Substitute Teaching: An Insider's View

By: Deborah Bouley

I assumed that substitute teaching would be a breeze. I asked myself how difficult could it be for a responsible, intelligent, 40+ year old career change graduate student to enter a classroom and deliver pre-written lessons? After all, I had over 20 years of business experience. I was a financial analyst, a sales analyst, a sales manager, a financial manager, a human resources manager, a customer service manager, and an Executive Director at some of the most profitable companies in America. I began traveling the United States for business at a time when women who did such were labeled in peculiar and sexist ways. With my education and work experience was I not fully qualified and prepared to substitute teach? Well...!!!

There are no mentors or supports in the field of substitute teaching. There are few, if any, training programs to educate us in regard to what we can and cannot do and should and should not do with the future citizens of our nation. In fact, in this my second year of substitute teaching, I have never even seen a job description of what the job entails. Interestingly enough, I have never received any type of feedback in regard to my strengths and weaknesses in teaching in any of the over 175 classroom experiences I have had.

The purpose of this article is to provide you, current and potential substitute teachers, some guidance as to what you can expect in various situations and suggestions of what you should consider when you substitute teach.

Why Do It?

There are several reasons to substitute teach. First there is the convenience of choosing when you work. You can choose to work each and every time you are called, three days a week, or only on Wednesdays and Thursdays. You can choose a particular school, or set of schools to work in. The selections are yours to make.

For those of us who are in graduate school pursuing our Masters Degrees in Education, substitute teaching provides us with the experience we need to look good when we apply for permanent positions upon graduation. Plain and simple, it looks better on a resume to have teaching experience than to not have it.

Another consideration is that the hours and days available for working coincide with our children. We are off when they are off. We are off for every major holiday, and even some not so known ones.

And finally, the pay is competitive with other part-time jobs, if not better. Some districts pay more than others. Some offer bonus incentives. Some offer first 'dibs' on permanent jobs to qualified substitutes in the district.

Getting Started

So you think you want to try this. What should you do? The application process for becoming a substitute teacher is painless. You need to visit your local school district office, transcripts and degrees in hand, and complete an application for employment. Most districts require that you have a Bachelor's Degree. That degree can be in any content area. Mine is in finance and management. Yours does not have to be in the education genre.

Assuming you haven't been convicted of a felony involving minors, you will likely be hired and placed on a list. It is important for you to ask for a copy of the union contract. Substitute teachers, as well as permanent teachers, are unionized. My advice to you is to become familiar with the contract and know who your union representative is. The burden is on you, as a per diem employee, to know what your rights and benefits are. No one is going to explain them to you.

For example, I made the critical mistake of not asking for a contract when I was hired. It wasn't until just recently that I discovered that I had been underpaid all of last year. There is a differential paid to graduate students and those people seeking teaching certification, in the district I work for. I would have known that if I had the contract and had read it.

Hurray, You're Hired, Now What?

What will happen next is that you will receive a phone call either the night before or the morning of an assignment. The caller will most likely tell you the grade you are to teach, the teacher's name and the school. Please do not wait until this point in time to be prepared.

I suggest that you spend some time before the first phone call to establish a 'bag of tricks' for yourself. It's very likely that the teachers you will cover for will leave you detailed lesson plans. However, don't assume that this means that all time will be filled in the school day. You need to be prepared to not have down time when you substitute teach. Your biggest obstacle is going to be classroom management. If you have down time you are opening the door to management problems.

Visit the local 'dollar store' for grade level workbooks. All the primary teachers at one school I work for purchased from the dollar store a series of workbooks for their grade levels. They use the worksheets as fillers. You can too. I suggest you set up folders by grade level. Review the books you buy and maintain a portfolio of the ones you like best. Use the Internet to look for fun educational activities to fill time. The site you are on right now offers a huge selection of plans and worksheets. I use various puzzle-making sites to create fun word searches and crosswords for students.

It is your responsibility to deliver whatever lessons the teacher left for you. You are walking in her shoes and are on her turf. First and foremost deliver what he or she wants you to. If there is time, deliver a little of your own.

Be prepared though to not have any plans left for you. Pretend you are going to enter each class with no directions left. Know what you will do before you arrive. Spend time and create your own portfolio.

The First Time!!!

Alright you've been called. You are dressed. You are a nervous wreck. Don't panic. Many people are anxious their first time out. I can remember being apprehensive for about 3 months or so. The reason for the anxiety is that we do not have a support system and we are not sure of ourselves.

When you substitute teach you really and truly are on your own. The bottom line is that you are responsible for all students in your classroom. You have to assume that no one will guide you or help you. Everyone is just too busy. Make that assumption and be pleasantly surprised if you experience something different.

Each time you go to a new school arrive about 45 minutes early. Spend that time walking the building. Get to know where each of the special subject rooms are. For example know where the gym, science, computer lab, library, cafeteria, etc. are. You do not want to look inexperienced to your students. They smell insecurity and inexperience a mile away.

Go to your classroom and review the plans left for you. Do you have enough copies, enough supplies, the correct video equipment? If you do not have everything you need, it is a good ideas to get what you need before the students arrive. Review the emergency evacuation, fire and bad weather plans, which should be posted in the classroom. If they are not, find out what they are from the teacher next door.

Review what the attendance procedures are and what you are expected to do if a student needs to go to the nurse. Some schools use a carding system for nurse visits. Other schools require hand written notes. Others require nothing. Look for an emergency kit in the classroom. I suggest that you make one up for yourself and carry it with you to each assignment. Include rubber gloves, band aids, gauze, disinfectant. Do not ever touch the blood or other secretions from another human being. Also look for a list of times when students have to receive medication from the nurse. You do not want any students missing their dosages.

