What makes a great substitute teacher?

Over the past two months, two of the four teachers on my team has been out for personal reasons, having been replaced by a collection of long- and short-term substitute teachers.  Spending an entire academic quarter working with subs has given me a new perspective on the qualities that make them effective.  I’ve given more thought than ever to the important role that they play in our classrooms and on our teams.

Like any educator who has needed to miss a day, or been on a team with one who has, I’ve worked with my fair share of substitute teachers.  They come in a variety of personalities, teaching styles, experience levels and some may possess online education degrees.  They have varying expectations about their responsibilities.  And, in all fairness, we classroom teachers have equally varied expectations for them.  Some want a stand-in who will simply maintain order for the duration of the absence, while others are looking for a sub who will teach class in virtually the same way that the primary teacher would.  With such a wide spectrum of needs, it would be impossible to make every teacher happy.

mischievous-studentFor the purposes of the list below, therefore, I decided to consider my own expectations for substitute teachers and assume that I am a fairly average teacher.  By way of a disclaimer, I might add that what I like in a sub might irritate or even anger other teachers.  In addition, high school and elementary school teachers who work largely alone probably don’t care too much how well their sub works with their colleagues while they are out.  For middle school teachers who team-teach, having to apologize afterwards for the incompetence of a bad sub can be painful.  With all of this said, here is my wish list for a perfect substitute:

  1. Middle-aged.  In my experience, older (retirement-age) subs are easily frustrated and easily insulted.  I’ve even heard some comment that “children today need more discipline” and seem intent on providing it.  Young substitutes suffer from a lack of life experience and a desire to befriend the students rather than earn their respect.
  2. Firm and fair.  Students inevitably challenge a sub in the first few minutes of class.  They want to affirm their dominance in the classroom, and a sub needs to reaffirm that they have control.  Otherwise, things get rough and the primary teacher ends up picking up the pieces when they return.  Oh, and teammates often have to step in during the day and bring order, on top of having to do their own jobs (sense any bitterness?).
  3. Willing to do more than she is paid to do.  Let’s face it: Substitute teachers barely get paid enough to simply show up in the average classroom. They don’t get paid the exact same as the average teacher salary. Throw in a rough group of kids and a complicated lesson plan and the financial injustice becomes downright immoral.  We’re not even talking about long-term subs who sometimes grade work and even write lessons.  Nonetheless, my vision of a perfect sub is one who is willing to modify the lesson plan as necessary, and adjust to the needs of the students.
  4. Confident but willing to accept advice.  Any teacher who exudes confidence is going to have an easier time handling any classroom, but some subs come into a new situation with the attitude that they can conquer all–without help from anyone.  This is a particularly frustrating trait on a team of teachers who know the students and can offer sound suggestions for being successful with them.

It’s not a complete list, but these are the basics of a good sub according to this one teacher.  I’d love to hear your ideas, good or bad, about the list and what you would add to it.  Let the comments flow!

14 thoughts on “What makes a great substitute teacher?

  1. As a retired teacher who is now substituting, I guess I miss the boat with number one.:) Substituting has provided me with the unique opportunity to see things from the sub’s perspective. As a classroom teacher, I always had a sub folder with wonderful review activities that were easy to follow and guaranteed to keep my students engaged. I was never out for a long period of time, so this worked well for me. Seating charts were kept up to date, and discipline policies were clear and located with the seating charts. It was my plan that subs not teach the material but reinforce what I had already taught. It’s not logical to think that every substitute understands the teaching strategies and content of every subject. I preferred a sub who treated my students with respect and left notes for me about the day. Providing enough work and structure for the day helped a lot.


  2. Great point, Betty. I realize that I may have overstated the importance of the ideal substitute. As you noted, much of the success of a sub lies in the plans left by the classroom teacher. Your perspective as a retired teacher is certainly helpful, too.


  3. As a substitute on the younger side of things (I’m 26, and was 23 when I began substituting) I can understand where a teacher would want someone with more classroom management experience to teach and “roll with the punches and be innovative” so to speak. That said, I have learned quite a bit about classroom management through trial and error.

    I did have a middleschool class from hell early on and I was that substitute that ended up having to ask for help from “team teachers.” Everything I tried failed. Even getting the principal in the classroom failed and probably made things worse. I learned from that experience and adapted my methods in dealing with that agegroup.

    I have also had experiences following lesson plans. Sometimes the teacher leaves plenty of work, but often times, the students breeze through the work and a sub is left hanging out in the cold twiddling their thumbs. In my school district, a sub is typically not expected to teach a class, but simply follow the lesson plan provided by the teacher. Usually that means telling the students what pages to read and which packets/questions to complete. I found its helpful if the teacher leaves a copy of their expectations for the class – Stay in assigned seat, no talking, no gum chewing… etc.

