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Substitute Teacher Tips

Instructor: Clio Stearns

Clio has taught education courses at the college level and has a Ph.D. in curriculum and instruction.

Being a substitute teacher can be challenging, both logistically and emotionally! If you are subbing, use this lesson to get some tips about how to manage your job and do it well.

Understanding the Job

Jane is really excited. She hasn't quite finished her coursework toward her teaching license, but she has been hired in her district as a substitute teacher. She learns that, as a substitute teacher, she might be called in any day a teacher is sick, and she will be responsible for that teacher's class that day.

Once her initial excitement subsides, though, Jane begins to worry. She remembers how she behaved for substitute teachers when she was a child, and it wasn't pretty! She also wonders what she will do to keep students engaged when she doesn't have a foundational relationship to build on and doesn't know every grade's curriculum. Jane decides to talk with her friend Ellen, an experienced sub, to get some advice about successful subbing.

Follow the Plans

Ellen tells Jane that the most important thing about subbing is to follow the teacher's plans. Teachers in most schools are required to leave these plans for the sub to follow. Sub plans are fairly general, but they do give guidance in terms of how the class routines work, what activities to do, and what the class is learning about or working on.

Ellen says that some teachers even include the names of particularly helpful students so that the sub can rely on them if needed. Ellen cautions Jane not to be a maverick or get overly creative: students rely on routines, and classroom teachers prefer subs who stick to a schedule and do what they are asked to do. Even high school students, who can be more flexible, do best with a substitute who honors their usual teacher's expectations, routines, and rules.

Keep It Light

At the same time, Ellen reminds Jane not to expect that the day will go exactly as it would if the regular classroom teacher were there. Students can feel disoriented, excited, abandoned, confused, and all sorts of other unusual ways when the teacher they are accustomed to working with is not in school. Older students might feel as though they are less motivated to try their hardest for a teacher they do not know as well. Ellen advises Jane that the best way to handle this array of feelings is to keep the day as lighthearted as possible. Though, as a substitute, Jane will want to cultivate a sense of authority, she will also want students to understand that she is on their side, and they are all getting through the unusual day together.

Have Empathy and Build Relationships

Ellen tells Jane that the best substitute teaching happens when the sub has empathy for what the students are going through. Subs should think about why students might be behaving in unusual ways. Are they testing authority? Are they missing their teacher? Are they unsure about directions? Trying to get into the students' mindset, even just a little, will help Jane build relationships with the students she is teaching, even if it is just for one day. A little empathy and interest will go a long way toward making a day with a substitute teacher run smoothly.

Keep Some Games in Your Back Pocket

Finally, Ellen tells Jane that although it is important to follow the teacher's plans, a substitute should always have a few go-to games in his or her back pocket. It is best when these games are collaborative, or non-competitive. Having a few games to rely on will help with tricky transitions. It can also help with keeping the tone of the day light and even with building relationships.

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