As a career educator, I’ve had to rely upon substitute teachers on many occasions: when I’m sick, on vacation, and even when my license is about to expire… which, yes, is the absolute worst way to spend a personal day! On such occasions, simply knowing that a substitute teacher is willing to step into my role feels like the greatest gift anyone could ever receive. Teachers everywhere know what I’m talking about, and for this, we are eternally grateful to substitutes.
However, the morning after a day off is often extra stressful. The reality is that full-time teachers usually don’t know what to expect when we return to school. We may arrive at school earlier than usual, just in case our once-tidy classroom has become a disaster zone or every single pencil has mysteriously disappeared. Now, I’m not saying either of these scenarios should be blamed on a substitute teacher; we both know who the real culprits are. But there are a few key moves that a sub can make throughout the school day which will ensure consistency, stability, and productivity in the classroom.
Don’t Be Afraid to Hold Students to (Very) High Expectations
Listen to your gut. Sweat the small stuff early in the day, so bigger issues don’t even come up. If you see a child doing something that you wouldn’t allow in your house (or apartment, or office), then you can pretty much guarantee it’s something he or she shouldn’t be doing — and wouldn’t dare do in front of the usual teacher. If you’re in the middle of a read-aloud on the carpet, and Travis gets up to start sharpening all fifty-two of his pencils, he’s testing you.
It’s time to remind him of the expectation using concrete and positive directions. If you face resistance, it’s absolutely okay to bring up the absent teacher to make your point. “Travis, Ms. B let me know how we act in this classroom, whether or not she’s here, and that’s the kind of behavior I am looking for from you today.”
Some substitute teachers are reluctant to bring up the regular classroom teacher, but doing so in a positive yet pointed manner is actually an extremely effective strategy.
It’s Absolutely Okay (and Effective) to Get Creative
Substitute teachers, more often than not, are walking into situations completely blind. When and if they are provided, sub-binders and lesson plans can help to a certain degree, but once you’ve got a classroom full of students in front of you, waiting for directions and instructions and routines, there isn’t much time to flip through a binder looking for the section on how to throw away breakfast trash. It’s much more important for you to be commanding and calm in these situations, rather than unsure and frazzled.
Common areas of conflict are changes in schedule or procedure. “Why are we doing this? Ms. B doesn’t do it like this.” Instead of spending twenty minutes explaining that things may be slightly different today — just breathe and state calmly “We’re doing it like this because that’s what Ms. B asked me to do.”
By concisely and clearly asserting yourself, you’re reminding students that you are here for a reason, their teacher trusts you to be here, and the changes to their day aren’t arbitrary or unreasonable. This kind of response leaves students feeling secure and stable.
But Also, Stick To The Schedule
Teachers need to know if they must be away from the classroom, that their class isn’t going to get behind schedule. If there is curriculum that must be taught that day – teach it. If there is homework to be assigned that day – assign it. If there are papers to be graded on their desk – grade it (if possible). Anything you can do to make their return to the classroom as seamless as possible will be greatly appreciated.
Find Out Where the Coffee-Maker Is
Seriously. Make friends. Talk to neighboring classroom teachers. Ask for help with a difficult student. Find out how you can make copies of extra worksheets — just in case!
When it comes to reaching out to other teachers, the great equalizer is that everyone has had a first day. In fact, career educators know better than anyone how challenging it can be to work as a substitute teacher (when some weeks feel like an endless stream of first days) but we also recognize how vital and necessary your role is, and our gratitude is endless. So even if it’s the nineteenth time you’ve sent a student down the hall with a note that says something like, “Where are the extra tissues?” I promise you that you’ll get an answer. At the very least the student will return with a box of tissues.
This tip extends to reaching out to the teacher who you’re subbing for. Please, please, leave a note. Let us know what material was covered and mention general student behavior. And make sure to include your contact information. Just as substitutes seek to be consistent with our classroom policies, we like to follow-up and support your hard work.
If you follow these tips, it’s highly likely that a teacher will recommend you as a preferred sub. In the meantime, contact us so you can get access to the best substitute teaching gigs. I promise there’s an overworked teacher out there somewhere just waiting to thank you!