The Ultimate Substitute Teacher Guide

It’s almost time for back to school and you know what that means! Well, maybe you don’t if you aren’t in school, have no connection to school anymore, etc. Although if you clicked on this blog you’re probably here for a reason. Perhaps, like me, you are a substitute teacher. If that is the case, hello friend! If you’re going to be a substitute teacher, welcome to the club!

This blog is going to be the ULTIMATE guide to be the best substitute teacher you can be. Believe it or not, just because you aren’t an actual classroom teacher doesn’t mean the job is any easier. It’s just different. While you don’t have to take home grading or write report cards, you may be asked to do things as if you were a real, certified teacher. I spent the 2016-2017 school you primarily as an elementary school building sub, working with students from Pre-K to fifth grade while occasionally doing some time in a few middle schools and high schools. After my first year on the job, I feel like I’ve picked up quite a few tips and tricks to help new subs and maybe even some old pros be their best. Shall we begin?

What’s In My Bag?

Lets start of with the fun stuff. What should you keep in your substitute bag? Do you even need to have one? These are the important questions to be asking. Personally, I do believe in the sub bag. I personally have a tote bag that I bring with me to hold my car keys, phone, wallet, and lunch during the day. Some people might be able to go without this and squeeze their lunch bag into the staff fridge (most schools have these, I don’t trust them. People at the school I was at last year had their lunches stolen too often!). Other people might need a bigger or smaller bag. Tote bags, I think, are the best option. But the bag itself is not important, it’s what’s on the inside. In my bag, aside from my personal items, I keep a few school specific things.

  1. Pencils- I highly, highly, HIGHLY recommend stocking up on the pencils in the dollar section of Target or any other store that has school supplies. Having extra pencils in my bag can be incredibly helpful, especially if you are subbing in an elementary school. Students are constantly losing or forgetting pencils for class. Not every teacher will have spares in the classroom either. I keep some in a pencil case in my bag for just these times. They also make for a great reward for students who have been helpful in class during the day if your school doesn’t have a rewards system in place. Pencils are just one of those things to keep in your bag that the whole age spectrum of students will appreciate you carrying from kindergartners to high school seniors.
  2. Stickers– These are another great option to keep in your bag if you want to have some budget friendly rewards ready to go. Stickers are great if you are in elementary schools a lot as those kids LOVE getting stickers. And I mean love. If you reward a student with a sticker, they will be so happy and think that you’re better than Santa. I’m not joking. I had a student in a Spanish class call me “supergirl” because I gave them a sticker for sitting quietly during the entire lesson. Stickers can be used for more than individual rewards too. Use the stickers as a way to track the whole class during the day. Did everyone finish their work during math? Sticker. Did the class move through the hallway quietly? Sticker. Use the stickers as positive reinforcement for good behavior and let them know that they can earn free time or extra recess (if the lesson plan is flexible enough) or that you will leave a note for their teacher that they deserve a special prize.
  3. Water Bottle- This one is for you. Depending on what kind of class you’re subbing in and the behavior of the class, you’re gonna want a water bottle to keep you hydrated during the day. I know when I’m in elementary schools, I do a lot of read alouds during classes so I need to keep drinking water to avoid having a dry mouth or sore throat. Plus, it is always good to stay hydrated as much as possible.
  4. Sneakers- Okay, these don’t need to stay in your bag but you should definitely keep these in your car. Especially if you are a floater. At one of my schools, I was generally a floating building sub. This means that I could be pulled into any position at any time. Some days this meant that I was the gym teacher when she was absent. The first few times that this happened, I ended up teaching gym in flats or heeled boots. Not fun. After a while I learned my lesson and my gym shoes found a home in the back of my car. Along with sneakers, you may even consider keeping a spare set of gym clothes in your car for these kinds of situations. The kids just look at you funny when you’re trying to do jumping jacks with them while you’re wearing a skirt.
  5. Time Fillers- You might not think that you need to have things in your bag to entertain your students but you never know. Sometimes there just isn’t enough work to keep students busy. Time fillers can really be anything you can think of. I try and keep a small collection at least in my Google Drive of time fillers for every age group. These can be coloring pages, writing prompts, small no pieces games, etc. You can find lots of ideas on Pinterest as well.
  6. Hand Sanitizer- Trust me, you’re gonna want this.
  7. Pens- While most teachers will have pens around the classroom that you can use, sometimes they don’t work or are just not available to you. It is always best to be prepared anyways. I usually keep an assortment of colored pens in my bag for every occasion.
  8. “While You Were Gone…”/Note Paper- You should always keep some spare paper in your bag either for leaving an end of the day note for the teacher or for anything else that may happen during the day. I’ve used plain white paper to make envelopes and notes to thank students who were “Super Stars” during the whole day. When it comes to leaving teacher notes though, you may want to come up with a template and keep a few ready to fill out in your bag. This works great if you are in specific classes all day and not jumping around.
  9. Lesson Plans- Keeping lesson plans in your bag may sounds crazy, I know. You’re a substitute, not a teacher. Well, sometimes things happen. Keeping simple and easy to modify lesson plans around can save the day when plans change. You may have a teacher who was only going to be out until lunch time and all of the sudden you’ll be with the class all day. You’re going to need to come up with something to do real quick. I had a class one day near president’s day where the teacher ended up not coming in for the afternoon. While the kids were at specials, I whipped together a lesson about the job of the president and a worksheet that they could do. Simple. Even if you don’t have a collection stored in your bag, it is always good to have some ideas ready to go.
  10. Expanding File- Between note paper, time fillers, lesson plans, and more your bag is going to be full of paper. An expanding file can help organize your bag and make your bag less cluttered. I keep a lot of the items mentioned above in my file along with contact information for my sub services, a copy of my sub handbook, and my personal information in case my bag or file goes missing.

