Tips for New Substitutes at Secondary Level

By: Mike Bailey

As we go through our college experience, we learn how to create the perfect lesson plan, we learn different theories that are involved with education, and we develop our own philosophies we want as teachers. There is one thing, especially with my school, that I wish was covered—how to be a successful substitute teacher. I hope that this blog post gives you helpful advice on what to do as a substitute teacher at the secondary level and calms the nerves of those who are starting out.

From my own experiences dealing with substitutes in my high school, the students (myself included) would become class clowns, trying to get away with whatever they could. Knowing this, I looked up some information on what I should do before I started substitute teaching to ease my mind. What I saw online was very surprising, there was not much quality information on the subject. I went to different education blogs I regularly follow and did not find much help from them, either.

My First Time Substituting 

With my stress level rising days before I began substitute teaching, I turned to an old high school teacher who gave me some helpful advice. He told me: “The first day of substitute teaching will be a little nerve racking, but it will be awesome at the end of the day.” My first day of subbing was like that. I had a lot of nerves going in, but I had a longing for the classroom. Just being up in front of the classroom, teaching, and helping out the students was gold to me.

Even more than that, he gave me pretty detailed list of advice. I suggest reaching out to your old teachers, especially the ones you enjoyed as they’ll give you some great advice. This is the email he sent me, word for word:

  • Look over the roster if you get one ahead of time
  • Put your name, the date and the assignment on the board, as well as the HW if necessary as a reminder
  • Be faithful to the lesson plan: Use it as a vehicle to set the tone and make them aware of your class rules.
  • Spend a minute letting them know what the period is going to look like:”Okay, today we’re studying fractions and I’m going to collect all of your class work for Mr S to grade.  Please stay in your own regular seat and complete your own work.If you finish the assignment, video, whatever– on time without talking I’ll give you a chance to get started on the HW.”You’ve given them a sketch of the 40 minute period bell to bell get them working fast.They’re gonna lie to you:  he always lets us work together, we did this already, we never learned this, etc.  Be ready to just plow through with the lesson plan as is,unless they can prove that some other consideration is valid.  Keep all of them in the room until after attendance- maybe for the whole period if possible (no BR, guidance, library or cafeteria trips).
  • Never let more than one kid out of the room at a time.  Sign the kid in and out if they must leave.
  • Collect all work even if the teacher doesn’t ask you to.
  • In the future, photocopy a class set of a few different crossword puzzles, word searches or other generic stuff (trivia) just in case things don’t go as planned.
  • Avoid confrontations in front of the class. 
  • Keep it light but orderly.  You’ll be great- eventually!

This email helped me out tremendously my first day; it may look like a lot, but it’s extremely helpful. A couple of other helpful tips:

  • Learn the students name right from the get go. Not only will the students be impressed with your memorization skills, but it will keep them on alert. Because you know the students names, they will be more focused on their work and not want to get in trouble.
  • One last tip for first substitute teachers is to understand that you are not there to babysit; you are there to teach. Just because the teacher is not there does not mean the students learning stops.

We all went to school to teach a certain subject and to learn how to teach/guide students in each subject. Schools are now wanting substitute teachers to teach the lesson the teacher has left them. It does sound scary, but most teachers will leave a lesson plan that is review for the students. We still need to be prepared to walk into the classroom and teach a lesson. I will go into more details on teaching a lesson you did not create and prepare for later on.

Handling Student Behavior

We have all experienced having a substitute teacher in the room. Most of us wanted to just to talk to our friends and not do any work. Anyone who says they actually did work and was completely quiet during the period is lying and/or not telling the whole story. Most of us have worked with students who may present more of a behavioral challenge. What I like to do is separate the students who are being disruptive and keep a keen eye on them. If their disruptive behavior continues, I write down their names for the teacher so he/she can discipline them according to the classroom management guidelines set forth in the class. From my experience, the best advice I can give to assure they are focused on completing their work is just be yourself with the students.

Another tip I have is to use your own educational philosophy in the classroom, as this has worked for me so far. My educational philosophy is being fun, but serious at times. I like to joke around with the students, at times being sarcastic, talking about the students’ interests. As I am doing this, I am making sure the students are working and completing all the problems. I want the students to trust me, have them know I am there to help, be friendly, and making sure the students are focused.

Teaching A Lesson As The Substitute

There are going to be certain days or classes where you will have to teach a lesson. This may sound scary, but it doesn’t need to be. First of all, most schools will try to put you in a class that is your concentration. This is what you learned/prepared for in college and from your student teaching experience , so the school is going to want you to teach your strong suit. If the school needs you to teach a lesson that is not your concentration, do not fear. Use the knowledge you have gained from college, i.e. classroom management, educational philosophy, to teach the lesson. The instructor usually leaves a very detailed lesson plan to help you teach. Depending on the school district you are subbing for, there will be some teachers who will give you a hand in what the teacher wants you to do. Do not hesitate to ask for help. We are all in the profession of education to help students reach their potential and expand their knowledge of the world. Keep calm when teaching a lesson you did not prepare for. Use your knowledge from college and your experiences with student teaching to help you in the classroom.

Additional Tips

Learn about the school district you are working in. Memorize the floor plan of each school you go to and make sure you know your way around the building, including the fire escape plan. You should also know about how the school functions throughout the day, i.e. the bathrooms and the Code of Conduct. It does sound a little odd to know how the bathroom system works, but with the recent attacks in schools across the country, some school districts do not want to risk anything.

Besides knowing the layout and the rules of the school, substitute teachers MUST leave a note for the teacher they are covering for. This may seem obvious, but teachers love reading the note, knowing what each class did during the period and how they behaved. Another MUST for substitutes is to arrive at the school early. Not only does this look good for yourself, but it will give you the necessary time to go over the details the teacher has left you and prepare for the day.

My soccer coach from high school always reminded us of this saying: “If you arrive early, you are on time; if you arrive on time, you are late.” It is a saying that I have lived by and has helped me out with subbing. Lastly, what substitute teachers MUST do, as we have learned in our education classes, is to never sit down during class. Make sure you are always walking around the classroom. You can check on students’ progress on their work and how they are doing more generally. Follows these MUSTs and you will be great with subbing.

This seems like a lot of information to know before going into your first day of substitute teaching. However, this information I have presented will help you out greatly. I did not see much online that would help me with subbing,  but I do hope for those who are looking to be substituting grades 7-12, this advice helps you tremendously. Use the knowledge you have learned from your education classes and your experiences from student teaching to help you with substitute teaching, and you’ll do great.

Feel free to share your own tips and experiences with substitute teaching in the comment section below!


545670_10150827387297996_175523329_nMike Bailey just recently graduated from St. John’s University in Queens, New York. His concentration is Mathematics Education, but would like to teach either History or Physics in the future. He is currently subbing at Rocky Point School District and Connetquot School District on Long Island. He is also part of the educational honor society at St. John’s, Kappa Delta Pi.

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