Success as a Substitute Teacher

Resources to Help Create Positive Substituting Experiences

In many places, around the country, the only way to get a teaching position, even for people with special education credentials, is to substitute teach. Those graduating in the middle of the year may find, with today's tough economic times, that many districts are not filling empty positions until the next school year. A long term substitute is far cheaper, especially since they are not given health benefits.

Leaving a good impression in a building where you substitute is likely to give you a leg up when hiring begins. Many school districts have "site based" hiring and management policies, which mean that the personnel office provides the principals with the names of approved candidates, and they are most likely to choose someone who has successfully filled a classroom in their building. In a couple of districts in Pennsylvania where I was approved for hiring, and had excellent credentials (and was affluent enough to hire me) I was never going to be hired: principals didn't know me.

Most larger districts use a computer based system for requesting substitutes, as well as for filling substitute jobs. In most cases, the teacher and the substitute have some control over whether a substitute returns to a classroom or not. A special education teacher is especially going to invite someone back who:

  • Follows their lesson plans
  • Teaches, rather than lets the classroom aide do everything.
  • Leaves completed work in an orderly manner.
  • Is positive with students in a way that helps them feel they are having a successful day.
  • Has some "tricks" up their sleeves to fill time and to be sure the day is successful.
  • Avoids confrontation with students, that the teacher has to "clean up" when he or she returns.

    Before You Leave Home:

    1. Be sure to prepare and pack a "tool kit" with extra worksheets (fun math puzzles or word finds are best,) reinforcement (stickers, award certificates,) read aloud books (at different levels for different grades, though Miss Nelson is Missing (Allard, H. and Marshal, J.) has always been a big hit when substituting,)forms for reporting and business cards with your phone number and substitute number (if you sub in one district-or a place for your number when there is more than one.
    2. A map for the school, either from Mapquest or Google Maps. You want to be sure to reach the school at least a half hour before your assignment, to check for before school responsibilities, read substitute plans, etc.
    3. Lay out "professional dress" before you leave. Don't dress for the "minimum": if the dress code says "no bare midriff" it doesn't mean that wearing a t shirt is "professional dress." Men should wear a tie, unless they have been in the building before. If you are teaching kindergarten, wear something that will permit you to get on the floor. If you are teaching in a multiple handicapped room or autism classroom bring extra clothes in case you need to deal with body fluids.

    When You Get to School:

    You will check in at the office and get the keys for your classroom.

    You will also want to find out where the teacher's mailbox is, to check for an attendance book or papers to be distributed. Also, you need to know where the copier is, if the teacher provides his/her own paper, and whether you need a code to make copies. The office staff should be able to answer your questions.

    Read the plans. If this was a planned absence, the teacher will have left you complete plans, papers needed for each lesson, teacher's guides, materials for projects, etc. If it is unplanned, you should find a:

    • Lesson Plan Book
    • Substitute Folder with general lesson plans
    • Teacher's guides.

    Be sure you will know the student's names. If the teacher has not left a seating chart, make one. If the students' names are on the desk, make up your chart before school begins. If not, make it as the students come into the classroom.

    Hopefully you have seen the copy room and found the teacher's paper supply. If you do, copy any extra sheets you may need. If you don't have enough for the class to do, check out some of my favorite websites. Money Instructor and the Math Worksheet Site have large free areas. You may want to get a membership to Edhelper: it's only $20 a year and will provide puzzles, worksheets, quick reading selections and seat work. You will also find a number of free printable worksheets on my site.

    When the Day Begins

    Hopefully the teacher has left you a full narrative of what to expect in terms of rules and routines. Students should know them and follow them. The teacher should have left explicit directions as to how you will enforce them. In many special education classes you can ask the classroom aide to fill you in. When you enter the room, if you don't have a seating chart, make it with the help of the students as they transition into their daily routines.

    Use your student's name: give them lots of positives. The ratio should be three to one: three positives for every negative.

    Stay calm, don't raise your voice, and remember that humor is more effective than bad temper. Students very quickly become deaf in the presence of screaming.

    When the Day Is Done

    Leave a narrative of the day. I have created a form like the one I used when I substituted for 6 years in Michigan. It should include:

    • What was completed in each subject/class/period.
    • Assignments that were actually given, scored or collected.
    • Any problems in each class, either with completing an assignment (students didn't understand, etc.) or problems with with specific students.
    • Kudos for those who do a good job. (see Awards.)

    Collect, record and if possible correct. Some teachers just throw away the pile of ungraded, unsorted pages that are left by a substitute. I liked to at least know how my students did, so I would sort and correct. You will be a big favorite if you:

    1. Sort by assignment,
    2. "Check In" the assignments on a class list.
    1. Correct as many papers as possible, and leave percents or number right/total number next to each student's name on the lists.

    Leave everything collected neatly, with each set of papers bundled, your narrative and note on the top. Perhaps, staple your business card to your narrative or the folder you place it in. 12 X 18 Inch construction paper makes great temporary folders. For a really professional finish, place the papers for each subject in a different color.

    Remember: You don't have to say yes if you are called back to fill in in an unruly, poorly managed class. BUT even a crummy teacher talks to his or her teaching peers, and if they like the way you left their room, they will recommend you to others.