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Learning How to Be a Good Substitute Teacher

Updated on June 19, 2013

Let's Face It

I recently graduated from college with an education degree, foolishly thinking that I'd find the perfect job at the perfect school with the perfect class. Well, let me tell you, things did not turn out quite as planned. I ended up having to be a substitute teacher (at many different schools) every day for about 4 months. This might not sound like much of a nightmare to some of you, but for those of you that are teachers, or have ever subbed a day in your life, you know that substitute teaching can be rough... really rough. However, after many headaches, frequent tests of my patience, and a few meltdowns, I think I have really learned a lot about how to be a good substitute teacher. Although I still have some rough days, I have picked up a few tricks that I find to work well for both younger and older grade levels. Before I share those with you, allow me to first let you in on some of the mistakes I made due to my faulty expectations. Hopefully you can learn from them!

Have You Ever Been a Substitute Teacher Before?

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Not Quite What I Expected

The tools I learned in my education courses in college prepared me well for the classroom, but not necessarily for how to be a good substitute teacher. My student teaching experiences went great, but substitute teaching brought many new challenges. My first few weeks as a sub were definitely my worst. I literally lost my voice on day three from yelling, and all my go-to classroom management techniques I had previously relied on failed me. Turning out the lights, clapping, counting down from five, giving positive reinforcement,...nothing worked! My first few days ended in tears and I began doubting my ability and desire to be a teacher. That was my first big mistake: 1) Taking things too personally. I don't think many people would disagree that there are some groups of kids that even the "best of the best" would have a hard time managing. Plus, in most kids' minds, sub = party time.

My second biggest mistake: 2) Trying to get everything in the plan book done. You want to show that you know how to be a good substitute teacher and help the teacher out by doing what she asked you to, but sometimes it's just not realistic. Kids will lash out if they are bombarded with worksheets, and chances of getting to know them or gain any respect at all will be thrown out the window if all you're doing is stressing to get things done in time. Trust me, I struggled with this for a while. Almost every teacher would tell you that they would rather you just make it through the day than rush through the curriculum, because then they will just have to re-teach everything anyway.

In addition to learning from these mistakes, there are also a few tricks of the trade I have found helpful when substitute teaching for a variety of grade levels. I divided them into those for "elementary" and those for "middle and high school."

How to Be a Good Substitute Teacher for Elementary School

Personally, I prefer teaching the younger grades (K-5), but I may not survive without my "bag of tricks." For example, I never enter an elementary school without:

  1. Stickers
  2. Candy
  3. Some sort of "star student" award for the most well-behaved students.

Bribery? Maybe. Helpful? Absolutely!

Another thing I make sure I do at the very start of the day is to explain to the students that not everything will be done exactly in the same way as they are used to, but that is okay. This will help you avoid the never ending "But Mrs. (Whoever) usually does it this way..." or "You're supposed to say/do/stand....." Do this while still being sensitive to the fact that kids are all about routine and will learn best in a structured environment.

The last thing of the day I do for all grade levels, but especially elementary, is leave some sort of "sub report" to let the teacher know how the day went. This is a great way to organize my thoughts for the day and provide feedback for the teacher. Even if you think you have no idea how to be a good substitute teacher, this simple act shows a level of professionalism and responsibility that goes a long way. I also made business cards that include my name, phone number and email address. This is a quick way to get my name out to schools that I enjoyed and would like to hear back from.

How to be a Good Substitute Teacher for Middle and High School

Teaching middle and high school students doesn't come quite as naturally to me, but there are a few things I have found to be a big help. One thing I think that some older students need to hear is why you are qualified to be teaching them that day. It would be easy to fall into the trap of letting students walk all over me if I did not make a conscious effort to assert myself. I try to justify my ability to teach and explain how I have plenty of experience in the classroom and that the day will not be a blow-off day. Show them that you know how to be a good substitute teacher. Try to find the right balance between getting to know the students in a friendly way while still maintaining order and respect.

Just like the younger kiddos, older students need positive reinforcement. One of the keys to figuring out how to be a good substitute teacher is to figure out an appropriate source of motivation for your students. Candy can still be used effectively for students that contribute to class discussions and stay on task during independent work time. Another good form of motivation is the chance to do group work. Tell students that if they work on their assignment quietly for "x" amount of minutes, then they can work with a partner for the rest of the period (as long as they stay on task).

A sub report is still a good idea to leave to keep the teacher updated, especially regarding students that were absent or did not complete their work.

