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Survival Guide For Substitute Teachers

Updated on April 11, 2011

How To Set The Stage For Success

Remember the days when you were in school and a substitute teacher walked into the room? Recall all the sideways glances and smug smiles hinting that this might just be a fun class after all, at least for the kids? Well, things haven't changed all that much. The students might be a tad more sophisticated, and the administration (at least at some schools) might be a bit less supportive, but the perception of what a substitute teacher is hasn't changed all that much. (Remember, the word itself begins with the prefix sub, which means "under" or "less than.") if you want to succeed as a substitute, it's up to you to emphasize the teacher part of the job description.

The first thing you must do when you make the decision to substitute is to gain the respect of the teachers, administrators, and students alike. In order to do that, you need to stress the fact that you are a teacher, whether the word substitute is attached or not. ( If you are not a certified teacher and are subbing on an emergency certificate, you will have to convince them of your expertise in a certain subject(s).) This might take some time, but the end results are well worth it. If all you do is show movies (which should reflect on the teacher for whom you're subbing, since he/she left those plans), you'll seldom gain the respect you need to survive the slippery slopes of substitute teaching.

If you're going to sub on the middle school or high school level, do a bit of research ahead of time, if possible, and try to find the school with the strongest support system in your area. (This doesn't necessarily mean the school with the best behaved student body.) You might have to sub a few times at several schools in order to discover this; it should become evident after only a day or two. Then choose the school(s) that seem to be the best fit for you. (Hint: if you've had a problem with a student and the administration either blows it off or tells you to handle your own problems, that's a big clue as to what's in store for a sub at that school. Also, if the students make it clear that the regular teacher really could care less how they behave when he/she is away, that's another one.) If you plan on subbing at the elementary level, you can do this "testing of the waters" technique, too, if you ultimately aren't concerned about working all that much; elementary schools often are much smaller than secondary schools, which means that the number of teachers needing a sub each day won't be nearly as great. It you do want (or need) to sub more often, you'll have to choose two or three schools on which to concentrate your sub time.

You're probably wondering, "Why would I want to limit my choices? Why not just sub every place that calls?" The reason for this is, the more you show up at the same school, the more likely staff and students will recognize you and, ultimately, treat you as a human being, not just "another sub." If you manage to earn their respect, teachers might even request that you sub for them; an added bonus is you get to know certain students/classes better. In this case, familiarity usually breeds better behavior. Also, it might help to indicate ( through word-of-mouth in the faculty room or in the notes you leave for the regular class room teacher) that you prefer to teach rather than show movies. Of course, if you do this, you can only accept assignments for subjects in which you have some expertise. Rest assured, though, that most students react with pleasant surprise and, ultimately, respect to a substitute who obviously is familiar with the subject matter.

If you need a bit of help refreshing your memory on the day's class work (after all, you may have studied the Civil War many years ago), have the students take turns reading aloud any written passages that have been assigned and stop at intervals to discuss the content as you see fit. If the teacher has left plans directing students to answer questions in writing, take a quick look at the content and have a brief discussion before they begin. This at least makes it clear that you're attuned to what they're doing. Don't simply write the assignment on the board and assume all students will comply with a request made by someone who could care less about the class. Even if you see the assignment as "busy work," don't let the students know that it probably is. It's a sad truth that if the teacher leaves that type of assignment, the person who risks losing credibility is the one who's in the class room; that would be you.

If you've been left nebulous instructions like "Review for tomorrow's test," give the students time to come up with questions, and then use a game show format to play a review game. At all times, remember that you're in charge and project that fact to the students. Assure them that if they can't stay on track or if they get out of hand, the review game will be over, and they will use the remainder of class to outline the chapter. If you've been asked to administer a test, do not allow the students to "trick" you into giving them answers. Simply distribute the test, read the instructions aloud, and surreptitiously monitor the students as they work. If you suspect someone of cheating, avoid what could become a nasty confrontation and simply leave detailed notes for the teacher as to exactly what you observed.