Optional items to keep in your bag: a whistle, dry erase markers, story books, crayons/colored pencils/markers, post it notes.

I Wanna Be The Very Best

Be Flexible. Be Prepared. Be Early.

This should be the mantra of every substitute teacher who wants to be the best. As time goes on and you get more experience as a sub, you’ll realize that nothing ever goes fully to plan. Or even close to how you planned it. You just have to go with the flow some days.

Be Flexible. The worst thing that you can do as a sub is not be flexible. You may have signed up to cover a third grade classroom that day and now you’re doing lunch coverage or recess duty. It isn’t what you thought you’d be doing that day but what are you going to do? Get angry and leave? No. You’re flexible and ready to take on the challenges of whatever the day may bring. This also means being ready for anything that may happen during the day. You never know when school might get dismissed early because of the weather or if there’s an emergency drill. Be flexible and ready to do what needs to be done.

Be Prepared.  A lot of being prepared starts with what’s in your bag (see above) and how you use your time the night before. Once you know that you have a sub gig, do you research. Make sure you find out where the school is and how much time it will take you to get to the school. Know what time you need to be at the school and what time classes start. Find out the name of the secretary if you can. A good sub day starts with the secretary. So do your research, have your sub bag, and don’t panic. You’ve got this!

Be Early. Okay, so this can probably get lumped in with be prepared but I’m making it its own thing. You should always be early to a gig. Always. Maybe only five minutes, maybe more– it all depends on what time school actually starts. No matter what, aim to be early. Being early gives you the chance to learn where things are in the building– you’re gonna need to know where the bathroom is eventually! Being early gives you the chance to go over the lesson plan for the day and learn where everything is in the classroom. When I sub, I like to use the extra time being early gave me to write the schedule for the day, my name, and the date on the board to get started. If you are allowed to use the tech in the classroom, you might even want to put slides together the break down the day. I was in schools a lot that allowed me to use smartboards so I would put slides together (if the teacher hadn’t already) with the schedule, instructions for each assignment, and other important information. All of this set me up for a successful day.

Classroom Management Skills

You aren’t their teacher and the whole class knows it. Knowing how to manage the classroom from the moment you walk in will do nothing but make your day better. Of course you have to roll with how your students behave and modify as needed. Knowing what to do, no matter what, if the most important thing to have in your substitute toolkit.

