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How to Survive Substitute Teaching

Updated on December 22, 2011

Substitute teaching is a tough job. Many people substitute teach to add to their income and while it is a great source of money, you need to be prepared.

During my time as a teacher, I have seen many guest teachers come into our building thinking that this is going to be just like babysitting or like the business world. Unfortunately, they end up having the shock of their lives. Working in a school setting is nothing like babysitting or working for a company. Children are not employees and they often will challenge your authority as a substitute teacher. I have even seen guest teachers leave halfway through the day in tears. So how can you make your experience as a substitute both positive and rewarding and even want to come back?

Preparation is the key.

If you have never set foot in a classroom since your days of attending school, you would be surprised at how much has changed. No longer do children sit at their desks all day silent while the teacher disseminates information to them. Here are some tips to prepare for your substitute teaching experience.

  1. Make a visit to the school ahead of time. Ask if you can spend a little bit of time in a school or classroom where you plan to guest teach. This way you are already familiar with the climate of the building and some general procedures of the school.
  2. Prepare your secret weapon! When I substitute taught after I finished my teaching degree, I brought with me a bag. Inside of my bag I had many activities that the kids would enjoy doing when they finished their work. These things included coloring books and crayons, quiz games, bingo games, books to read to the class, and prizes for great behavior. The prizes were little things like dollar store toys or candy.

Management of the Class

Although you are not a babysitter while substitute teaching, the safety of your students are primary. If you do not have control of your class as a substitute, there is a greater chance than someone will get hurt. So how do you keep all 30 (sometimes more) students doing what they are supposed to do?

  1. Your goodie bag! Show some of your treats or prizes and make a deal. Let them know that if the class can get through the math lesson, then you will take a break and play a game. Or that if no one has to be put on a "list for poor behavior" then you can pick a prize at the end of the day.
  2. Don't yell. Even if you feel like the students have gotten the best of you and you are losing control, don't yell. Take a deep breath and count to ten. So often guest teachers feel like they are losing control of the situation and resort to yelling at the class. I promise you that this will not help. Try your best to stay calm. If you yell, the students will just talk louder over you. Practice ahead of time what your signal for students will be. Will it be counting to five, hand in the air if you can hear me, etc. If you have thought about this before this happens, then it will not be as overwhelming when you are in the midst of things.
  3. Get a helper.There is always one or two students that are the ring leaders. Enlist them to your cause. Don't go for the obvious "good kid." That challenging child is the one that is going to make or break your time in that classroom. Give that child a job like "showing you around" or passing out papers or anything that you can think of. This will make that child feel important and he or she will cue the others to lay off of you.
  4. Have a backup plan. Although I am always prepared for a guest teacher to walk into my room (complete with lesson plans, procedures, seating chart, etc.) not all classroom teachers are as thorough. So how will you get through this teaching assignment if you have no sub plans left for you? Or if you don't know the students names? Having a plan in place ahead of time to address these unexpected situations will help your day to go more smoothly.

As you embark on substitute teaching remember that children are still people. If you treat them with respect they will in turn treat you with respect. If you make your leadership in the classroom about power and authority, it will backfire on you and they will make your day much more difficult than it needs to be. If you anticipate what your day may be like and prepare ahead of time, you will have a great experience. Most of all, relax and enjoy yourself. Remember, you will make some mistakes along the way, especially in the beginning. That's ok but just like the students, learn from them and do better next time!


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    • JournalofaTeacher profile image

      Your friendly neighborhood teacher 4 years ago from Florida

      I'd like to extend a thank you to you from all of us substitute teachers out there. We really appreciate a full and detailed lesson plan with an outline of your rules. You would be surprised at how little direction some teachers leave us. I do understand that sometimes, you have an emergency and can't plan fully, but I've also walked into jobs that I had accepted weeks in advance and found nothing more than a few sentences on what to do for the day.

      So thank you from all of us for putting the time in. It really makes a difference with how our day goes and really streamlines the process. Clear lesson plans make us feel as if we are in control of the class the minute that first bell rings instead of floundering while trying to decide what the students need to do.

    • cardelean profile image

      cardelean 5 years ago from Michigan

      Good luck to you Karen! I hope that your students are nothing but angels. But I will say that it's better to be prepared, just in case their not! :)

    • Karen Hellier profile image

      Karen Hellier 5 years ago from Georgia

      Geez, reading the comments on this hub is scaring me! I'm starting substitute teaching this school year. I hope I can make it as a sub without the kids "eating me alive!"!!!

    • cardelean profile image

      cardelean 6 years ago from Michigan

      Thanks wordsmith2418. My job as a teacher is hard but I know that subs have it even harder when they don't know the class, teacher, culture of the school, etc. Hope you were able to get some ideas!

    • wordsmith2418 profile image

      Veronica Lewis 6 years ago from Pocono Mountains, Pennsylvania

      Great article! We substitute teachers need as much encouragement and advice as we can get!

    • cardelean profile image

      cardelean 6 years ago from Michigan

      LOL, just remember that when you hear all of the teacher bashing in the news! Thanks for reading, commenting and voting up.

    • alocsin profile image

      alocsin 6 years ago from Orange County, CA

      I'm so glad I'm not a teacher. Voting this Up and Useful.

    • cardelean profile image

      cardelean 6 years ago from Michigan

      LOL, I was actually going to put that in my hub Ken about kids smelling fear and then I forgot to do it, thanks!

      Subbing is a tough job and I think that the more that you show that you won't put up with students' "stuff" but also show that you are not there just to bark commands at them, the better off you are. I think that it also depends on the district you are subbing for. I work in a pretty tough district and our students will eat subs alive if they let them.

      Thanks for adding the information about learning names. That is very important as well. Glad you stopped by and commented.

    • Ken Barton profile image

      Ken Barton 6 years ago

      I've been subbing basically F/T for the last six years and if there has been one thing that's helped me more than anything it has been learning their names. I sub for grades 5 thru 12, any class, but I don't enjoy the respect the permanent teachers receive. Most of the time I don't have issues with students respecting me, but there are the occasional days when I have to lay the law down. You can't show fear, or put up with disrespect, or the kids will walk all over you. They're like Sharks, if they sense any weakness in you it's like 'blood in the water', they go into a feeding frenzy! Really! LOL

    • cardelean profile image

      cardelean 6 years ago from Michigan

      Thanks Dahoglund. If you decide to do some subbing, maybe this will help!

    • dahoglund profile image

      Don A. Hoglund 6 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      Sounds like solid advice.

    • cardelean profile image

      cardelean 6 years ago from Michigan

      No I didn't know that but that does not surprise me in the least!

    • Denise Handlon profile image

      Denise Handlon 6 years ago from North Carolina

      Very cool tips, Ms. Teacher! Did you know that was the knickname your dad gave me when we were first married? LOL up/useful