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How to Be a Better Relief Teacher

Updated on September 23, 2012
Substitute Teaching can be rewarding yet challenging.
Substitute Teaching can be rewarding yet challenging. | Source

Substitute Teacher – Relief Teacher

If you’d like to know how to be a better relief teacher, I have some ideas for you. In many areas, a relief teacher is often referred to as a substitute teacher, or as a “sub,” for short. He or she fills in for teaching positions when the regular teacher is out because of personal or family illness, the death of a loved one, or for other personal reasons. Teachers are also absent from school sometimes to attend seminars and for other professional reasons. Obviously, the students can’t be left unattended, which is where the substitute teacher comes in. I have a lot of experience with this topic – from all sides. Before I completed my teaching degree and became certified, I spent several years as a substitute teacher. After becoming a certified teacher and landing at a job at a public high school, I used substitute teachers, of course, when I had to be absent from school. In some ways, working as a sub was actually more difficult than being a regular classroom teacher, believe it or not. Based on my experience, I’ll share a few tips with you that will hopefully show you how to be a better relief teacher.

Becoming a Substitue Teacher - is it right for you?
Becoming a Substitue Teacher - is it right for you? | Source

How to Become a Substitute Teacher

How to become a substitute teacher varies from state to state and even from city to city. Each public school system and private school has its own set of guidelines and requirements that must be met before one can become a relief teacher. Some are very strict and detailed, while others are more relaxed.

One thing you’re just about guaranteed to have to go through is a background check. I don’t know of any schools or systems that don’t require this for potential subs. Schools might not be concerned with your previous employment record and things like that, but they’ll want to make sure you don’t have a criminal background. Even here, however, there are some variables. Some schools might overlook things like DUIs and misdemeanors, but they’ll most certainly look closely for violent crimes. And if you’ve ever been involved with any crimes against children, your chances of becoming a substitute teacher are probably nil.

The education requirements for becoming a substitute teacher vary. Some school systems are happy with just a high school diploma or GED, while others might require a four-year college degree. In fact, some schools even require teacher certification for their subs. You can find out the requirements by making a phone call to your local board of education’s central office.

Even if the schools or systems where you hope to land some sub teaching positions don’t have a strict education or experience requirement, you’ll likely have to go through some sort of training. This could include attending classes for several days or for just a few hours. Again, contact your local central office to learn more.

Teaching Positions – Substitute Teacher Jobs

Once you’ve become an approved sub, you’ll need to acquire some teaching positions. If you’re a good sub, you’ll most likely have more offers for substitute teaching jobs than you can handle. I’ve held substitute teaching positions at six or seven schools, so I can speak only from my own experience with landing sub jobs. The process might be different in your area or in the school systems where you hope to work.

For my local school system, a substitute teacher’s name is placed on a list of subs once she’s completed all the requirements. A single school system might include numerous schools, based on different grade levels. You’ll probably get to choose which schools where you’re willing to work. For example, if you want to work with younger kids only, you’ll probably get to indicate that. That way, high school teachers won’t even call you. Actually, I suggest you agree to sub at every school in the system. It’s a good way to gain experience, and this strategy will help you get more substitute teacher jobs. It will also help “get your name out there.” Once you establish yourself as dependable relief teacher, you might be able to be more choosy about the substitute teaching jobs you’re willing to take. If and when that happens, you can have your name removed from some school lists.

If you establish yourself as a good relief teacher or sub, word will spread. Teachers are always looking for effective substitute teachers, and in most schools, this is a much talked about issue among the faculty. Rest assured that your performance will be discussed:

Teacher one: I see that the new sub, Ms. Brown, filled in for you yesterday. How did that work out?

Teacher two: It seems that she did a great job. All my instructions were followed, and she left me a report.

Teacher one: Great! I think I’ll call her next time I have to be absent.

Of course, there’s also the flip side to this. If you do a bad job, you could be unofficially “blackballed.” If, after filling a few substitute teaching jobs, you find that you’re not cut out for subbing, notify the office to have your name removed from the list. That way, teachers and administrators won’t waste their time trying to contact you.

Substitute Teacher Duties

What are substitute teacher duties? They might vary from school to school and from teacher to teacher. From my experience as a substitute teacher and as a regular classroom teacher who outlined substitute teacher duties, the responsibilities basically involve paperwork, record keeping, and classroom management. As a sub, you’ll probably be required to take attendance and note tardies. This information is usually sent to the front office. This might be done via computer, or you might have to choose a student to take the information. In some schools, the reports are picked up by an office attendant.

