What Makes a Good Substitute Teacher?

Substitute teachers, Teachers-On-Call (TOCs), Supply Teachers… Whatever your title in your district is we are all in this together! Sometimes you feel like a babysitter, sometimes a drill sergeant, sometimes a self-promoter, and, hopefully more often then not, you feel like a “real” teacher. This substitute territory can be tricky to navigate for the classroom teacher and substitute alike. This post was written to bridge the gap a bit when it comes to expectations and what is helpful for the classroom teacher – as always we would love to hear your feedback!

In the last few weeks we’ve experienced some teacher angst among our more established teacher friends.  A new school year is about to begin and those teachers with their own classrooms and students are facing another year of struggles…finding a good sub. We can attest to these struggles because we both had small contracts last year and we both got sick and needed to book substitutes for our own classrooms.  Unfortunately, we never got the chance to sub for one another, but we did manage to find good people to cover for us when we needed them too.  So what makes a good substitute teacher, then? We’ve asked a few of our teacher friends to help us out with the answers to this question.

Here’s what they have to say:

Have a bag of tricks with varied lessons, games, activities and art projects for a range of subjects.  Be “friendly tough” with students – don’t put up with silliness or rudeness, but also don’t publicly shame students if they do cross the line.  Using your sense of humour goes a long way!  Don’t assign homework unless you’ll be around to mark it (i.e. longer term stints), or if the teacher has specifically asked you to assign homework (when a substitute assigns homework it usually doesn’t get completed and can turn in to a “make work project” for the enrolled teacher).  Similarly, when a substitute creates lessons that don’t get finished in class, it can be hard on the enrolled teacher because he/she doesn’t know how to finish up the lesson or mark it (if you, the sub, are doing an in-class project, make sure you have the time to mark it yourself).  *This next point is specific to the style of the teacher: Prepare to do your own planning/prep if you are subbing for more than one consecutive day.

A nice reminder for tonight, because we know that we will not be sleeping soundly at all! A mixture of nerves and excitement has taken over.

A nice reminder for tonight, because we know that we will not be sleeping soundly at all! A mixture of nerves and excitement has taken over.

Karley’s thoughts:  I am definitely not a pro by any means, but I’ve found some key things that really tend to work in my favour when I’m subbing.  When subbing I try my best to be as competent as I can.  I always show up at least 30 minutes before the bell rings (I’m usually more like 40 minutes early), I check in at the office in the morning and meet the office staff and principal/VP if possible, at the end of the day I make sure the classroom looks like it did at the start of the day, I leave a detailed note or email for the teacher, I introduce myself to neighbouring classrooms teachers (“Hi, I’m Karley Alleyn and I’m subbing for _______________ today.  I just wanted to introduce myself and let you know I’ll be here all day” kind of thing), and I always bring a few good stories (my own, personal stories) or quick activities.  I find that establishing myself in the classroom as best as I can before the school day starts is what really sets the tone for the day.  These things might seem like “no brainer” actions, but I do know of subs who don’t engage with the school and the students from the moment they set foot in the school; ignoring to establish immediate rapport can set one up for disaster before the bell even rings.

I always introduce myself to the students in a fun, yet clear and concise, way.  I make sure the students know that even though I’m “just a sub”, I mean business.  I frequently have had students switch names on me, or sit in different seats…when things like this happen I don’t let it bother me, but rather I approach the students in a warm manner (I’m not the kind who raises their voice and yells) and let them know that I have the seating plan right in front of me (most times I actually DO have it right in front of me).  I let students know that the name switching thing might be funny, but it is actually a safety issue.  I tell the class that if we were to have a fire or earthquake that I would be doing attendance outside and if they were joking around with switched names we could all get into serious trouble, or worse.  If it sounds like I’m in “lay down the law” teacher mode during these discussions, it’s because I AM! I can pull a quality “serious face” and in my experience kids seem to get the point straight away and come clean with the switched names.  Of course I never hold a grudge on the students who try to play games; they’re just testing the waters!  For me it’s basically just about setting the boundaries as the TOC from the moment the bell rings; if I let the kids know they aren’t getting away with their silly antics from the get go, then we are usually good for the rest of the day, and beyond, because we are able to establish trust with one another.

Meaghan’s thoughts:

I actually really enjoy subbing! Not that I want to do it for the rest of my life or anything and I definitely prefer being a classroom teacher but I think subbing is fun and that really helps me out with the job. For me, attitude is the most important part of it – I need to have a positive attitude about the job from the time I get the call to the time I leave the school at the end of the day. Yes there will be those moments where you have no idea what’s going on but hey, what can you do? That’s all a part of it.

Karley is exactly right with being prepared, that’s how you start the day off right! Now I’m not so much of a morning person so being 40 minutes early has probably never happened for me despite my best intentions haha but 30 minutes for sure! You never know what you might have in the classroom so it’s important to make sure you have enough time to prep, plan and photocopy. One of my best days of subbing was when there was absolutely no day plan for me – getting to do whatever I want for all the subjects = AWESOME! I got to try all of my best one off lessons for every subject all day and the kids really enjoyed it as well. However, many times you will get a detailed day plan left by the teacher and it’s important to try to follow the plan to the best of your ability. Most teachers will be fine if you couldn’t get to something or had trouble with a part of a lesson (as long as you leave a note) but I think it’s really important that you at least try to get through everything. I’ve heard of a few situations where a substitute just did their own lesson even when there was a detailed plan left by the teacher… This is a no go for me. Teacher’s have timelines and missing a day of work could really throw things off especially when there is a deadline like report cards or a holiday coming up. Unless a teacher gives you the option to do your own lesson you should always follow the plans that are left.

My best advice on being a good substitute teacher is to truly enjoy it: make connections with the kids, participate in your own games and activities, be positive, and be your best.  If you are anything like us we are working towards those full time contracts so we won’t be substitutes forever and there are many positives to being a substitute (little or no marking/planning, less time at school, etc.). We have the unique opportunity to try out different grades, schools, classrooms, and routines on a daily basis – Let’s enjoy it!


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