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Substitutes are incredibly vital members of the school district community. A good substitute is a teacher’s absolute best friend. 

While many teachers will leave work for the students to do and lessons for you to teach while they are gone, for the first few times you sub, they may leave a lot of “busy work” - things that will help the students review what they’ve learned while also keeping them “busy”.

One of the most important things you can do as a substitute is to keep the classroom under control. It’s important that the students are quiet enough not to disturb other classes, and the wilder a room full of students get, the harder they are to calm down again. 

Students don’t have to be silent all day, but it is wise to engage them in quieter learning activities as much as possible to maintain order.

Pack Your Sub Bag

Here are a few things you should bring with you when subbing. 

- stick-on name tags - to help you remember your student’s names

- several sizes of sticky notes - they come in handy for so many things!

- pens, sharpened pencils, and a couple of erasers

- loose leaf paper

- graphing paper - graphing paper is great for math!

- paper clips

- small pair of  scissors

- highlighters 

- small stapler

- lunch - the first time you sub at a school, you may want to bring a sack lunch that doesn’t require heating up since things like refrigerators and microwaves vary from school to school; if you need utensils, salt or other spices, be sure you bring some with you, too

- water bottle/ice - you never know if the water is palatable or if the school provides ice, so be sure you bring your own the first time you sub at a school

- picture books

Every Day Is an “Interview”

Every time you sub, you’re given the opportunity to impress the teachers you are working with. If you are able to maintain order and keep the students working relatively well, there is a good chance your fame will spread throughout the halls, and you’ll be invited back to sub again and again.

Teachers who are pleased with your ability to follow the rules and keep the students actively learning will happily spread the word to other teachers that you are dependable and able to take care of things in their absence. 

That being said, be friendly to the other teachers. Be willing to chat if they approach you. Also know that sometimes teachers are so busy that they may forget their manners. Teaching is a very isolating profession at times. When teachers get a few minutes together without children, there is so much information they have to share. 

There may be times when you feel invisible. Please don’t take this personally. They are truly just trying to get their jobs done.

Teachers are expected to meet one or two times a week, so you may find that everyone is in one classroom before school, during their lunch or conference period, or after school. They aren’t excluding you; they are probably sparing you all the boring details of their day-to-day responsibilities. Don’t worry about attending any meetings unless you are specifically asked to attend. 

Long-term subs (substitutes who take a class when a teacher has surgery or is out for some other reason for longer than a few days) may be asked to attend meetings, but if you’re subbing for less than two weeks, it’s highly unlikely you’ll need to attend any. 

You will likely have some downtime, then, during your teacher’s conference time. It’s a good idea to bring a book to read or something to do during that time. Occasionally, teachers will leave some copying, filing, or other sorting to be done, but generally, you’ll have some time to kill. 

Sometimes Unexpressed “Rules” 

  • Never leave a class unattended for any reason. If you have a personal emergency (like you need to go to the bathroom and cannot wait - we’ve all been there!), speak with a teacher across the hall or next door to you.  They may be able to arrange a way to give you a break for just a few minutes. 
  • Don’t use, move, rearrange, or take anything in the classroom unless you are specifically told to do so by the teacher. Teachers will generally leave everything you need either on a table or on their desk. If you can’t find anything laid out for you, speak with the teacher across the hall or next door. Sometimes there are last-minute emergencies that arise, and the teacher is unable to get anything ready.  The other teachers in the grade-level will often pitch in to help in that situation. 
  • Never hit or spank a child (you may think this is obvious, but we wouldn’t bring it up if we didn’t know someone who had a personal experience with the issue!). 

As a sub, there is never, never, never a good enough reason to touch a child, even in kindness, unless you have to administer first aid because they have a broken bone on the playground, are bleeding profusely (don’t touch the blood!), or have passed out. Even then, try to call the nurse before you touch them. Parents are particularly paranoid when it comes to subs, so extra caution is wise.