Obviously, your substitute teacher duties will include following the instructions left by the teacher. It’s extremely important for you to stick to her plans. She’ll expect certain tasks to be completed in her absence, so do your best to make sure that happens. Don’t try to teach new information! Unless you’re proficient in the subject being taught, you can really confuse the students, and the teacher will have to clean up your “mess” when she returns. Even if you are well versed in the subject, you might “step on the toes” of the regular teacher by getting ahead of her lesson plans. Stick to the script!

Some teachers are more open to this than others are, especially if your sub job is for an extended period. I once subbed for a teacher who was out for two weeks because of her surgery, and she asked me to do some actual teaching. We had a long phone conversation to ensure that I’d be able to perform the duties. She gave me a basic outline but allowed me some freedom to “fill in the blanks.” If you don’t feel comfortable with a situation like this, you need to express that.

The most important substitute teacher duties have to do with classroom management, which you might find daunting – especially at first. Many times, you’ll find that the students will try their best to take advantage of the situation. You know, “while the cat’s away, the mice will play” sort of thing. To survive, you’ll need to understand and employ some basic classroom management strategies.

You'll need to learn how to manage student behavior.
You'll need to learn how to manage student behavior. | Source

Classroom Management

The biggest obstacle that faces teachers is classroom management. That’s true even for regular teachers, but it’s often even more important for relief teachers. Substitute teachers are at a definite disadvantage here. They won’t know most of the students, and oftentimes, the students won’t give the subs the respect they give the regular teachers.

If you don’t have experience teaching or subbing, you might not understand everything that classroom management involves, so I’ll explain. The term literally means managing the students for whom you’re responsible. Depending on the school and the class, this could involve a small group of ten or so, or it could include more than thirty students at a time. In addition to managing the students, you also have to manage time.

The main aspects in managing a class are student behavior and discipline. Where does time come in? if you’ve managed somehow to keep all the students quiet and calm, yet they don’t do the assigned work, what’s the point? The students need to be quiet and respectful, yes – but they also need to be actively engaged in the assignments left by their teacher. Below, I’m sharing some basic classroom management strategies for you to use with your substitute teaching jobs. The following videos will explain more about managing the learning environment. As a relief teacher, you won’t be able to use all the ideas presented, of course. You will, however, get a better understanding of classroom management strategies, and you’ll be able to use some of the techniques offered.

Classroom Management:

Classroom Management Strategies

Part of classroom management strategies have to do with your attitude. Take your job seriously, and let the students know that you do. Stand up straight and try to display confidence, even if you’re actually “jelly” on the inside. Don’t smile or act too friendly at first. You want the students to know that you mean business. You can always lighten up, but it’s almost impossible to go the other way. In other words, if you start out by being friendly, but find that didn’t work out well, it’s difficult to become sterner. You know, first impressions are hard to shake.

Hopefully, you’ve arrived early, before the students file into class. This will give you a chance to review the teacher’s lesson plans. Write the assignment on the board. That way, the students will be able to get to work as soon as class begins. You should have a seating chart, also, and it’s very important that the students sit in their assigned desks. You need to be able to identify the students by name, which can be pretty powerful in and of itself.

As the students are working, don’t just sit at your desk playing on the computer or reading. Walk around frequently. Minor behavior infractions can often be stopped by physical proximity. If you’re standing right next to a student, it’s unlikely that he or she will “act out” then.

Try to remain calm at all times. Don’t allow the students to “get” to you. Never lose your temper in front of the class, and don’t fall into the trap of arguing with a student. The regular teacher should have left you a set of her classroom rules, and you need to follow them precisely. If a student is creating a distraction, call him into the hall and issue a verbal warning. If the misbehavior continues, follow the teacher’s or school’s guidelines for consequences. If you’re unsure about this, ask a neighboring teacher, or call the front office for guidance.

You’ll need to do your best to keep the students on task for the entire period. If the teacher didn’t leave enough work for all the students, and some finish the assignment before the bell rings, you’ll have some idle students. That could be a source for misbehavior. I usually handled such situations this way: I’d tell those students that they had an option. They could either read quietly or work on an assignment for another class - as long as they were quiet. I explained that if that became a problem, they would be given another assignment. A nearby teacher will be able to offer you some help here.

Structure and routine are very important aspects in maintaining discipline, so it’s imperative that you follow the teacher’s instructions. Students do best with consistency, so your routine while substitute teaching should reflect the routine established by the regular teacher. It’s not your position to try something new while filling substitute teaching jobs.