If, occasionally, you are directed to show a movie, have the students make written comments as they watch to keep them focused. If time remains at the end of the period, discuss what they have just seen, or have students write a paragraph-long summary or reaction piece. Again, make it clear by your actions and demeanor that you are the teacher and not just a projectionist or babysitter. If a behavior problem occurs and the situation escalates quickly, rather than try to reason with the student and provide the class with some negative entertainment, attempt to remove him from the class as quietly and as quickly as possible. Establishing positive working relationships early on in your subbing career with guidance counselors and with administrators who deal with discipline can be invaluable. If viable, send the offending student with a pass to his guidance office or appropriate administrator and follow up immediately with a phone call to apprise him of the situation. (Make sure to program appropriate school office numbers into your cell in case the class room does not have a phone, and make the call as discreetly as possible.) Remember, you are legally responsible for each student assigned to that class for that period. NEVER allow a student to wander the halls; make sure someone in a supervisory position knows whom to expect and when that student left your class room.

Finally, remember that you're only asking for trouble if you accept an assignment in a field with which you are totally unacquainted. For example, if you never took calculus (or physics, or human anatomy, or French, etc.) when you were in school, the students will figure that out in about ten minutes, and things are likely to go downhill. If you've already established a reputation of respect at a school, however, you can occasionally accept this type of assignment with a disclaimer to the students such as, "They really needed someone to cover this class; even though you obviously know a lot more about it than I do, I agreed to help out." Don't do that too often, though, or your credibility will suffer.

Remember, you can't expect each day that you sub to be stress-free. (Ask the class room teachers how many stress-free days they have!) With a little forethought and preparation, though, things will be apt to go much more smoothly. Keep in mind that you're the adult; they're the kids. Don't allow them to convince anyone otherwise.


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    • profile image

      Trisha 3 years ago

      A minute saved is a minute eaendr, and this saved hours!

    • profile image

      Trudy 3 years ago

      What I find so innitesretg is you could never find this anywhere else.

    • PatriciaTL profile image

      PatriciaTL 5 years ago from Lehigh Valley

      I'm glad you liked the Hub, Kimberly. May you and your friends have some very rewarding experiences in the field of education!

    • KimberleyMarshall profile image

      KimberleyMarshall 5 years ago from Detroit, MI

      This is a phenomenal Hub and something that I will pass along! I have a whole group of friends that are all going to be educators and we're all focused on subbing ourselves through school. Thanks again for writing! I Enjoyed reading!

    • PatriciaTL profile image

      PatriciaTL 7 years ago from Lehigh Valley

      Bless you, marlenejns! It's so nice to hear you say that you love substitute teaching. I think that music and art teachers (as well as home ec, shop, and foreign language teachers) are afraid that a sub might not be as familiar with these subjects as he/she might be with math, history, English, etc. and leave a movie just to fill a class period. Sadly, that's all that many of those movies do, unless they're related to the subject in some way.

    • marlenejns profile image

      marlenejns 7 years ago from Michigan

      I love substitute teaching! Unfortunately, teachers who teach music and art will leave movies for their students to watch. Not all of these "specials" teachers do this but quite a few of them do.

    • PatriciaTL profile image

      PatriciaTL 7 years ago from Lehigh Valley

      You were very fortunate, Trish Some students, particularly those in middle school, can be brutal to a sub. When you're always at the same school, as you were, students and staff come to regard you as a part of the school.

    • Trish_M profile image

      Tricia Mason 7 years ago from The English Midlands

      I was a substitute teacher for a while. I was always in the same school ~ and it was a good one, so I think that I was lucky. I have heard some real horror stories!!

    • PatriciaTL profile image

      PatriciaTL 7 years ago from Lehigh Valley

      Thanks, Simone. I subbed for awhile before I started my job as a "regular" teacher, and my husband subbed after he was "early retired" from his administrative job. I hope this article helps some people, too. Subbing can be tough!

    • Simone Smith profile image

      Simone Haruko Smith 7 years ago from San Francisco

      It sure isn't easy being a substitute teacher! I really appreciate your creating this guide, and hope it helps many a sub!


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