How to Be an Effective Substitute Teacher: A Guide and Tips for Substitute Teachers in the Classroom

Substitute Teaching

Be the best substitute teacher you can be! Learn how with these great tips.
Be the best substitute teacher you can be! Learn how with these great tips. | Source

Substitute Teacher Job Description

Welcome to the class of very special people: substitute teachers. These are people who are brave enough to enter the classroom of full-time teachers and take the reins of the classroom, not knowing what they’ll encounter on their day long shift. These are people who, trained in the educational arts, take the job in order to practice teaching while waiting for a full-time position to open or to enjoy being in the educational field without being tied down full-time.

That description is coming from a full-time teacher. I admire substitutes and all they strive to do.

It can be a scary job at first, no doubt. You are asked to go into a strange building and into another teacher’s classroom full of students who you have never met before. It’s a whole new terrain, one that needs to be crossed carefully, for if you’re not careful, all heck could break loose.

Below are tips to help you be successful as a substitute teacher.

Substitute Teaching Tips

Create a Substitute Binder. Before you even go into classrooms, you should create a substitute binder full of master copies of worksheets and activities to bring with you to every assignment. Why? There will be days when you will be called in to teach a class for which a teacher was not able to (or didn’t) leave a lesson plan or enough of a lesson plan. All you’ll have to do is make enough copies for one or two classes on the day you are called to teach.

What you include in that binder depends on the grade levels you are certified to teach and the subjects you will be encountering on your assignments. For grades K-2, you can have coloring pages, connect the dots, picture bingo or letter practice sheets. For grades 3-6, you can have sentence completion sheets, simple math problem sheets, vocabulary bingo, simple crossword puzzles, mad libs or simple science activities. For grades 7-12, you’ll have to have subject specific worksheets, which you can easily find in a Google search.

Brush Up on Classroom Management. Before you step into any classroom, you should brush up on classroom management skills. It will be really handy to know (and even practice) ways to handle a class full of potentially rowdy students. Remember these tidbits: be consistent, be fair, treat students as students and not friends, be confident, use your ‘look’, and know the school’s policies. For more tips, visit: Effective Classroom Management Tips.

Dress Professionally. Nothing irked me more as a teacher to see a substitute walk in with street clothes that were completely inappropriate for school. If you want to be recognized as a professional by colleagues and students, dress like one. It doesn’t mean you need to wear a suit every day, but you should find clothing that fits well, isn’t distracting, doesn’t include graphics and is suitable for the subject you are teaching (i.e. physical education, home economics, etc.). A mini skirt, low cut top and sky high heels is never appropriate for teaching, nor are pants that ride so low your underpants can be seen with an overly wrinkled top. Suitable clothing for school can be found almost anywhere at an affordable price.

Arrive Early and Know Your Surroundings. When you are called for an assignment, try to get there at least 30 minutes early (which I know sometimes is impossible if you are called late in the morning). You’ll most likely have to sign in, get an ID badge and learn about your assignment. You’ll also have to find the classroom (or classrooms in some cases) and find out what you’ll be teaching. If when you arrive in the classroom you cannot find the teacher’s plan for the day, ask any of the surrounding teachers if they could help you. If not, call the main office to ask if there are any emergency plans kept on file (in my school, we were required to have emergency plans, seating charts, etc. in a folder in the office). If you can’t find anything don’t forget about your binder!

Also become familiar with seating charts, any rules posted in the classroom, the fire drill procedure (It happens! You need to be prepared.), where the lavatory is in relation to the classroom, any duties you’ll have to help with and when your planning period/ lunch is.

Greet the students at the door or at the front of the classroom. Nothing says confidence more to students than a teacher who stands at the door to say ‘hello’ and reminds them to prepare for class. A simple, “Welcome! Please enter quietly and take your seats. We’ll begin at the bell” works wonders. You give them the expectations you want them to follow in a friendly manner. If you’re at the door, be sure to glance into the classroom now and again to make sure they are following directions. If they are not, remind them in a stern and steady voice what they should be doing.

Start the class right away. Avoid question/answer time. Students can be savvy little creatures. They know if they get you off topic, they won’t have to do as much work. As soon as it’s time to start, take attendance. Go right into the lesson plan or activity, telling them what is going to happen (transitioning). If the students start asking random questions (this is most likely going to come from older kids), tell them you’ll gladly answer any questions after class. The likelihood of them returning at the end of class to ask those questions? Zero to none, almost 100% of the time.

Try to follow the lesson as closely as possible and stick to the daily schedule. Hopefully the teacher has left easy to read and follow lesson plans that include the expected outcomes, opening activities, lesson activities and closure activities. Stick to them as closely as possible. Not sure about a daily/opening activity? Don’t be afraid to ask the kids. There will be someone in the class who will want to help. Say something like: “Who wants to demonstrate to the class the correct procedure for _______?” This way, you’re not outright admitting you have no clue what’s going on. Chances are there will be plenty of eager helpers ready to save the day.

