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5 Common Substitute Teaching Mistakes

Janelle Cox

Each day that a substitute teacher walks into a classroom, they are faced with the unknown. Each new classroom means new students, new lessons, and new rules and routines. Substitutes don’t know whether they’re walking into a happy environment or a hostile one. Therefore, it’s essential that these teachers know what they’re doing, and have a variety of tricks and tools up their sleeves to help deal with any type of substitute teaching situation that may occur. It’s inevitable that substitute teachers are going to make mistakes. However, when mistakes are made, you may lose control. As you know, once you lose control, it’s quite difficult to get it back. Here are five mistakes that you don’t want to make while you’re substitute teaching, and a few tips on what you should be doing.

1. Being a Pushover While Substitute Teaching

The first mistake that you don’t want to make as a substitute teacher is to let the students walk all over you. Do NOT be a pushover. From the moment that you step foot into the doorway, the students are sizing you up to see whether you’ll let them get away with something or not. From the way that you carry yourself to the words you choose to speak, the students are watching and determining if they can try and push the limits with you. If you’re not confident and if you show any kind of weakness, then you better believe that you’re in for a very long day of chaos.

What you need to do is walk into the classroom full of confidence, even if you don’t feel it. As the saying goes, “Fake it until you make it,” or in this case, fake it until you feel it. If something doesn’t go as planned, then no worries, all you have to do is pretend it was supposed to happen that way -- the students won’t know otherwise.

2. Being the Students’ Friend

Another mistake many substitute teachers make is trying to be their students’ friends. They feel that if they are a friend, and the students like them, then they will listen to them. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Remember you are not their friend, you are there to replace the teacher for the day. Your job is to be the adult in the classroom, the supervisor, the mentor, and the guide while their teacher is away. You need to be firm with your rules and expectations, and follow through with all of your consequences. Children thrive on routine and discipline, so don’t try and be their friend, because you’re not doing them any good. Try praising the behaviors that you want to see, and model politeness. You’ll get the students to respect you more this way than trying to be their friend.

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3. Losing Your Temper

It’s easy to lose your temper, especially when you’re in an unknown situation with unknown students. When you’re a substitute teacher, the students will try and take advantage of you at all costs. This means they’ll talk and try and get out of their seats and try and convince you that their teacher allows it. You job is to keep your cool in all situations. Do not raise your voice at any time. You must think of think of your job like an interview. Someone will always be watching you to see how you behave and handle every situation that is thrown at you. So if a problem arises, you must handle it calmly and responsibly. 

4. Bribing the Students with Food

Another mistake that you don’t want to make while you’re taking over another teacher’s classroom is to use food as a bribe. The main reason is liability. A lot of school districts have strict rules on what foods they allow in their schools. Plus, you don’t know what kinds of allergies the students may have. The last thing that you want do is make the school upset, or better yet, a child sick. Instead, try offering the students small incentives for good behavior, such as a few minutes of free time at the end of the day, time to watch a video, do homework, or read a book. Any of these suggestions will work well with children of any age.

5. Letting the Students Go Wild During Transitions

One of the hardest times of the day for a substitute teacher is during transition periods. These are the times such as lunch, specials, or in-between activities. This is when the students tend to get noisy and the teacher finds herself unable to manage the classroom. If the classroom teacher doesn’t already have an attention signal for these moments, then you must make sure you state what yours is as you as you meet the students. For the elementary students, you can choose a fun saying, like, “When I say Macaroni and cheese, you say everybody freeze.” For the middle and high school students, you can try a non-verbal cue, such as raising your hand or setting a timer. Practice these cues several times so students can learn them quickly.

Substitute teaching is a rewarding experience, just as long as you make it one. Have fun and try not to sweat the small stuff.

Do you have any tips for substitute teaching that you would like to share? Please feel free to share your thoughts and ideas in the comment section below, we would love to hear from you.  


Janelle Cox is an education writer who uses her experience and knowledge to provide creative and original writing in the field of education. Janelle holds Masters of Science in Education from the State University of New York College at Buffalo. She is a contributing writer to TeachHUB.com, TeachHUB Magazine, and Hey Teach. She was also the Elementary Education Expert for About.com for five years. You can follow her on Twitter @empoweringed, on Facebook at Empowering K12 Educators, or contact her at Janellecox78@yahoo.com