Are You Willing to Step in for a Day?

By: Jeff Nazzaro

Even during the best of times and for those with thousands of hours of classroom experience, substitute teaching can be an extremely challenging, often overlooked, endeavor. In these continuing pandemic times, where illness and burnout have exacted an increasingly dire toll on the teaching profession, demand for substitutes is at an all-time high, while supply, in particular experienced supply, is hard to find. Add to that pandemic-induced behavioral issues seen manifesting among students in school across the nation, substitute teaching has suddenly become more challenging than ever, though perhaps not quite so overlooked. To make the most and minimize the worst of this crucial educational role, here are some tried-and-true tips from the teaching world’s all-star relief pitchers.


Arriving early, introducing yourself to the people working in the front office, and especially recruiting an ally or two from the teachers in the adjacent classrooms can go a long way towards a smooth subbing experience, especially if you are new to the district or the school you are working in. Ask the office folks if there are any specific first-day instructions or other things you should know. Your full-time teacher allies can offer you everything from advice to moral support to, if cleared with them ahead of time, even a place to send particularly disruptive students who might need a cooling-off period.


Substitutes will arrive in their classroom to find anything from detailed lesson plans that cover and account for every period of the entire day to . . . yep, nothing at all. Of course, everything in between is a safe bet too. Whatever you find, make sure to read through everything before you get started and prepare to follow those plans to the best of your ability. The teacher knows the students and took the time and effort to draw up the classroom plans, so sticking to them is your best plan. Of course, things don’t always work out on the field how they’re drawn up in the playbook, so always come prepared with some of your own material. Picture books for younger students and word and math games are tried-and-true placeholders for teachers who have either run out of material or can’t get what they have to work. Creative writing or coloring prompts will stimulate your students while absorbing valuable minutes.


Let’s face it, your students for the day will be used to seeing the same visage at the head of the class day-after-day, and now here you are. Getting to know your new learners’ names and a little bit about them can go a long way toward the mutual respect and appreciation that will make for a productive, stress-free day. Classic icebreakers like “Two Truths and a Lie,” where students share three statements about themselves, and the substitute and the rest of the class have to guess which one is false, abound and can make taking attendance at the start of the day both fun and fruitful. This is the perfect time for the students to also get to know you and what your expectations are.


Reliable classroom management is perhaps the most desired attribute in a substitute teacher from the perspective of the absent teacher, neighboring teachers, administrative staff, parents, and yes, even the students themselves. Seek out classroom management training, whether through an agency, online classes, or the school district you plan on working in, before setting foot in the classroom. Above all, a well-thought-out, disciplined approach that is proactive in laying out classroom rules, guidelines, and expectations in accordance with the lesson plans the teacher left is crucial to your success.

Finally, staying positive and supportive, both in terms of your students and yourself, throughout all the ups and downs of a typical day spent in charge of a classroom takes the pressure off everyone. Projecting confidence and authority while staying calm and keeping students occupied will help you make sure the minutes tick down, the final bell rings, and you’ve successfully answered the call to the bullpen with a game-clinching save.