The idea is to keep the flow of instruction from one day to another. Students thrive on a consistent schedule. If they can stay on that schedule with you, the teacher will certainly be grateful the next day when he/she can easily transition into the next lesson without having to reteach everything.

Tips to Be a Successful Substitute Teacher

Don’t be the students' ‘friend’. Students, as I said before, are savvy little creatures. They think when the teacher is gone away, they can come out to play. They’ll want to talk about anything, do anything they want, and take control of the classroom. What happens if you won’t let them do that? They won’t be nice to you , they’ll say. They won’t do the work , they’ll openly admit. They’ll tell on you , they’ll whisper. Don’t fall for this trap. They’re playing with your emotions, knowing that everybody wants to be accepted. Guess what? You don’t need them to be nice to you, it’s their grade that will suffer if they don’t do the work and what are they going to say other than you tried to make them learn?

You’re there to help them learn, not to be their friend. Once you start talking about American Idol or the latest news in sports, you have lost their respect in you as an adult and the one in charge. You put yourself on their level. What will happen if you do that? The same thing that happened to the substitute who took over for me during a maternity leave for which I was gone two weeks (my son was a summer baby). This person let go of her responsibilities with 8thgraders and they took over. They trashed the room. They used the teacher computer (a HUGE mistake!!!!). They listened to loud music, annoying the teachers in the nearby classrooms. They were loud and almost never in their seats. The most grievous error: out of all of the assignments and activities I had painstakingly arranged and created for those two weeks, three were completed, and they were horrendous. (How do I know all of this? I saw the evidence when I returned to school and learned from my colleagues what had happened.) For this particular person, this was a second offense; she did the same thing in another classroom for a different teacher. Guess what? That person was asked to refrain from returning to our school.

Want a full-time job and the respect of students and colleagues? Be a teacher, not a friend.

Make notes of any incidences that occur during the day, being sure to follow the protocol if a student gets into trouble in the classroom. If a student misbehaves and the behavior is severe enough that it warrants an immediate response, contact the office and ask if someone can escort that student to the principal. Write down exactly what happened, without inserting any emotional phrases (Johnny made me angry when…). Often times there is a form to fill out for any classroom disturbances; make sure to fill in all blanks as necessary, being clear about the situation. Leave a note for the teacher for when he/she returns.

If it is a simple incident, like a student who talked aloud during instruction, take care of it then and there, reminding the student of the rules. If it is a repeated offense, let the teacher know by leaving a note.

At the end of the day, leave the teacher a report. Want extra points? Leave the teacher a handwritten note explaining the day. Thank him/her for the opportunity to teach in the classroom for a day. Let him/her know what you were able to accomplish for the day. If the lesson plan wasn’t available, let him/her know what you did instead.

Why do this? Chances are, the teacher will give you a positive review and even make a copy of the note for the principal to see or put into your file.

Awesome Tips from a Substitute Teacher Trainer

Lesson Plans

When you substituted for a teacher, what did you think about their lesson plans?

  • The plans were clear, concise, and ready for me on the desk.
  • The plans were there, but I wasn't completely sure what I was supposed to do.
  • The teacher wasn't expecting to be out, so I had to use emergency plans.
  • Lesson plans? I had to wing it!
See results without voting

Being a Successful Substitute Teacher

I hope this has been helpful so far. There are a few more things to address before I close.

Expected to give a test/quiz? Use close proximity to monitor the class. There will be times when you will be asked to administer a quiz or test to the class. The worst thing to do is sit at the desk and become engrossed in a book or other matter. To ensure that there is no cheating (which students like to try when there is a substitute), walk quietly around the room, stopping every now and again to check a random student’s progress. If you are afraid you’ll be too distracting, stand in the back of the classroom. Since they aren’t sure where you are, they’re less likely to try to cheat.

Learn all you can about using classroom technology before you go to an assignment. Chances are you’ll have an assignment in a classroom that is equipped with a Smart Board or other technologically advanced equipment. Hopefully, in college classes, you were exposed to this kind of technology, but if you weren’t don’t fear. There are plenty of tutorials online to watch and learn from. Also, don’t be afraid to ask other teachers for a quick lesson before the day begins.

I wish you a lot of luck!


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Comments 19 comments

Ardie profile image

Ardie 4 years ago from Neverland

If you don't win the contest for this answer something's wrong! You have more information here than I thought possible :) I am going to prepare a binder for the age groups I said I would like to sub in. AND knowing the emergency plans for each building? Pure genius. I seriously feel much better about getting that first call now. Before I was sorta dreading it hahah Thank you so much for sharing your expertise. I wish I could vote this as an answer.