If they hug you (as small students will), you can give them a quick little squeeze back in acknowledgment, but as soon as you can, get yourself out of that situation. Don’t let children sit on your lap, either. If anyone ever so much as questions your propriety with a child, you’ll never sub again. It’s just not worth it. 

  • In every class, there is a child who knows everything about the schedule, what the teacher does, where things are, who usually gets in trouble, and what to do in any situation.

    That student is often not the student you think it is (LOL!).

Teachers are usually good about letting a sub know who is helpful, but if not, just start asking children to do things for you (pick up trash, hand out papers, show you where the teacher keeps certain things you may need - like a pencil sharpener). You’ll know who that student is very quickly.

And all the students know when a child is trying to “help” but usually doesn’t know what they’re talking about, and they will tell you. They all know who is trustworthy. You can usually just ask in early grades. The best thing you can do for yourself is to find those true helpers as soon as the students walk into the room. Your whole day will be better. 

  • Conversely, there is usually at least one student who will try their dead-level best to drive you crazy before 3:00 (if you’re unlucky, they’ll try to drive you crazy before 10 am).  Be firm, be clear, be concise, and move on. If they’re tapping their pencil on the desk, tell them, “Stop tapping your pencil on the desk,” or “Stop tapping.” 

Yelling may make you feel a little better for a minute, but it will not help your relationship with the students or other teachers. In fact, the most intimidating thing you can do is get close to a child (but not within punching distance - again… experience!) and speak in a low register, very calmly and quietly.  

One thing many adults don’t consider when dealing with a challenging student is that  they do sometimes respond to simple requests like, “I really need your help. I don’t want to have a difficult day, and I bet you don’t either. Can you help me?” 

Children do not respond well to someone ignoring them, manipulating them, yelling at them, condescension, or hurtful sarcasm. Treat them as small humans who have worth, listen to them, and be considerate to them. Kindness goes a very long way.

They do need to know, though, that you are in charge and you will take care of them if anything unexpected should happen. Let them know you’re learning, too. You have questions just as they do, but also let them know you are a responsible adult, and you can handle taking care of them.  

Do not tell them if it’s your first day or first week, though!  For some reason, that causes students to lose their minds and start acting wild and crazy. 

Subbing for a Teacher with a Paraprofessional in a Classroom

Some teachers (usually in special education and pre-k classrooms) have a full-time or nearly full-time paraprofessional in the room working with them. In these cases, you may be called in to sub for a teacher, but because the classroom and students work on a very quick, specialized schedule, the paraprofessional will actually take the lead, and you will assist.

This is very upsetting to some new subs as they feel offended that the paraprofessional is “trying to do their job”. 

If you are ever in this situation, don’t panic. No one is downgrading or demoting you, and it is not likely to affect your pay (or the paraprofessional’s - even though they’ll be doing the teacher’s job, they still get paid significantly less than the teacher, and will get paid less than you will). 

If you are worried about any risk to your pay, always speak to the substitute coordinator for your district. 

Be kind to paraprofessionals. They are often amazing people who take very little pay to care for the children. They are often in the profession because they love the work, and they love the students. They aren’t always treated kindly, but you should always make an extra effort to be considerate to everyone on staff at the school(s) for which you work.

Resource List

The Organized Teacher's Guide to Substitute Teaching, Grades K-8, Second Edition

Lots of practical information, and there is a chapter for each grade from K-8. There are a few outdated and impractical ideas, but overall, the information is spot-on, practical, and immediately useful. 

Take Control of the Noisy Class: Chaos to Calm in 15 Seconds 

This is a good book for anyone in education, not just subs. There are some practical ideas in this book that can help you with classroom management, which is by far the most difficult aspect of being a substitute.

Successful Substitute Teaching in the Elementary Classroom

This is a concise, easy-to-read in one sitting guidebook with practical advice and some handy reproducibles that you can use to document your time subbing. 

Substitute Teaching from A to Z

This book is similar in style to the Organized Teacher’s Guide to Substitute Teaching. It also has a few outdated ideas, but on the whole it offers loads of practical, easy-to-follow advice. 

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