helpful or disruptive, and anything else you think he or she may need to know. It can be very frustrating for teachers to come back to their classroom after a day away and have no idea what went on during all of her classes while she was out. Some teachers even request certain substitutes when they have to be out, and if you follow all of these helpful tips for substitute teachers, including leaving detailed notes, you’ll likely be on the top of that list for many.