    Two of the best subbing experiences I had was when I subbed for 3rd grade and 2nd grade. The 3rd grade class staged a revolt which took me less than 30 seconds to get under control and stopped. ( I used the in-class discipline system – then when the teacher returned from her workshop and saw the change, she inquired to me what happened… I told her exactly what happened.) The 2nd grade class’ teacher ended up going home sick and I filled in for 3 days while she recovered with nothing but the lesson plan typed on paper, no handouts xeroxed or anything available but what was in the classroom. The lesson plan was written in shorthand with limited instruction on how to complete what was expected. So I rolled with the punches. I taught science and other things on the lesson plan which I disciphered, I maintained order and discipline, I learned how to interact with wiggly 2nd graders and basically grew as a sub.

    So, please don’t discount someone as a sub simply because they’re young.


  4. I once read that the definition of an expert in any given field is one who has made every possible mistake in that field and learned not to repeat the mistakes too often. Also, when a person acts confidently do they have the experience to back it up or they just faking it and will prove their lack of experience when it counts?

    I truly believe in experience. Experience creates confidence in a given situation and there are alot of situations in the classroom over any period of time. I’ve been subbing for over three years now and am forty-eight years old. I have alot of life experience, not all of it was good. I make mistakes in the classroom that I learn from each time I teach. Sure you have to use common sense, but you have to have experience in the everyday running of the classroom too. Among other things you have to know how to deal with multiple personality types and sometimes more than one at a time, know in general or specific what not to do or say to the kids, the parents, the other teachers, the administrators and other school personnel. You have to be an expert in dealing with people while knowing and enforcing the rules of the school, the parents, your own rules, the states’s rules and whoever else’s rules there are. The list of what you have to know and be good at goes on and on, but you learn these things over time through experience, education and the continuous re-educating of yourself.

    As a sub I have to become a third grade teacher one day, a twelfth grade teacher the next day, and a sixth grade teacher the day after that. My mindset for who I am dealing with changes every day not to mention what I need to know to deal with the k-12 curriculum over a two or three week period. I top all that off with teaching at four or five different school districts all with their own school conduct codes, different set of teachers, parents, kids, administrators and other subs etc.

    I like being a sub for now, but I don’t like that I’ll work every day at half to a third of the pay of the teacher I’m subbing for. I receive no benefits, no vacation pay, no medical, dental, optical etc. and no pay spread over summer vacation or other fringe benefits, unless I do it myself. However, I work over summer because I can’t afford to take it off yet. Also, I get to go to bed at night sometimes wondering if I’ll get a call to work in the morning if not already scheduled to work or wondering if the the class is going to be good, a pain or somewhere in between. I get no paid sick days or personal days that I can take either. But I will handle and be responsible for any problems that arise in the classroom, in the hall or on the playground if applicable that day. I will fill out the same paper work for discipline problems and will even write the lesson plans for the day if there are none. I’ll deal with the parents, the principal and other teachers and take their praise or their criticism. All of these things are experiences that I am glad for because it makes me prepared to do the job regardless that I am abused by the school’s compensation policies for the subs that they can’t do without each day. I also get to complete my Act 48 credits required by teachers in PA to complete every five years or you can’t work more than 90 days as a sub per year. The techers get discounted courses if not paid by the school and they get to take courses that only take a weekend. I have to find time and money to do mine through a college over a three to four month period.

    Also, as a sub, as I have been finding out over the past couple of years, I may get called for an interview for a job opening, but won’t get the job. I’ve learned from other subs, teachers and administrators that most districts don’t hire their subs because they don’t want to lose their pool of subs available from year to year. To make it harder on subs, I’ve also heard of districts selling their jobs to the highest bidder, or hiring relatives or hiring friends for the open jobs. It’s not always a good situation to find a job within your own school district or one not far from home. I’m still looking.

    On the plus side I get to work with kids that in general treat me well and enable me to enjoy my day while I help and teach them. I also get on the job training for what I hope to do full time in only one classroom and one grade level per year someday. To be good at something you usually have to go through alot of crap sprinkled with some goodness.


  5. As a substitute teacher, I find myself substituting for teachers whose students use incorrect grammar, and who are not required to take an English grammar course in Middle School or High School. Teachers think they’re doing a great job by having their students read silently. As a substitute, I inquire whether they have a comprehensive writing assignment, after reading their book. The usual response is that I am expecting too much from them. Their teachers do not ask them, so why should I. When answering questions, they copy verbatim from the assigned book, and inform me that this is what they have been taught to do. Unfortunately, these students are accepted into college. I teach an introductory college-level class and find plagiarism to be a common practice. I find myself having to teach them how to cite, although, they have taken an introductory English class.


