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How to Survive As a Substitute Teacher

Sharilee obtained a degree in secondary English education from the University of Calgary. She has taught in Canada for 10 years.

Here are a few pointers for you to utilize if you're new to substitute teaching.

Here are a few pointers for you to utilize if you're new to substitute teaching.

Have you signed up as a substitute teacher and now you're having doubts? If you are wondering how you are going to survive as a substitute teacher, I am bringing you some real-life, practical advice to help you be successful in your newly chosen career path.

As a former teacher, I have been down this path myself. I spent a year and a half making my living by going into the classroom and filling in for other instructors, at all levels: elementary, junior high and high school. I have substituted for subjects within my area of expertise (English and Drama) and far beyond my comfort level (Elementary P.E.)

I will share with you some of my survival secrets and I will let you know that "subbing" as we call it, doesn't have to be as intimidating as it might seem. Yes, the kids are going to test you. And yes, it's going to be a challenge, but with a few tools in your arsenal, you will be able to survive this gig and even thrive. I am going to share some tricks that helped me along the way and I wish you all the best in your new endeavor.

1. Know Your Role

First of all, it is important to understand your role. Substitute teachers, or supply teachers as they are also called, perform a very important function within the school system. The presence of good subs allows teachers some flexibility to get sick once in a while (teachers often are afraid to get sick), to take part in professional development opportunities, and sometimes to even take a much-needed personal day.

Teachers are grateful when they can find a good supply teacher they can trust. When you do a good job, you will stand out, get yourself noticed, and most importantly, get called back for repeat assignments!

So, what is your role as a substitute teacher? Your role is to carry on the program of the classroom teacher as closely as possible, with causing as little disruption as possible. Your job is to carry out her instructions and get everything done that he has asked. Your job is also to keep the students in line, and out of trouble. Other teachers will appreciate it if they do not have to come in and "look after" your class, for you. And lastly, it is your responsibility to report what happened during your day to the regular teacher.

So, just to review, here is your role as a supply instructor:

  1. Carry out the program of the classroom teacher
  2. Keep the students in line
  3. Report the results of your day to the teacher
Write your plan on the board!

Write your plan on the board!

2. Take Charge Immediately

When you come into the classroom, you must establish an immediate presence within the room. First impressions are formed within seconds of meeting someone, and students need to get the impression that you are a "real teacher" and know what you are doing. Let the students know you are in charge as soon as you walk in by developing a routine that you follow with every class. Here are some methods to help you develop that presence quickly:

  1. Write your name and the date on the board.
  2. Write out the plan, or agenda for the day on the board.
  3. Hand out your name signs (explanation to follow)
  4. Take the attendance.
  5. Get started on the plan from the teacher immediately. Hestitation is deadly in this situation. The students need to know you are in charge!

Your routine may be different, but have a regular routine that works for you, and try to stick to it.

3. Get Their Names

One of the major disadvantages of coming in a supply teacher is that you don't know the students' names. Knowing their names is key in being to call out the miscreants and to gain the support of the strongest students.

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Here is a little trick I started doing in my classes that helped to overcome the problem of trying to teach these nameless, anonymous students. Make them name signs. Here's how:

  1. Before class, cut out enough pieces of paper to make as many name tags as you have students.
  2. Cut the papers into pieces approximately 4"x11". This means that for a 8.5"x11" piece of paper, you can cut it into two pieces.
  3. Fold the papers length-wise.
  4. At the beginning of class, hand out the name signs, with an assortment of markers, and have students write their name on the sign.
  5. Some students may try to give a false name. If you sense this may be a problem, warn the students that misrepresenting themselves to a teacher is a very serious offense, and there will be consequences for doing so.

Now, whenever you would like a particular student to do something, or stop doing something, use their name. It makes you much more credible and authoritative in the classroom. As well, it allows to let the classroom teacher what has happened for the day, by reporting names.

4. Follow the Plan

Now, subs know there are all kinds of teachers out there: some are very detailed in their instructions and others ... well, let's just say they expect you to figure it out. You want to teach for the detailed ones. These are the ones who think of everything and their plan is long enough to cover you all the way through class.

