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10 Tips and Ideas for Substitute Teachers

Abby Slutsky has a M.Ed., and has substitute taught and tutored for more than 12 years.

Follow these tips to teach successfully while you are a substitute teacher. Special thanks to Wokandapix.

Follow these tips to teach successfully while you are a substitute teacher. Special thanks to Wokandapix.

Secrets to Substitute Teaching

If you are unable to find a full-time teaching job and have decided to enter the world of substitute teaching, you may quickly find that substitute teaching can be very challenging. The combination of attempting to teach while juggling class management, not knowing your students' names, dealing with last-minute class changes, and struggling with technology issues help make the job demanding. However, there are some tricks to help ease your day of substitute teaching.

10 Tricks and Tips for Substitute Teachers

  1. Arrive early
  2. Use taking role as an opportunity to remember children’s names
  3. Bring age-appropriate fast finisher activities with you
  4. Interrupt the lesson to curb bad behavior immediately
  5. Roam the classroom
  6. Bring a book, game, or other activity for unexpected free time
  7. Keep the line quiet when moving locations
  8. Find help with technology
  9. Demand a late pass
  10. Leave a detailed substitute teacher’s report

1. Arrive Early

Do not arrive to the classroom two minutes before class starts. If you arrive early, you have time to browse the lesson plan, sign in with administration, and consult with other teachers in the same grade if you have any question about the lesson.

2. Use Taking Role as an Opportunity to Remember Children’s Names

When substitute teaching, arrive at the class early enough to take a look at the seating chart and run off your own copy. When you take role, jot down an identifying quality of each child. For example, write ‘black sweater’ next to Stephanie’s name. It is likely that the students won’t be in their seats all day, but if you can refer to them by name, you are more likely to get better behavior because they will think you know who they are. This is also helpful for an end-of-the-day report to their teacher.

If there is no seating chart in the classroom, try to create one if the students’ names are on the desk. (Sometimes elementary classes have name tags on the desks or chairs.) If not, ask another teacher if they know where the teacher keeps a seating chart. Often it is available, but it may not be visible.

Keep your seating chart and clues accessible by placing them near your lesson plan, so you can refer to them immediately, if needed.

3. Bring Age Appropriate Fast Finisher Activities With You

When students have nothing to do, they are likely to chatter, disrupt others or be inattentive. Even if the permanent teacher leaves leveled group work, it is unlikely that all the students will finish at the same time. Providing fast finishers with an educational, fun activity will keep them focused and engaged.

The first year I substitute taught, another teacher introduced me to the 101 Activities for Fast Finishers series. One of the best aspects of this series is that the books offer fast finisher activities in a variety of subjects, so you can use a subject-appropriate activity, depending on what you are teaching. Additionally, if you use the book consistently and want to modify the activities, you can use different words, numbers, or paragraphs to make your own activities using the book’s activities as a model. Often I write the activity on the board while the class is working, so it is available when they are finished.

Although this grade-leveled series is packed with many activities, it is lightweight enough to carry in a briefcase or computer bag. If you substitute teach regularly, a couple of these books are worth the investment because they will help keep fast finishers busy. When your fast finishers are busy, students who are still working will be able to concentrate with fewer distractions.

4. Interrupt the Lesson to Curb Bad Behavior Immediately

Do not let bad behavior continue until it becomes a problem. If one student gets away with it, others are likely to follow their actions. Discuss it with the child, and indicate it is unacceptable immediately.

5. Roam the Classroom

Don’t feel you have to stand in front of the class the entire time to present the lesson when you substitute teach. Walk around to ensure that your students are engaged. Check to make sure they understand what the lesson is covering.

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Sometimes students are afraid to tell you they do not understand something, so walking around is an excellent way to see their work to ensure their understanding. Use examples to reinforce what you are teaching, and correct work in a quiet, one-on-one manner so the students understand without becoming embarrassed.

6. Bring a Book, Game, or Other Activity for Unexpected Free Time

The first year I substitute taught, I quickly learned the necessity of having backup activities. I arrived at my classroom only to find the lesson plan had been left in a foreign language. The school was short-staffed, and I wound up winging the entire morning before I was able to get help. Fortunately, some of the students were helpful.

You never know when there is going to be unexpected downtime in the classroom. A last-minute cancellation of an assembly or a technology problem can make you responsible for unplanned time. Being prepared will keep the students busy and on task.

Bring an age-appropriate book or game so you have an instant plan for unexpected free time. Remember, as a last resort, you can also assign independent reading time, but many teachers factor this into the class day so that an alternate activity may be more interesting. You could also do a quick craft or let children make cards if a holiday is near.

7. Keep the Line Quiet When Moving Locations

This tip works best when substituting for elementary-age students. Turn walking in a line into a contest. For example, one teacher I know used to write down a child’s name before the class left in line for another location. She told the class that if the mystery person was quiet during the walk, the class would get five minutes of time at the end of the day.

When the students returned to class, they learned the identity of the mystery student and whether they got the free time. Since other teachers and administration see your class when they change locations, a quiet line enforces that you are managing the class well.

Whether it's using a computer, showing a video or another technology-related activity, make sure you know what you are doing before teaching the lesson.

Whether it's using a computer, showing a video or another technology-related activity, make sure you know what you are doing before teaching the lesson.

8. Find Help With Technology

As a sub, you may be asked to use technology. If you are unsure about it, ask another teacher or find out if one of the students can help you. Some teachers may even suggest a student helper in their lesson plan. During a prep or first thing in the morning, test the technology to ensure it works properly. Consider asking who the technology specialist is and getting their extension just in case you need it.

9. Demand a Late Pass

Older students may arrive after the bell. Ask them to get a late pass. It is likely that they will show up on time for the remainder of the day, and word will get around to other students that you require it.

10. Leave a Detailed Substitute Teacher’s Report

Let the regular teacher know how the day went. Indicate any problems that occurred throughout the day. Do not be afraid to mention students by name. Praise students who were good and provide details about problems. It is nice to leave your business card too. Some teachers will request a sub that they like, and you may find it easier to teach students that you previously taught.

Substitute teaching can be a little difficult when you first start. However, as you become a seasoned sub, it will become easier because the students will know you and will begin to respect your ability to teach and manage the classroom. Good luck!

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Abby Slutsky

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