5 Secrets I Have Learned as a Substitute Teacher

The key is preparation.

Substitute teaching is a very challenging job—even full-time teachers will admit that. It’s near impossible to walk into a room full of strangers and expect they’ll respect you, listen to you, and behave nicely!

But I have found that if I prepare myself I have a much better chance at a successful day. I asked a longtime third grade teacher in Weston, CT for his best advice for subs and he told me, “It’s important to have a toolbox of strategies and activities to be effective.” I couldn’t agree more. Here’s my blueprint for making it through the day as a sub:

1. Get There Early

Especially if it’s my first day subbing in a school or for a different teacher, I like to give myself time to find the room and familiarize myself with it: Is there a Smartboard? a laptop? Most importantly, did the teacher leave detailed plans? Arriving early gives me a chance to review these details.

2. Confidence Is King

Once I’ve arrived and reviewed the sub plans, I can more confidently assume control of the room. I’m aware that the students and I are strangers to one another—and that can be unsettling. The kids might be feeling a little unsure, perhaps even scared, too. But I find that if I assume control of the room and the plans for the day, my confidence carries me through—and the students sense that right away.

3. Be Yourself, Bust the Stress

I like to relieve some of the pressure I feel to get to know the kids (and their names!) right away by telling them about myself first. No matter the grade level, all kids are curious and love hearing grownups talk about themselves. I use this as a chance to break the ice! I try to be myself but I am always selective and appropriate about what I share. I always score big points with the kids when I show that I have a sense of humor and a soft side. Remember, kids are innately skeptical of subs — you may have to do a little work to win them over!


If you’re looking for inspiration, here are 10 creative ways to introduce yourself to students.

4. Improvisation Saves the Day

It’s rare, but sometimes the teacher hasn’t left substitute lesson plans. Don’t panic! Here are a few things I’ve done:

  • Play games — Every classroom has age-appropriate games, and if they don’t, you can improvise. Games like 7 Up require little or no pieces, but are fun and engaging to students. Older kids enjoy games like Apples to Apples and Head Banz. There’s nothing like a game to make the period — or the whole day — fly by.

  • Let the kids choose a book from the classroom library. Most teachers have a shelf or personal library full of age-appropriate books; if the classroom doesn’t have a good collection, I ask if I can take the kids to the school library. Then we can read and have discussions, or sometimes I bring a pre-planned written response activity.

  • Give the students a fun journal writing assignment — even something as cliched as “how I spent my weekend” will work to keep kids occupied and in work mode. Younger kids can draw instead of write.

  • Get out the art supplies. Kids can create a self-portrait with crayons; compose and illustrate a poem about the months of the year; or fabricate snowflakes from paper strips — kids love to cut, draw, paste and assemble.

5. Keep Notes

Just as the teacher who is out usually leaves plans, I know he or she expects me to follow them and report back on how things went. I like to let the teacher know, too, where I left off so she can pick up when she returns — especially if, as is sometimes the case, I didn’t get through a whole lesson or a student was absent. Thanks to good note-taking, too, I’ve been asked back to sub for specific teachers who appreciated my effort.

Bonus Tips:

Here’s how I stay alert, stay positive, and get through the day

  • Bring an extra layer of clothing. Classroom temperatures are unpredictable; I always grab a sweater in case the room is cold and you either can’t control the thermostat or can’t open/close windows.

  • Ask the principal or administrative manager to give you a copy of the school’s emergency plans and procedures. We live in an age where lockdown and other types of drills are not always announced in advance and I want to know what to do in such a case.

  • Eat lunch in the teachers’ lounge. The camaraderie is helpful and gives me a boost if I’m fading — or at least a shoulder to cry on!

  • Drink water throughout the day. That’s a no-brainer. Staying hydrated helps keep you alert.

Find more tips & tricks for substitutes here.