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Classroom Management for Substitute Teachers

Janelle Cox

Each day, substitute teachers walk into a new classroom faced with the unknown. They do not know if they are walking into a classroom that is willing to listen and work, or a classroom that is hostile. Therefore, it is essential for a substitute teacher to have a variety of tricks and tools up her sleeve to help her in any situation that she may have to deal with.

The following classroom management tips provide specific ideas from seasoned teachers that have been substitute teachers for years. Use these tips and ideas to help you maintain classroom management and keep students on task.

Review Classroom Expectations, Discipline Plan

The half hour or so that you must arrive at school is mandatory for a reason. Use this time to familiar yourself with the classroom rules, procedures and discipline plan. The regular teacher has taken the time to teach these students these rules, so it is your job to reinforce them. If you want to add on to these rules, that is OK, as long as it doesn’t confuse the students.

Set the Tone by Taking Control

Children know from the second that you enter the classroom if you are a pushover or not. The way you carry yourself will help the students determine if they can try and push the limits with you. If you are not confident and show any kind of weakness, then you are in for a very long day. If something doesn’t go as planned, don’t fret: Pretend it was supposed to happen that way, or better yet pull out an activity that you brought with you in case this kind of thing happened.

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You are not Their Friend

Remember you are not their friend: You are there to replace their teacher for the day. It is fine to smile and be polite, but try and avoid being too friendly. Make sure to be firm in your expectations and follow through with your consequences. Praise the behaviors that you want and model politeness towards all students.

Do Not Lose Your Temper

Keep your cool in all situations. Do not raise your voice and yell at any time. Think of subbing like a job interview: There is always someone watching you to see how you behave and handle every situation that is thrown at you.  If a problem does arrive, handle it with kid gloves and quietly pull the student aside and talk to them quietly and calmly.

Do Not Bribe with Food

A lot of school districts have strict rules on allowing students to have candy, or a student may have an unknown food allergy. So make sure not to bribe students with any kind of food. However, you can explain to students that they must work in order to play. You can offer them small incentives for good behavior, such as 10 minutes free time at the end of the day, or time to watch a video, do their homework, or read a book.

Make Transitions Smooth

One of the hardest times of the day for a substitute teacher is during transition periods like lunch, specials or in-between activities. This is when 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, then make sure you state what yours is first thing in the morning. For younger students, choose something like a fun saying: “When I say Marconi and cheese, you say everybody freeze,” or “When I say one, two, you say eyes on you.” For older students, you can try a non-verbal cue such as raising your hand for students to give you five, or ringing a bell or timer. Practice these cues several times so students can learn them quickly.

Keep Students Busy

When students have nothing to do, that is when the classroom becomes utter chaos, and you will have a very hard time managing it. If a lesson or activity ends early, then try a quick five-minute filler like any of these:

  • Challenge students to name five alike things (flavors of ice cream, types of automobiles).
  • Invite students to think of 5, 10 or 15 things that are found on a farm, a zoo, or school.
  • Teach students a few signs or words from a different language.
  • Play “Guess Who”: Describe a student and see if they can guess who are talking about.
  • Read a headline from the newspaper or a title of a book and have students try to guess what it is about.

Substitute teaching can be a very rewarding experience. This is the time when you learn what you like and want for your own classroom. Have fun and make sure not to sweat the small stuff.

Do you have any classroom management tips for substitute teachers that you find work great? Please share them in the comment section below. We would love to hear your ideas!

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 a Master's of Science in Education from the State University of New York College at Buffalo. She is also the Elementary Education Expert for, as well as a contributing writer to and TeachHUB Magazine. You can follow her at Twitter @Empoweringk6ed, or on Facebook at Empowering K6 Educators

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