    1. River,

      You make an excellent point, and some of your statement is probably better addressed in a more extended reply. As much as we public school teachers try to “raise the bar”, we are under incredible pressure to reach every student. In the “good old days” as some would refer to them, it was accepted that 20-30% of students would not succeed in public secondary school. This could have been attributed to academic deficiencies, learning disabilities, or even the home life of the child. These days, however, we do not accept that forces beyond a child’s control might preclude them from obtaining a high school diploma. In many cases, we don’t even allow them to choose to fail. We could argue the merits of this new philosophy for entire semester.

      I do find it interesting that you criticize teachers who you perceive as lowering standards and accepting sub-par work, yet you give higher educational institutions a free pass:

      “Unfortunately, these students are accepted into college.”

      Don’t you think that colleges and universities hold some blame for allowing in students who lack the skills necessary to be successful?


  6. I agree that a good sub is confident, firm, and fair. However, age should not matter. It seems like most subs are either old or quite young, rather than middle aged. Middle aged people, though they may seem ideal for this position to you, may not be able to afford to take up such a role. Being a sub feels like being a temp, and I assume that middle aged people need more stability than that. Also, anyone under a certain ripe age needs a lot of discipline, obviously. The younger they are, the more of it they need, or more often, no matter the time we are living in, that’s just the way they ought to be helped to develop and mature. On the other hand older people actually seem much better at handling stress than younger people, at least to me. I myself am very young. I am unsure of why you thought of such a generalized concept, for the first point on your list, based solely on age and what you heard, and experienced, but I do think it is important to make it clear that accepting advice is a good thing. A good sub should also leave a detailed message of how their time has passed during their assignment. Daily reflections or notes could be really helpful. Especially the kind that explain which students were helpful and cooperative, that went above and beyond, and/or who needed a lot of reminders. Questions and concerns for the absent teacher should also be made clear, as well as which student(s) were absent, and contact info for future reference.


  7. I am a retired Marine Officer with 25 years of leadership and life experience. I went into Law enforcement as a patrol officer in San Diego. When I left the Marine Corps I went to Grad school to become a teacher, only sidetrack by Law enforcement. I am now a substitute teacher which I love doing. I am always seeking professional opinions on the expectations of substitute teachers. JonBoy your post was a good read and I agree with your points.

    I have so far have no negative experience with the exception of lack of professional courtesy. Some regular teachers don’t even have the professional courtesy to greet you when you are on campus. The mindset seems to be, he/she is just a sub, they are not one of us. I have had a teacher walk into my class room and just start calling out students names to take them somewhere. I had to explain to the teacher that this is my classroom and these children are my responsibility. Please introduce yourself and talk with me offline about why you want this particular student and where your going.

    I am not substituting for the pay, I am doing this because I love teaching and welcome the opportunity to work with children. Most of my experience is with middle school age children.

    One valuable lesson I have learned throughout my career is that we all have different leadership styles as well as different teaching styles. There is no cookie cutter teaching style that fits for everyone. I learn from all teachers and substitute teachers. My goal is to be effective and evolve as a leader and teacher. Even after 25 years as a Marine I am still trying to become a better leader. I am just starting as a teacher and I will continually try to become a better one. I make mistakes and I always try to learn from them. I have always been proud to say I am a Marine, I am just as proud to say I am a teacher. Thank you all for what you do on a daily basis.


  8. Correct: The idea for what a substitute teacher should do while in the temporary role of the classroom teacher is wide and varied. I’ve had teachers to require I teach a lesson and that’s fun for me, but I’ve also had teachers who give me assignments that require no real effort or care from the students. Or just as bad; they have a habit of not grading anything done with a substitute. Giving no grade for the assignment equates to no assignment at all. Students then misbehave and are more difficult to manage because they have no work to do. Although I enjoy when a teacher leaves me her lesson plans and instrucs me to run it, I am astounded at how often the preceding lesson was not taught or learned by enough students. Additionally, there are times when I have given an assignment to students who tell me they’ve never had the lesson at all and are clueless as to how to approach the lesson let alone complete it. I believe giving a students activities that will be graded and an abundance of it and saying to the substitute to do what you can and have fun; don’t feel you have to complete everything, is the way to do it. I would like the teachers who view substitutes as uneducated and lazy to never request a substitute when they are out. If you devalue substitutes, then don’t request a substitute. Allow your classroom when you are not present to be divided up among your team and/or leave them unattended perhaps for your Principal to assume responsibility. What you should not do is look down on the profession. Yes, it is a profession!


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