Now, classroom management as a substitute will obviously be a little different than if you were the actual teacher and it was your classroom. A lot of your management skills is going to come from knowing about how the class is usually managed. You are there, after all, to keep class going as smooth a possible. Hopefully the teacher will have left notes on how they usually manage the class. Keep an eye out for class jobs, hand signals or signs used, and behavior intervention techniques. A lot of the elementary schools that I’ve been in use a color system where the students all start the day in the middle on one color (lets say blue) and as the day goes on, students names can be moved. If they are exhibiting bad behavior, their name can get moved down to, say, yellow or red. If they are exhibiting good behavior, their name can get moved up to green. Each color may be tied to a consequence or reward. Yellow could mean loss of a privilege or recess and red might be a call home. Green on the other hand could get students a reward. Keep an eye out and make sure to record where every student’s name is at the end of the day.

Once you’ve identified the usual classroom management techniques that the teacher you’re covering for employs, it’s time to get into your own toolkit.

Be The Teacher- Never see yourself as just the sub. If you see yourself that way, the students will see you that way and this will immediately undermine you. You are a teacher. You are an authority in the classroom. Set expectations for the class and stick to them. If you are consistent and see yourself as a teacher in the classroom, your students will too.

Expectations- Set them first thing when you walk in. If you are covering a teacher for a full day, take advantage of that morning meeting time (if you have the time or if it’s in the plan). Let the students know what your expectations are. Nothing will be different than when their normal teacher is there. For older students, give them the chance to set their own class expectations and talk about them (I’ve found that 2nd grade and up can usually handle this). If the school has a set of rules or principles that they run by, talk about those. Have the students explain them to you and hold them accountable. If you decide to have the students set their our expectations. Write them down somewhere where they are visible during the day. When expectations are not being met, you can pause and have the students take a look back at what they agreed to and came up with. This helps them to be more responsible for their learning while you’re there. Setting expectations also means dealing with any problems that break away from the expectations right away. If raising your hand is one of the expectations and students don’t follow, address it right away. This goes do any breaking from the rules: address it the first time.

Learn Their Names- This might be one of the most important things in your management toolkit. Learn your students names. ASAP. If the students realize that you aren’t learning their names or that you aren’t willing to learn their names, you start to chip away at the respect they might show you. How do you feel when someone doesn’t learn your name? Not good right? So learn their names. This will help you in the long run. This can be especially helpful if you take on a long term position at a school. If you’re in a building for a few weeks, you need to learn names.

These may seem simple and straight forward but sometimes you just need a reminder. If you’re a sub, what are some of your tips and tricks that you’ve picked up along the way? Share in the comments!


My Educational and Professional Background

While I’m sure few to none of you lovely readers is actually interested in my educational background, I thought that I’d share my educational and professional background. Why? Well I’m glad you asked, imaginary other side of this conversation! So much of teaching and how you handle a classroom, either as a teacher or a sub, comes from your previous experiences either from being a student or other professional experiences. I know my classroom management style and how I go about being the best substitute teacher I can be comes from what I learned in college and also my experiences as a student.

Most of my background comes from being brought up in the city of Hartford, Connecticut. I was raised in Hartford Public Schools; I volunteered and worked a local museums; I lived in Hartford until I was sixteen and stayed in HPS until high school graduation thanks to the magnet school program. Going through school here, I had substitute teachers from every walk of life. I had subs who were just grandmothers who got bored in retirement to former correctional officers, weathermen, and CIA agents (although, I don’t know how much I believe that one). I watched dozens of different substitute styles from behind my desk that, even a decade later, are influencing my choices now. I attended the University of New Hampshire and majored in English Education with a secondary education focus. There, I took classes that focused on teaching skills and how to best teach the English curriculum in a school while also being aware of the diversity of where I’m teaching, what is happening in the world, and more. I took classes on how to integrate technology in the classroom and how to use theatre to build on lessons.

After graduating in 2016, I started working as a substitute teacher through a temp agency and have worked with students in Pre-K through 12th grade. In my first year as a substitute teacher, I was asked to stay on at one school as a long term building sub. There, I was able to hone my classroom management skills and build helpful relationships with teachers to better my own teaching style and skills.

Want to know more? Let me know!


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