Although you need to be firm – sometimes even stern - you need to treat the students with respect. Never “talk down” to the students. Resist using sarcasm, too. Be fair by treating all the students equally. Don’t punish the entire class because of one student’s infraction. Address that student individually and privately. Don’t get into a confrontation in front of the class. It’s important, too, that you handle minor infractions on your own. If you seek help from an administrator every time a student talks out of turn, you’ll be seen as ineffective – by the students, by other teachers, and by the administration.

Classroom Management Strategies:

Tips for Substitute Teachers

Below, I’m providing some general tips for substitute teachers. If you follow these suggestions, along with embracing the classroom management strategies I’ve suggested, you’ll be well on your way to learning how to be a better relief teacher.

· Dress Professionally – Treat substitute teaching jobs as real jobs. Don’t show up in jeans and a tee shirt. You don’t have to dress like you’re going to a formal event, but your appearance should be neat and professional. Once you’ve worked in a particular school several times, you can observe how the regular teachers dress. Take your cues from them. You want to look nice, but you’ll also need to be comfortable, especially when it comes to shoes. You’ll be doing a good bit of standing and walking around, so be kind to your feet and back.

· Be Dependable – When you get a call to sub and accept the job, show up! When a substitute teacher fails to report to work, it creates incredible havoc. Don’t agree to take on substitute teacher jobs unless you’re absolutely sure you’ll be able to fill it. Of course, unforeseen events and emergency situations occur from time to time, and if that happens, call the teacher or administrator as soon as you know that you have to renege on your obligation.

· Be Punctual – Make sure you know what time the school day begins, and show up a few minutes early.

· Avoid School Gossip and School Politics – Schools are rampant with gossip – some true, some false, and some a mixture of both. The chattering can come from teachers, from students, or from support staff. It’s sometimes easy to get caught up in it, too, but as a sub, you’ll need to steer clear of it. Don’t repeat things you hear at school.

· Be Available – When you get a call from a teacher or administrator asking for your help, take the job if you can. After you turn down a number of requests, you’ll stop getting calls. The schools will think you don’t really want to work as a substitute teacher. If you’re already booked for substitute teaching on that day, explain that: “I’d like to sub for you today, but I’m already booked to fill in for Mrs. Jones at Washington Middle School.” If you have some other valid reason for not taking substitute teacher jobs, elaborate: “I’d love to work for you today, but I have a doctor’s appointment in Atlanta. Please call me next time.” Of course, you don’t have to explain yourself, but it might go a long way in securing future teaching jobs if you do.

· Leave a Report – Whenever a teacher has to be absent from school, she wants to know what went on while she was gone. Leave her a note. If the school day is broken up into periods, leave a note for each period. Don’t get too bogged down with minute details – just cover the major points: “1st period went great. 2nd period, I had to send John Smith to the office for trying to start a fight with Will Jones. John got three days of ISS for the infraction. 3rd period, we had a long fire drill, so the students didn’t finish their assignment.”

Jobs for Retired Teachers

Relief teaching positions are great jobs for retired teachers! You already “know the ropes,” so to speak, from the years you spent as a classroom teacher. Schools will probably be clamoring for you. In many school systems, you’ll be paid more than substitute teachers who lack a teaching degree and experience. You’ll also have an “inside advantage.” Many of the teachers will already know you, so they’ll feel good about leaving you in charge. Another reason subbing positions are great jobs for retired teachers is the camaraderie involved. You’ll get to be in contact with your former colleagues, which is usually a nice bonus for retirees. Teaching “gets in your blood.” Good teachers usually have a driving urge to share knowledge and guidance, and substitute teaching will allow you to continue that – without many of the worries and responsibilities that regular classroom teachers have to deal with.


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    • DREAM ON profile image

      DREAM ON 5 years ago

      Great information and a god resource to all teachers and subs.A wonderful easy to read hub for those who just love ot read.

    • Marcy Goodfleisch profile image

      Marcy Goodfleisch 5 years ago from Planet Earth

      Years ago, I subbed a bit to see if I wanted to go into that career (I was thinking of changing my calling in life). I confess we had little guidance as to what the regular teacher expected of us; it would have been helpful to have this hub available at the time.

      Voted up and up!

    • Karen Hellier profile image

      Karen Hellier 5 years ago from Georgia

      I just started my career as a substitute teacher last week. Scary, but I am glad I got first day out of the way! These are great tips and I will use them in the future. Thanks. Voted up and useful.

    • Robie Benve profile image

      Robie Benve 5 years ago from Ohio

      Habee, I love how in detail you approached the job and challenges of a substitute teacher. It applies to all kind of teachers and teacher assistants. Really useful hub.