Robert Erich profile image

Robert Erich 4 years ago from California

This is great! I have had to substitute classes before and it is indeed nice to have a backup plan because teachers often miss something or time seems to go slower than anticipated. Thanks for your tips here! Much appreciated.

billybuc profile image

billybuc 4 years ago from Olympia, WA

As a former teacher this is a great read...I never substituted in eighteen years but knowing what I know this is invaluable for anyone considering it. Great job!

LearnFromMe profile image

LearnFromMe 4 years ago Author

Ardie, thanks so much for your comment! I'm glad it is helpful to you. Good luck with any subbing assignments you go to! :D

LearnFromMe profile image

LearnFromMe 4 years ago Author

Robert Erich, I'm glad you liked the hub! The backup plan is like a survival tactic--better to be safe than sorry, right? Thanks for reading and commenting!

LearnFromMe profile image

LearnFromMe 4 years ago Author

billybuc, thanks for your comment! I'm glad other teachers would agree with what I wrote in the article. :)

randomcreative profile image

randomcreative 4 years ago from Milwaukee, Wisconsin

Very comprehensive! This is a great guide for all substitute teachers, newbies or veterans.

LearnFromMe profile image

LearnFromMe 4 years ago Author

Thanks, randomcreative! I'm glad you liked it! :)

Greg Horlacher profile image

Greg Horlacher 4 years ago from Grand Prairie, TX

Great piece! I would add something to your poll: Teacher leaves incredibly boring busywork to torture students.

If I think the lesson allows, I like to lead a short activity with the class at the start of class after greeting them all at the door. I want them to know that I'm invested in them while subtly reminding them that I'm in charge.

Also, watch out for schools that cheat. I had a school put me in charge of three different classes AT THE SAME TIME for an entire week. They had the nerve to tell me that those other classes had subs scheduled to be with them - THEN WHY WAS I THE ONLY SUB? I was watching 80 kids at one point. Shaking my head at their lack of integrity.

LearnFromMe profile image

LearnFromMe 4 years ago Author

Greg, you were in charge of 80 kids at once? Isn't that illegal? Yikes!

Thanks so much for sharing your ideas and your experience! :)

KBELL59 3 years ago

I'm so glad I find this article! I'm a new sub and I'm available to teach from PK-12! This article was so helpful and it has truly inspired me! My very first day, I subbed for a junior high band class and there were about 70 6th graders and just one of me! They ran right over me and took control, but at least now I know hsow not to handle a situation like that! Thanks again.

LearnFromMe profile image

LearnFromMe 3 years ago Author

KBELL59, what a first assignment for you! I'm glad my article gave you some helpful tips. Good luck, and thanks for reading! :)

Rochelle Frank profile image

Rochelle Frank 3 years ago from California Gold Country

Great advice here... you are right on!

I subbed for 12 years and (mostly) loved it. I also taught training seminars for subs at the district level. It was great fun, because the audience of subs (who are mostly ignored) were so grateful for some tips, and to share with others who had experienced the same challenges.

When I started I had an advantage by my experience of being a classroom assistant. I had seen good teachers, and I had seen a variety of subs-- some knew what to do, some didn't.

Trish 2 years ago

Thank you for this article, I am a new sub, and in our district they don't require an education background. This was very informational. Only thing I do ask how do you prep sub for a band or PE class?

LearnFromMe profile image

LearnFromMe 23 months ago Author

Thanks for reading Trish! Since I don't have a background in either of those subjects, I can't say too much other than dress appropriately for PE and perhaps find a fun yet educational video about famous marching bands from around the world. Wish I could help more! Best wishes!

Larry Rankin profile image

Larry Rankin 15 months ago from Oklahoma

I taught full time for about a decade. The hardest most annoying thing I ever did was sit in for another teacher.

There is no teaching job where you are at a bigger disadvantage than substitute.

Great hub. Great tips.

ThePracticalMommy profile image

ThePracticalMommy 15 months ago from United States

Thanks Larry!

Ayesha Saeed 10 months ago from Jeddah

Im new to hubpages and this is the second article I've read so far and its amazing. Since, I'm a new substitute teacher, this really helped me. Thankyou and good luck!

wordsmith2418 profile image

wordsmith2418 9 months ago from Pocono Mountains, Pennsylvania

Great article with lots of excellent tips. I've been subbing for about 6 years. Sadly our district has gone through a lot of changes, school closings and layoffs due to financial mismanagement. So there is confusion to the point where one of our schools has two principals because the students were so difficult to manage -- and this is a rural school. I would love to get to the class early, but if I get there 30 minutes early I will just have to sit in the office and wait for the secretary to arrive. We get about 15 minutes between her setting up her station and handing out folders, keys and badges and us subs getting to the classroom. I've been reading through articles like this because I am discouraged at our lack of support from admin in many buildings. But I realize it is because they spend all day putting out fires. We have a huge percentage of special needs children. Most of the time I will have at least 5 children who really need one on one! This school year has been my most difficult. I'm hoping things will get better. Reading articles like yours definitely helps!!

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