Class Dismissed

Learning how to be a good substitute teacher has been hard work, but it has definitely been worth the ups and downs. While it is not something I would choose to do forever, it has taught me a lot and given me a wide variety of experiences. I've enjoyed learning more about the value of patience and flexibility in the classroom, as well as the joy of motivating students and making them feel important.

I hope this hub helps give you confidence as you continue your own journey of finding out how to be a good substitute teacher. Feel free to share any thoughts or questions you may have below!


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    • JournalofaTeacher profile image

      Your friendly neighborhood teacher 

      5 years ago from Florida

      I am in the exact same situation as you were when you graduated. I've been substitute teaching for about a year now and just recently made an account on here to start sharing some of my tips and experiences. Everything you said here really hit home for me and are all things I have figured out in the past year.

    • bemily521 profile imageAUTHOR


      6 years ago

      @theseus - I love your insight! I have experienced that to be true myself at times. It is so important to not just write children off as "behavior problems" because we could be missing out on impacting a life; and maybe even being impacted ourselves!

    • theseus profile image


      6 years ago from philippines


      Great hub!!Informative, too.

      I am a teacher myself, though I am teaching college students. I have been in this craft for 8 years already. I have had my share of the "worst" and "best" moments with my students who can sometimes be "terrorists". But I have learned that the best way to deal with them is to listen, not to what they are yelling and screaming, but what their eyes are saying. My mantra in teaching is "patience is a virtue.." :)Each of these students have a story to tell, and more often than not, they resort to the worst kind of behavior just to be noticed. Later on, when they start to realize that you are not there to terrorize them, things will turn out for the better. God bless you.

    • bemily521 profile imageAUTHOR


      6 years ago

      Thank you so much for the positive feedback everyone! It has definitely been a journey. @Jerry-you are so right about leaving detailed and easy-to-follow plans...they make a world of a difference and help the day go much more smoothly!

    • Jenna Pope profile image

      Jenna Pope 

      6 years ago from Southern California

      Wow! You are brave! I remember how awful we were to our substitute teachers!

      Voted up.

    • mbyL profile image

      Slaven Cvijetic 

      6 years ago from Switzerland, Zurich

      Thanks for sharing your experience with this. Very informative hub! Voting up Interesting and Shared!

    • JerryTillotson profile image


      6 years ago from Montpelier, VT

      Hi there. Such a relatable piece. I started teaching relatively late, 43, and did some subbing myself before landing my teaching job the fall after my student teaching. As you already have figured out, there's very little about the real classroom that teacher's college prepares you for. As a teacher, I have learned the a sub's good or bad day depends on the preparation and plans left by the regular teacher. I work with teachers who no one wants to sub for because the plans are difficult to understand and follow, or the planned activity is insufficiently engaging and idle minds are the devil's playground. I don't take many days out of the classroom because I hate writing subplans, but when I do, I'm very detailed, cover all my bases, and have all handouts copied and organized. My subs have expressed their appreciation for a high level of detail. In addition, I read the riot act to my students when I know I'm going to be out. I tell them what they're going to be doing, what I expect them to have accomplished when I get back, and if I get any bad reports from the sub, there will be consequences. If a teacher should leave you with inadequate instructions and the students are difficult to manage, leave detailed notes as to your concerns. In my district, it's not okay to set up a sub to have a terrible day. Best of luck to you.

    • DON BALDERAS profile image


      6 years ago

      The kind of experience would-be teachers have during their apprenticeship would not really be a guarantee that they would be doing good when they finally get into the daily grind of teaching. That even if they so very well know that they have prepared for the big day, it would take quite a huge amount of convincing themselves especially when it has something to do with their maturity and emotional stability in facing varied and not-so-good experience with school children. Being so imposing on the things we like as teachers without going through the details of how well or not the school children would welcome your presence in the classroom is another thing to consider. Learning is not imposing. It is about winning their hearts through connectivity. When they recognize what you're trying to drive home is something that's home for them, then they identify with the experience and feel a sense of ownership of the situation and the lesson or activity you are discussing. It is really about putting lessons in the context of the child. It is about connecting with his experiences. It is about building blocks on his experiences and expectations. That I believe will greatly affect the emotional capital of the children to go and learn with you. And later, you'll find out, something has changed in the person of the child, and that coming to school is no longer a burden for the parents, and your presence is no longer antagonizing him.

    • Paul Kuehn profile image

      Paul Richard Kuehn 

      6 years ago from Udorn City, Thailand

      This is an interesting and useful hub for all teachers. From personal experience, I know that patience and flexibility are very important in the classroom. As you also pointed out, motivating students and making them feel important is also a key to teaching. Voted up and sharing.


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