Follow the plan! This is very important. Even if it's not your style of teaching, or what you agree with, it's not your job to change it. Follow it and you will make your returning teacher very happy. If you are not able to finish everything on the list, explain why you could not to the teacher. Do not leave things out arbitrarily, however. Your classroom teacher has likely spent a lot of time planning out his unit, and this day needs to fit as closely as possible into the rest of the unit.

Be flexible, too! As hard as you might try to follow the plan, you may have to improvise slightly, in order to make something work. If you simply cannot understand the directions given, don't just throw them out. Instead, improvise and do something similar.

5. Have Emergency Resources

If you finish the plan, and then have nothing to do, that is where the emergency strategies come in. There are a number of resources out there to help you in this instance. Be sure to always carry a package of supplies to help in those down times.

It's also good to have some quick activities you can do with the students for a few minutes at the end of class. It is also wise to have some word search puzzles or crossword puzzles in your bag. Extra age and subject appropriate worksheets are also very good to have in your emergency stash, such as multiplication sheets or vocabulary questions.

Hardest Thing About Subbing?

Write a report at the end of the day.

Write a report at the end of the day.

6. Write The Report

After you have done your class, be sure to write up a report to the classroom teacher. Start the report by thanking the teacher for the opportunity to fill in for her. After that, let the teacher know what aspects of plan was covered. If you had to make any changes, explain what they were, and why you chose to change the plan.

As well, inform the teacher of any student misbehaviour, along with any actions that you took to deal with the situation. Attach any student work to the report and leave this report in the teacher's mail box, if applicable. If the school does not have mailboxes, leave the report in a visible spot on the desk.

If you have done a good job by establishing your presence, following the plan, and being prepared for contingencies, it is likely that you may get a call again. If the teacher likes you, she may request you by name. If you are doing this as a career, have some substitute teacher business cards made up and leave one with the teacher beside the report. Your professionalism will make an impression!

Enjoy Your Day!

Finally, enjoy yourself! You have no business teaching unless you like kids, so enjoy them and all the craziness that they bring. Sure, some days will be stressful and you will have challenges, but have fun and realize that you are taking part in an important endeavour: educating our young people. As well, enjoy being a substitute because you won't have to do lesson planning or mark papers. You can go in for the day, and leave the little darlings for the regular teacher to deal with the next day. Substitute teaching is quite an exciting job, and I wish you all the best in your chosen field.


Elaine Wnorowski on June 22, 2019:

You have some great suggestions for inidividals interested in becoming substitute teachers. I focus on the high school level. The most important tool for me is creating seating charts for each class before the school day begins. When I take attendance I look up to see where the student is sitting and notice their face, so that later in the class if they move I know who they are. Also, it helps me identify students that are trying to hide out in my classroom when the number of students in the room doesn’t match my list. I just look for seats I don’t have filled in that have a student sitting in them - very helpful.

Sharilee Swaity (author) from Canada on March 28, 2012:

Kashmir, I hope it does help out some fellow teachers. It can be pretty intimidating when you first start out. It's so nice to see you! Thanks for the lovely comment!

Thomas Silvia from Massachusetts on March 28, 2012:

All great information and advice to help all those who will be a substitute teacher now or sometime in the future.

Vote up and more !!!

Sharilee Swaity (author) from Canada on March 27, 2012:

Billy, you were indeed blessed! Thanks for your endorsement: it means a lot to me. Take care!

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on March 27, 2012:

In eighteen years of teaching I was lucky enough never to substitute. I filled in for fellow teachers often but those were kids I knew because I worked there. I have the utmost respect for subs; it is at times a thankless job. Great suggestions and I completely agree with them and endorse them.

Sharilee Swaity (author) from Canada on March 27, 2012:

Phdast, thank you so much for sharing and for your kind comment. I hope it is useful to those going out to the schools. Take care!

Theresa Ast from Atlanta, Georgia on March 27, 2012:

Great Hub and great advice. You covered everything and provided a structure and guidelines for those who find themselves substitute teaching. Well done. SHARING

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