Become familiar with school rules and procedures regarding discipline. Some schools will provide you with a folder, which outlines all the rules for that school. Don't assume that each school within a school district has the same rules. They may be different. Tips on discipline will be in the next section.

Some schools leave confidential material in regard to students for a substitute to see. I am tried and true believer that a substitute teacher needs to have as much information about the students she stands before as possible. There have been times when I have had students experience seizures, nosebleeds and extremely inappropriate behaviors in my classrooms. All of these cases were the results of some underlying physical or emotional problem with the students. We live in an inclusion world where you will have students with disabilities and potentially harmful conditions in classes. If we are to be held responsible for the safety of all children then should we not know what the potential for danger is in our classrooms. I'm sure the courts will decide what we should and should not know. But for now if you do not find a list of disabilities for the class you are teaching, you need to assume that every student has a disability.


Okay, you came to school professionally dressed. You brought your grab bag of activities and events. You prepared the classroom before the students arrived. You ate your breath mints and smiled when the students entered. The day started off okay, but now it's 11:00 a.m., and the students aren't listening to you. In fact, they are throwing spit balls and having their own conversations. You know in your heart that the room is out of control. You are sweating, worrying about what will happen if someone opens the door and sees what is happening.

Take a deep breath. This has happened to all of us more than once. This scenario outlines what I call the rights of passage in substitute teaching. Despite all the careful preparation, there are times when we make behavior management mistakes because we do not know what we should do. Most of us have probably never seen a class managed properly. I will even go further and suggest we may not be sure of even what properly managed means. Let me enlighten you.

Children, even the very best behaved children, will look at a substitute teacher as an easy target to intimidate. It is my opinion that most of the time, substitute time is party time. It starts with the misdeeds of one or two children and escalates into a full-fledged wing-ding if you are not careful from the beginning. Establish yourself from the first minute of class.

I carry around my own list of classroom rules. After the students enter the class, the first thing I do is introduce myself and review my rules. I set the stage and I follow my own rules. I provide students with a snapshot of the days events. I find that students misbehave more when they do not know what is going to happen. I always write a schedule down on one corner of the board that encompasses all the time in the day. I also always leave 15 minutes free at the end of the day as a possibility of game, only if they behave throughout the day.

The regular teacher has a huge advantage over us. He or she has established a rapport with the students over time. We have no such rapport and we also have little real leverage. We are not a part of their grading system or reward system. The principal really doesn't want us to send disruptive students to the office because then he or she has to deal with them. Regardless of what you think or had read, please trust that you and only you have to find a way to control the class. If that means that you decide you have to send a signal to the class and have one student removed, then by all means do that. However, keep in mind that you might be able to take that biggest bully or offender and offer him or her the chance to be your partner.

When I enter a classroom for the first time, I assess the desk Arrangement. I know from the placement of the desks how many troublemakers I have. The desks that are off to the sides or that abut mine are usually students in need. I think about how I am going to use their energy constructively. There are many ways to do this. You can ask them to be your paper passers or collectors, your markers, your managers. Sometimes it is precisely your "trusting" preemptive measure that helps then decide to be on your team.

Praise, genuine praise, works wonders. I carry next to my bag of tricks a bag of positive reinforcements. I have ribbons I made that say "I was caught doing a good deed today." As students make correct choices I hand out the ribbons. They wear them for the day. At the end of the day they trade them in for a goodie of some sort. For example, my store includes small erasers, pencils, stickers, etc. (food should not be an option for obvious reasons).

No matter what, do not loose your temper. Always remember that you are the adult and you need to act like one. For sure you will be tempted to yell, threaten, and maybe, even cry...but, DON'T DO IT. Be consistent and firm.

I cannot teach you how to be a good classroom manager. Part of learning is doing. You are going to make mistakes. But you are going to learn from them and get better as time goes on.

Almost There!

The hardest part of the day for me is dismissal because I am concerned about children getting on the correct bus, especially the really young ones, or them getting to the 'walker' area. I write the bus numbers on the board as they are called over the announcement system. I keep the teacher's list next to me and call out the names of the students that ride whatever bus is called.

When all the children leave I take time to straighten up the room. Does it look like it did before the students arrived that morning? I check and see if the plants need watering. I correct the completed papers.

Most schools require substitutes to complete a worksheet on their own. This gets submitted to the office at the end of the day. I always write the teacher my own short note letting him or know how the day went. I write about any exceptional positive events during the day.

If you are good, many times you will be requested again by a particular teacher. The impression you leave follows you. So always try and do a little more.

The Bottom Line

My final words of wisdom revolve around your being courageous. It is okay to be apprehensive about substitute teaching. I am still amazed as I watch some regular teachers operate their classrooms. I wonder sometimes if parents know what goes on behind the closed classroom doors. Some teachers are better than others. If you follow your heart and spirit you will not hurt a child. I believe this is our greatest fear. As a substitute teacher you are not going to have many opportunities to affect lives because you move from place to place, day after day. But you can offer safety and security to parents who place the welfare of their children in your hands. The bottom line? Do your best work, always!

About the Author

Deborah Bouley is a graduate student completing a teacher education program at Mount Saint Mary College located in Newburgh, New York (USA). She is a "career changer" who has decided to become a teacher and "make a difference in the lives" of children.