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How to be a Good Substitute Teacher

Tips and tricks to be a successful sub in any classroom!

Being a teacher is a work of art – and it should go without saying that this applies to being a substitute teacher, too! As a substitute teacher (or guest teacher, or stand-in teacher…), your job is to be the de-facto teacher in the room while the teacher is out. They could be out for a variety of reasons, but at that point in time – you are the teacher and adult in charge of the class.

We’ve all heard the horror stories of bad subs, and many of us have had them, too! I have memories from high school of awful subs we would have in classes (including one who wouldn’t allow us to talk). Even when I student taught, I had rough experiences and pretty odd stories of subs in the room while my cooperating teacher was out. Let’s just say that I learned quickly what did not make a good sub.

I learned these tips quickly when I was a substitute teacher for a year in a variety of elementary school classrooms and districts. People who decide to sub may do so for a variety of reasons (which will be coming soon in a separate blog post!). For me, I wanted to get more experience in the districts in my area, scope out the schools, have flexibility in my schedule, and experience different grade levels/positions.

So, what makes a good sub? After my wide array of experience with subs and subbing, I came up with a list of tips, activities, and ideas to help you be the best sub that you can be!

Scope Out the District and Know Their Subbing Policies

Every district and school have their own policies and trainings for subs. Some districts may require a third-party employment (such as EDUStaff) to register and train through, while some districts may just require you meeting with their districts HR, filling out paperwork, and giving them your phone number. When you’re ready to put your name out into the world for subbing, contact either the specific school or district  you’re interested in to see how to become a sub. Most schools and districts also have this information on their websites, but don’t be afraid to reach out to school secretaries or HR representatives to get more information!

Schools and districts may also have different pay schedules from each other. I experienced districts that would pay on the last business day of the month, and districts that would pay you through the third-party you trained through. Make sure you gather and know that information so you’re not surprised by when you get your paycheck.

Get There Early

This is HUGE. Especially if you have never been at that school or in that teacher’s classroom before. Maybe not beat the secretary to school early, but take your time seriously and get to the school at your scheduled time to understand where the building is, where your classroom is, and any other rooms in the building you need to have stock of for the day (including the bathroom and staffroom!).

This also allows you to read the lesson plans and start to get an idea of the format of your day.

Read the Plans Thoroughly Before Students Arrive

You may be saying – Well, duh!! But, I made this mistake a couple of times of not reading the sub plans completely before students came in. Read through the whole sub plan to make sure you understand the flow of the day and have all the necessary materials  you need for the class. This also allows you to learn about the structure of the classroom you’re in and have a better idea of the students coming in.

You may also be subbing for a teacher who needed you at the last minute. Looking through the plans and materials allows you to identify if you have everything you need or not, and give yourself time to feel fully prepared.

Learn Names

The quickest way to engage students and have them connect with you to earn their respect is to KNOW. THEIR. NAMES. This is hard – especially if you’re only subbing for a few hours. Some teachers may leave seating charts, some may have students wear name tags, and some teachers leave you no extra information on student names besides their desks or attendance. Whatever cards you’re dealt, try to connect with student names and faces.

One way I started to establish a rapport with students was in being honest upfront on me learning their names:

“Hi, everyone! My name is Mrs. Doe, and I am going to do attendance. I am going to do my best to pronounce your names correctly and remember them, but I will mess names up on accident and I will likely call you the wrong name once today. Just remind me kindly if I do and I’ll do better next time!”

This sounds long-winded, but I would say something along these lines to every class and every time, I had students who appreciated the fact that I tried to get their names and attempted to remember their names. I would have them remind me of their names throughout the day, and do my best to call them by name as we did activities. This built respect and rapport quickly, which especially helped if I was in a class for multiple days or I returned to that classroom. 

A simple hack? Yes – but a super important one.

Have Activities and Fillers Ready

While we as teachers try to plan ahead as much as we can, sometimes we don’t have time to flesh out sub plans or anything else could come up that means we can’t create a full lesson plan. Or maybe, you just need a time filler for a class that finished all the work quickly! Be ready by having some go to activities and fillers to engage students and fill the time. 

Some ideas could be:

  • Fun read alouds (Chapter Two is Missing! was my personal subbing favorite)
  • Storyline Online (a great YouTube channel with celebrities reading aloud picture books)
  • Simple reading, math, or art activities (check out my freebie here on TpT with activities!)

Ask for Help!!

If you have a question, ask! If you’re not sure what to do, ask! If you need some supplies, just ask! In my experience, the secretaries and other staff in the building want you to succeed and want to help make your day easy. If something is confusing, missing, or you are generally unsure about something, make sure to reach out and ask someone! 

Tidy Up After Yourself

Tidy up the desk you setup at, tidy up the room in general, maybe even help grade papers. A good rule of thumb is to try and leave the room better than you found it. Now, this doesn’t mean that you should reorganize drawers or sort stacks of papers (unless there are notes asking you to). What this means is to make sure anything you and the students used is cleaned up by the time you leave to make it easier for the teacher when they return.

Leave Notes …. And a Business Card?

Leaving notes (whether negative or positive) is extremely important. They don’t have to be long or detailed, even just a quick “The day was great! Thanks for having me!” is better than nothing.

Obviously, if there was a student issue that you or another staff member had to deal with, leave a note behind so the teacher can handle that when they return. 

Some subs like to make their own cards with their contact information. Should you make one? Well, that’s up to you. A few schools I subbed at wanted my information to get in direct contact with me when they needed a sub because they liked having me. Other schools strictly used a third-party system, and won’t take phone numbers to have a direct line. Having a card made does look more professional and can be helpful, but it can be as simple as writing your name and number on a sticky note. 

Check In with the Front Office (Throughout the Day)

Before going to the classroom, check in with the front office about the day and any updates they have. It is also important to check in with them because they will have your key! Make sure to check out with them at the end of the day before they leave. You will need to return any keys lent to you, and do any housekeeping items (such as clarifying attendance) before you go. This is also a great way to learn more about the school and make connections if it’s a school you love and want to return to!

(It’s also general courtesy to talk with the secretaries and be in communications with them, they are absolute rockstars)

Subbing is a great way to gain experience and learn about new school. Take the time to get to know the school, the students, and experience different classes and grade levels. Whether you’re a new teacher who wants the experience or a retired full-time teacher who wants to help out (or anything in between), subbing is a great way to stay in the education game and help schools and students.

Thanks for reading, and happy teaching!


P.S. – Here is a link to my subbing freebie with four different activities that are print-and-go! They’re ready for sub plans, or as filler activities!

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