55 Tips, Tricks, and Ideas for Substitute Teachers

Grab their attention, keep it, and have a great day!

Tips for substitute teachers including wearing layers and bring DIY fidgets.

If you’re looking for inspiration for substitute teachers, look no further! Whether you’re a seasoned sub or a total newbie, we’ve got you covered with these 55 tips, tricks, and ideas from our very own WeAreTeachers HELPLINE! and around the Internet.

1. Start with a positive attitude

“I only ask three things from my substitute teachers: Enjoy my kids, respect my kids, and be firm with my kids.” —Kaye D.

2. Follow the plans

plan book for substitute teachers

“Follow the teacher’s plans to a tee … they took the time, energy, and effort to leave those plans for a reason.” —Terri Y.

Source: WifeTeacherMommy

3. Go in early

“Go in a little early! Let them know it’s your first day & that you are excited to be there! Say, ‘Any advice or first-day directions?’ Introduce yourself to the teachers in the adjacent classrooms and say the same things.” —Sandy M.

4. Have some time-fillers in your back pocket


circle time for substitute teachers

Source: Responsive Classroom

However, if you finished those plans and the kids are getting antsy, here are 24 awesome ideas to make sure your students are engaged and learning, even when you only have a few minutes.

5. Make the last few minutes memorable

Need even more ideas for substitute teachers to fill time? These are perfect for the awkward few minutes right before the bell rings.


6. Try a fun math activity

Try one of these quick Popsicle-stick math time-fillers from Journey of a Substitute Teacher.

7. Be sure to take attendance

“Take attendance after you get the kids started on the work, so they have time to get things completed.” —Terri Y.

8. Stay on task, and leave a record

“Follow the lesson plans as much as humanly possible, leave detailed notes for the teacher about what got done or didn’t get done, which students were awesome and not so awesome, and leave your number if you really enjoyed the class.” —Dawn M.

9. Stay professional

“Be pleasant in the faculty room if you eat there. Never say anything negative about the school, teachers, or students.” —Donna N.

10. Dress in layers

“Some rooms are freezing, and some are hotter than heck!” —Edith I.

11. Turn on a movie

collage of Netflix Shows for substitute teachers

We’ve gathered the top Netflix educational shows that you can pull from. Stick with G-rated!

12. Don’t be afraid to be picky

“I have a list of teachers I won’t sub for because no matter what, they always seem to have ‘that’ class. In other words, not very good behavior management, which means subbing for them is a nightmare.” —Eric D.

13. Bring your own supply of comfort items

“Three essentials I always carried when I was a substitute teacher were hand lotion, Dove chocolates (for me!), and tea bags. Somehow it helped my day feel more comfortable if I knew I had those things with me.” —Shayla K.

14. Manage the classroom

Even substitute teachers have to manage the classroom. We love these classroom management tips, especially for substitutes, from The Cornerstone.

15. Bring a teacher bag with your favorite supplies

Examples of best teacher bags for substitute teachers including two colorful bags with plenty of pockets and one brown leather laptop bag that comes in 15 colors.

Bring either a backpack or a “just-in-case” bag. Check out these suggestions for what to stock up on. And check out our list of favorite teacher bags to hold everything you need!

16. Create a mobile desk

“I have a mobile ‘desk.’ I carry extra paper, pencils, Post-its, paper clips, pens, pencils, Band-Aids, Tylenol … anything I might use, because I don’t like entering a teacher’s desk if I don’t know them.” —Jennifer G.

17. Act confident

“Even if you don’t feel it. ‘Fake it till you make it!’” —Tanya M.

18. Find a student ambassador

“Find a trustworthy student to help locate or explain certain procedures.” —Heather R.

19. Read books about substitute teachers with the students

We love The Berenstain Bears and the Substitute Teacher and Miss Nelson Is Missing!

20. Be honest

“If I didn’t understand the math lesson (2nd grade, for example), then I would just teach them something math related. I may have them grab rules and count by two’s, five’s, measure items in the room, etc. I always leave a note for the teacher letting them know who was a big help, who I had issues with, what I got through on their lesson plans, and what I didn’t understand and improvised. Sometimes teachers know what needs to be taught and how, but it’s hard to explain on paper. I’ve never had a teacher tell me I should have just figured the math lesson out instead of teaching math my way.” —Hannah T.

21. Listen to a read-aloud

Top 10 Read Alouds on YouTube

These days, you’ll find the biggest selection of read-alouds on YouTube. We’ve gathered our favorites here.

22. Be flexible

“No matter how organized the teacher is, and even if they leave you amazing plans, stay flexible because sometimes things just don’t work out!” —Karen M. 

23. Remind kids to be flexible too

“Oftentimes kids feel uncomfortable with change. They may say they don’t do things a certain way, and I just tell them to be flexible, we’re going to switch things up today!” —Lloyd C.

24. Make feedback fun!

Check out these free, adorable “While You Were Out” templates for substitute teachers from Teachers Pay Teachers.

25. Bring some fidget toys

DIY Fidget toys for substitute teachers on a Budget

Even the best of students can use a little bit of help. These fidgets are easy to bring along with you, or try these DIY fidgets.

26. Be strong early on

“Don’t be a pushover. Assert your authority early. You can always become a little more lax later, but they need to know they are not going to get away with stuff while you are there.” —Jillian E.

27. Honor the teacher’s seating chart

“Please don’t mess with my classroom dynamics by doing things like letting my students change seats.” —Susan K.

