Hot Tips & Topics

We are dedicated to providing you with a comprehensive collection of relevant and up-to-date K-12 education news and editorials. For teachers, by teachers.

The Substitute Teaching Survival Guide

Outside the Box Teaching Ideas


The Substitute Teacher's Survival GuideAs far as teaching is concerned, some might say I'm a bit of a control freak. I would tend to agree, but in a good way.

I have spent the last eight years in a classroom where I had total control of how the room was arranged, the rules of the room, the schedule (for the most part) creation of lesson plans, and teaching style. I was definitely in control. That all changed when I started long-term substitute teaching. I had absolutely no idea what to expect. Having never really substituted for more than a day at a time, I wondered how I would adjust to this temporary role and lack of “control.”

For short-term substitute teaching, lesson plans are often set out as well as behavior charts, seat arrangements, class schedule, room or phone numbers to other teachers in the building, and emergency information. A really organized teacher will also have backup plans, extra work, and a list of helpful students and/or situations to avoid. The routine seems simple enough and you really only have to be concerned about the next 6-7 hours. You are just there until the teacher returns.

But what happens when you are called to be a long-term substitute and, unfortunately, the teacher was unable to leave plans, behavior charts, seat arrangements, or any of the usual information that makes walking into the classroom, picking up a textbook, and proceeding easier?  This is exactly what happened to me.

Related Articles
The word ‘maker’ surrounded by tools, wires, and more.
Engage your students and get them excited about learning with Maker Education....
Young boy sitting at a desk in a classroom writing in a journal.
Self-regulation is an essential tool in any student’s toolbox if they want to...
Older students picking up recycling outside.
Climate change and sustainability are major issues today’s students are...
Young boy sitting at a desk using a laptop.
Looking for ways to reach your student virtually but don’t know where to start...
COVID-19 spelled out surrounded by the virus.
With the current ongoing coronavirus pandemic, students may have questions...

Here are some pointers on how I learned to lessen my need for control, survive as a long-term sub and create a positive experience for me and my students.

Visit the School

The first thing I did after meeting with the principal was request a day to come and visit with the class. I wanted to meet the students, see their routine, walk through the day with them, and introduce myself to the staff. There was no pressure to teach, just observe.

This certainly took all stress off of the first day jitters and allowed the students to see my face and know who would be taking over for the remainder of the teacher's absence. I also spent a little time with the present substitute after school to gathering information on what she has observed about the class, where they were in the curriculum, and other needed information. This also allowed me to gather materials needed to create lesson plans for the upcoming week.

Explore the Class & School

The first day, I arrived earlier to the class. I wanted to familiarize myself with the physical set up of the room. It took me a little while of just walking around looking into cabinets, shelves, closets, etc to locate specific tools that would be useful as the days progressed.

It is important; however, to communicate with the principal or classroom teacher before going through personal materials such as desks, file cabinets, etc but in general the class should be explored. Learn where teacher workroom, restrooms, computer rooms, etc are located.

Contact Class Teacher & Parents

After my first day with the students, I emailed the parents and teacher of the students to introduce myself. I also emailed the teacher to let her know where the students were in the curriculum and asked if there was anything special I needed to know or she wanted me to do during my time with the class.


I now email the teacher and parents daily on what is going on in the classroom, homework assignments, upcoming events, etc. This helps keep the absent teacher connected with the class and also allows me to maintain communication with the parents. **


Communicate with the Staff

It is hard being the “new kid” anywhere and especially hard if you are just there temporarily. I made it a point to visit the teacher's workroom when I had breaks just to introduce myself and gather information about location of things, routines, etc. As much as I was feeling a little awkward about being there, I am sure it was just as awkward for the staff having me there instead of the teacher who has been there for many years. A friendly smile over coffee, tea, or even chocolate makes it a little easier to establish a professional relationship.


Be Yourself

As I stated before, I am a control freak when it comes to teaching. I like to do things my way. This is not always a possibility when you are substitute. It is not your classroom, your students, or even your school. It is a little like vacationing at someone else's beach house. Sure you are free to use what is laid out and arranged for you, but it doesn't really belong to you. You don't really feel comfortable moving things around and or “redecorating”, so you leave things as they are but secretly yearn to add your own little touches to the atmosphere.


I yearned to add personal touches to the lessons and classroom, so I met with the principal and spoke with the teacher. They were both very open to letting me “be me” and incorporate my teaching style as I had in the past. I was  also given permission to incorporate my style into the set up of the classroom.


I quickly rearranged the desks in groups and set up daily routines such as reading to the students, quiz bowls, and other incentives to keep students focused on learning.


Dare to Discipline

Certainly not a favorite but definitely needed. Kids are kids and they will initially view a substitute as a glorified babysitter. They will challenge the boundaries and often try to get away with little things that they know they would not do if the regular classroom teacher was present. Kids can sense fear. If you walk into a room not prepared and showing authority (in the right way of course), they will know it!


From day one, the class and I established rules and consequences together. Of course the previous rules established by their teacher remained but we added a few new ones as well. Don't be afraid to talk to administration, other teachers, or parents regarding behavior.


Be careful to not leave a long outstanding behavioral problem for the teacher to resolve when she returns. If needed, seek help from a neighboring teacher or contact the teacher directly. It is much easier for her to make the transition back if behaviors are kept in check.


Be Involved

I made it a point to not only be involved with the staff, but also in what the students were doing.  So far, I have participated in bake sales, raffles, and parties. This is a great way to “network” and allow others to see your social skills should you find yourself looking for a full time position at a later date.


Be Flexible & Creative

On more than one occasion, I have had to quickly make something out of nothing. I had to stretch things out to last longer due to changes in schedule, manipulate the lesson to fit my personality and the needs of the students. 


Many times things will be ready for a substitute, but there may be times where this is not the case. Learning to be flexible and creative is an important skill.


Stay on Top of Things

Checking daily with office secretary, fellow staff members, memos, emails, etc. to make sure you are aware of any changes in routine can be challenging. Make it a point to stop in the office before heading to classroom, check the teacher's mailbox, and asking neighboring teachers if there are important notices. This will make things a little easier and help you get to know co-workers during your stay.


Learning the emergency procedures is also very important.There is nothing worse than having a fire drill and your class being the last one out of the building!


Enjoy the Experience

Being a long term sub is not easy. It is even more challenging when nothing is prepared and you are flying solo, but it can also be so rewarding.


Enjoy the students. Sing, play, read, do a simple art project, and laugh. Soon the experience will be over, the teacher will return (having seen what a great job you have done in her absence) and you will be moving on to another class.


Through this experience, I have learned to loosen my strings of control and go with the flow a little more, but I also know I need the freedom and creativity to be me. Even though I am only a substitute teacher, I will have enriched the lives of these students. After all, teaching is teaching. We all have the same goal to teach and reach as many students as possible.


Who knows, years from now one of these students could be substituting in my classroom!


What tips do you have for substitute teachers? Share in the comments section!

Today's Poll

Which types of articles would you like to see from us in 2020?
Classroom Management
Classroom Activities/Games
Teaching Strategies
Technology in the Classroom
Professional Development
Total votes: 152