Substitute Success


Imagine this: it is your first day at a new substitute teaching assignment. The school is one you have never stepped foot in, you have never met any of the students or staff before, and you do not even know where your classroom is. After asking the office where to go, you realize the teacher has not left a lesson plan. Class starts in half an hour and you need to devise a strategy for the day, despite not knowing what the class was learning or where they left off. The class subject is one you are not familiar with. You are still unsure if taking that staff-only parking spot was the right call.

For substitute teachers, this is the normal routine. Each day is a new assignment: new students, new content, and new challenges, each unique to that school. As a substitute, you are not only expected to watch over students, but to maintain an enriching learning experience. Without this, students miss crucial days in their learning curriculum. In extreme cases, when substitutes are not available, schools may cancel classes altogether.

The question is how does someone prepare for a day like this? What does substitute training look like? What are the best strategies to foster an engaging and educational day, and how can schools simplify this process for their incoming substitutes?

Effective Training

The best training for substitute teachers focuses on the everyday issues substitutes encounter during their assignments. One way this can be done is through group training sessions where potential substitutes learn how to provide safe, structured learning environments that encourage student achievement. These sessions typically focus on a few critical elements:

  • Assignment preparation
  • Classroom expectations
  • Classroom management strategies
  • Age-appropriate communication and instruction
  • Emergency procedures
  • End-of-day responsibilities

These sessions are often designed by teachers and are led by current and past substitutes who can provide their own real-world experiences. Potential substitutes are given the opportunity to ask questions and to engage with others going through the same process.

At these group sessions, substitutes can also learn about additional resources, such as online training and mentoring. Online libraries provide substitutes with in-depth video lectures on managing classrooms, creating lesson plans, and engaging effectively with students. Mentoring provides an in-person approach to these issues and can help substitutes feel supported, making them more likely to return to substitute teaching the next school year.

Of course, some training also falls on the shoulders of the substitutes themselves. It is important for substitutes to research their school’s requirements. This can include researching anything from standard protocol (such as the dress code, code of conduct, and start and end times) to any extenuating circumstances (such as school delays and closures). They may call ahead to the school and ask questions, or they may visit the school’s website, seeking out pertinent information.

Executing a Successful Day

The majority of substitute training focuses on preparing for a successful day. Substitutes are taught to report to assignments early to check in, greet office staff, and ask for assignment details. They need to review lesson plans before students arrive, find materials for the day, and prepare their “teacher toolkit.” This toolkit includes all the go-to strategies a substitute has in their back pocket, such as:

  • Warmup activities
  • Attention getters
  • Downtime activities

Successful substitutes have a wealth of these exercises at their disposal and mold them based on the grade level they are working with. For elementary students, a warmup activity might see students drawing a picture, while for middle and high school, it might be creating a name tent. The same is true of attention getters, which can be strengthened with the help of the class. Substitute teachers can identify helpful students and use them to gather information about regular classroom practices. For instance, a substitute might ask what the teacher usually does to grab the class’s attention and then use this information to their advantage.

These helpful students can be invaluable resources when a lesson plan is not provided. Students can show the substitute where the class left off, what subjects they have already covered, and paint a clearer picture of what will be covered next. The substitute can then build this information into their plan. They may choose to review previous material as a class or have students pair up and discuss it together. Even when a lesson plan is provided, this information can help a substitute better understand the subject material, as substitutes are not always experts in the classes they are teaching.

The most successful substitutes adapt to any situation thrown at them. Each class is unique; every student is unique. When entering a new classroom, substitutes must quickly identify each child’s dynamic, whether they are introverted or extroverted, and consider factors in a student’s life that they are not privy to. Conflict resolution is a crucial skill here: analyzing body language and utilizing trauma-informed teaching enables them to empathize with students in a very limited amount of time. Substitutes may only work with a classroom once, but they use their time to cultivate a safe and welcoming learning space for all.

Cultivating a Welcoming Environment for Substitutes

According to a survey conducted by EdWeek Research Center, 44% of school district leaders say they provide no training for substitute teachers. Just 11% offer training in a substitute’s most central role: classroom management. This not only leaves substitutes feeling unprepared, but it encourages them to pursue their own training, a sometimes costly endeavor in today’s economy.

So, what can schools do? Access to training can go a long way in helping substitutes feel welcomed in a district. This training can be provided by an educational staffing agency or by the district itself, but it is especially important for the district to provide direct support to their substitutes upon arrival. This can be accomplished by implementing a substitute welcoming program:

  • Create a Plan: Create binders that substitute teachers can bring with them to the classroom. These binders should be K-12 with lessons for every subject area and include the school’s emergency procedures, district policies, and an easy guide to the timesheet process. For easy access, these should also be available online.

  • Provide Points of Contact: Walk substitute teachers to their class and have school leaders and faculty stop by the classroom to say “hello” and “thank you.” This helps substitutes feel appreciated and welcome in the school, especially if they are greeted by neighboring teachers. Substitutes do not have the regular coworker relationships that full-time teachers do. It can feel gratifying to know that another teacher is on your side.

  • Follow Up: Be open to feedback about school performance. Check in with subs regularly to see what is going great and what their concerns are. Pay special attention to any notes written by substitutes, as these can provide a thorough explanation of why a sub may or may not return to the district. Use this feedback to make improvements to your substitute welcoming plan. 

Schools may also consider competitive and incentive-based wages to encourage substitute retention. Nowadays, substitutes have a wide array of gig jobs to choose from, including food delivery, freelancing, and passenger driving. Sometimes, the requirements for these jobs can be as minimal as a driver’s license and still provide a living wage. Schools may consider more competitive wages to keep up with the changing job market, or they may consider additional perks, such as bonuses, paying for substitutes’ training, or giving substitutes paid time off on holidays.

Substitute teaching, like all teaching, can be a challenging job. Whatever strategies school districts implement, it’s important is to ensure that substitutes feel welcome, supported, and heard, and that they arrive with the training they need to have a successful day.

Jennalyn Stull is a proposal writer at Edustaff. She has a bachelor’s degree in writing from Grand Valley State University with a focus on technical writing. Her experience also includes legal and creative writing, marketing, and graphic design.