28. Bring a game

kids playing a board game

“Have a backup plan if possible. My plan was Boggle. It’s educational and quick to put on the board. It can be played as a whole class, teams, or small groups.” —Katie W.

Check out our favorite educational games for the classroom!

Source: ParentMap

29. Advertise to get more jobs

“Make up a flier you can put in the teachers’ mailboxes to let them know about your experience and how to get a hold of you to sub. If you want to sub at one school in particular, put it in every mailbox.” —Jen M.

30. Be social

“Eat in the lounge and be the one to introduce yourself to teachers as they come in.” —Jay O.

31. Ask for help if you need it

“If you don’t understand a lesson, ask one of the other teachers. Not all teachers leave enough material planned. Have some extra activities that you can use as fill-in.” —Leah W.

32. Try collaborative art

Collage of Collaborative Art Projects for substitute teachers

Get the entire class involved on the same project with one of these collaborative art ideas.

33. Prepare with videos

Check out the YouTube Channel How To Be a Great Substitute Teacher. There are videos on starting class, discipline in different grades, and more!

34. Draw boundaries

“NEVER let students take anything off the teacher’s desk unless you know from the teacher what he or she allows, and ALWAYS leave a note for the classroom teacher!” —Laura R.

35. Try rewards for good behavior

“I carry some small prizes. In middle school, I use mechanical pencils. When I ask for them to help clean up, the most helpful ones get a prize! They remember and will cooperate better the next time.” —Seorin Y.

36. Use the sub tub

Sub tub filled with lessons, outlines, student info, and more for substitute teachers

Many teachers leave a sub tub with emergency activities, lesson plans, outlines, student information, and more. Use it!

Source: Wife Teacher Mommy

37. Assign classroom jobs to students

“I always give the disruptive kids jobs! It helps them to focus.” —Jody H.

38. Bring name tags

“Most substitute teachers really appreciate desk name tags so they can call kids by name. I even bring stick-on name tags from the Dollar Store and let kids write their own and decorate them.” —Melody D.

39. Try a team-building activity

team building activities for kids

Team-building games and activities are a great tool for helping students learn to work together, listen carefully, communicate clearly, and think creatively. You can get to know them too with one of these team-building games.

40. Work the room

“Being up and circulating always helps. Proximity is my best weapon for disarming mischief.” —Eloise P.

41. Try these sponge activities

“Madeline Hunter created the term ‘sponge activities’ to describe ‘learning activities that soak up precious time that would otherwise be lost.’ The best sponge activities are fun and engaging and have an academic component without seeming too ‘school-ish.’  That’s my favorite way to use an extra five minutes!” —Jessica

42. Dress the part

“I always try to dress professionally but comfortably. I like to be dressed as nicely as the best-dressed teacher.” —Lori Z.

43. Take them on a virtual field trip

Amazing Educational Virtual Field Trips

Substitute teachers can still go on field trips without stressing about parent permission slips and bus assignments. Take them on a virtual field trip to the zoo, museum, aquarium, and more.

44. Build relationships

“Build relationships with the students. You most likely will see them again at some point and will be happy when you remember their names and something they told you.” —Colleen F.

45. Stay confident

“It’s all about your attitude. You can’t let them sense fear, nervousness, or uncertainty. They feed on it!” —Jesse B.

46. Keep it clean

“Keep the room at least as tidy as you found it. Especially if you plan on going to that school regularly, you don’t want to be known as the messy sub!” —Megan F.

47. Document feedback

“I always bring a set of blank notecards so that even if the teacher doesn’t have a ‘feedback sheet,’ I can fill them in on how the day went. And thank them in the note for letting you have their class (no matter how the day went!).” —Kim C.

48. Leave a business card

“Leave some sort of business card … more than just scribbling your contact info on a note. When I would get a call for a new school I hadn’t been to yet, I always left extra cards and said they could pass them out to others. Now that I am a teacher, I love when subs do that! It is so helpful. I am always looking for a sub who can keep the class going while I am gone, instead of taking my chances with a random sub!” —Jessica L.

49. Play an old-school recess game

Examples of old school recess games including hula tag and snake

Substitute teachers may have to do recess duty too! Get the kids outdoors and having fun with one of these games you played as a kid.

50. Take control

“Take control of the class so that you can get all of the lesson plan done. Lessons stack from day to day, so getting that day’s plan done helps the absent teacher in a tremendous way. When I was a sub, so many teachers praised the fact that I actually taught the lessons, and once word got out that I ‘got it all done,’ I got called every day.” —Angelique P.

51. Leave the room better than when you found it

“It is courteous if you can grade papers or leave some type of feedback on student academic performance and straighten the desk up—leave everything there just make it look neat.” —Kimberly J.

52. Lean on the aides

“From a special education viewpoint, be firm, but please do not be so firm that students engage you in a power struggle. If there are aides, trust that they know the students and routines well. Let them help you.” —Jennifer W.

53. Incentivize the students

“When I sub, I usually do a Mad Lib or two as an incentive to get the room ready at the end of the day. You can find free ones online. Mad Libs go a long way and are a great tension or ice breaker. It only takes about 5 minutes, and the kids get super into it!” —Madison T.

54. Learn from other substitute teachers

Surviving as substitute teachers

Follow this teacher’s blueprint for surviving as a sub!

55. Bring stickers

“I used to bring stickers. No allergy issues. I also brought a book to share and some brain-break ideas to fill extra time.” —Lauren S.

What are your tips for substitute teachers? Tell us in the comments below!

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55 Tips, Tricks, and Ideas for Substitute Teachers