Things I Didn't Know Before Becoming a Substitute Teacher

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Being a substitute teacher can be a rewarding and enjoyable career choice, but it's not without its share of challenges. Read on to pick up some tips that will help you survive your initial foray into the world of substitute teaching.

The Life of a Sub

Substitute teachers (or 'subs') fill a vital need in the education system. These emergency teachers can step in without missing a beat and take over for ill or otherwise occupied instructors and keep a class on track. Being a sub is also a good way to improve your chances of finding full-time employment.

If subbing seems like something you'd be interested in trying, you should be aware that the profession isn't always glamorous. When I first started, I quickly learned a few important (and sometimes painful) lessons that my training hadn't covered. Take a look at these tips and learn from them, so that you'll be ready when you eventually start.

Set the Classroom Tone Early

As you may remember from your childhood, most students see subs as an opportunity to slack off and make some mischief. If given or sensing the opportunity, students will gladly shrug off assignments and ignore a sub's instructions. In order to prevent such problems, a sub must establish an early tone of control. You don't have to pretend you're an authoritarian dictator, but you do need to make it clear that fooling around will not be tolerated in your classroom.

setting the tone

Of course, try not to create an 'us vs. them' mindset. In my experience, I've had just as many friendly and manageable classrooms as unruly ones. If you sense that your class will respond well to a gentle hand, feel free to try a different approach. Sometimes the carrot works better than the stick.

As you gain experience, you'll get better and better at quickly identifying the nature of the class you've just entered. Use the first few minutes to get a sense of the room, and then decide which approach will be most effective.

Teacher Instructions Can Vary

Unfortunately for substitute teachers, the way a day goes is not always in their hands. The level of detail in a full-time teacher's instructions can be a huge help (or hindrance) as you cover for a class.

One of the greatest sights for a sub is a detailed set of instructions that covers all aspects of the classroom. In addition to obvious information such as assignments, there's bathroom breaks, seating charts, phone/computer usage policies, and even a list of other teachers to consult if you're having trouble.


On the flip side, poor instructions force a sub to rely on his or her personal methods. Students do not always respond well to change, and trying to introduce new teaching styles for a single day doesn't usually end well. You may also encounter 'filler' assignments that teachers made up at the last minute to kill time.

Regardless of the quality of instructions I receive, I always do my best to leave a thorough set of notes for the teacher about students' behavior and other feedback. Communication goes both ways, and letting a teacher know what happened can help him or her design better plans for other subs down the road.

Always Have a Fallback Plan

Let's imagine the worst-case scenario: the teacher you're covering for left few instructions and a paltry assignment that the class completed in about 30 minutes. Students are getting antsy, and you can feel your grip on the situation loosening. How can you salvage it?

Carrying a set of backup projects is a great way to avoid disaster. When things slow down and you find yourself in need of an assignment, help is always within reach. Examples of these projects include:

  • Puzzles: crosswords, word finds, and even Sudoku are games that provide students with a stimulating challenge. There's a virtually limitless supply online, so all you have to do is print out a few dozen copies and carry them around with you.
  • Pictionary: This classic game gets the entire class involved while also developing a number of skills. For added fun, divide the class into multiple teams, and devise a small reward for the winners.
  • Icebreakers: Familiarizing yourself with a class is a great way to encourage good behavior and form connections with your students. Playing team-building games like 'Desert Island' or 'Never Have I Ever' are especially beneficial because they teach valuable cooperation and teamwork skills to younger children.

game time

The benefit of these activities is that they work for all grades. While you are certainly free to do things your own way, it's far more time-consuming to concoct individual activities for each grade.

Expect Disorder & Uncertainty

When you commit to being a sub, you're resigning yourself to a certain degree of uncertainty and disorder. You know the schedule will be inconsistent, students may be unruly, and there's no guarantee of the general control and stability that a full-time teacher enjoys.

While you should always try to make the best of a bad situation, expect those that'll simply be beyond your control. These moments are discouraging, but I promise they're only temporary. Sometimes you get dealt a bad hand, and the only thing to do is play it as best you can.

When I first started subbing, I had a hard time accepting the bad days because I saw them as a reflection on my own teaching abilities. Don't take the bad days personally; maintain your sense of humor and positive outlook.


The life of a substitute teacher can be hectic, but there's also plenty of potential for fulfilling and productive outcomes. You're bound to encounter a setback here or there, but don't let it get to you. Keep your head up and take things one day at a time.

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