6 Ways to Be an Awesome Substitute Teacher

For substitute teachers, it’s important to stand out in the right ways. Every day brings new students and staff to meet. Your performance in each new class will determine if and when you’ll be called back again. If you make a poor impression, you will lose these opportunities to other substitutes. I have only taught as a substitute teacher for a little over a year, so I don’t claim expertise in the matter. That said, my observation and experience until this point has lead me to share what I’ve learned about how to do an awesome job (and how not to).

Arrive Early

No matter how great you are at what you do, it’ll be really hard to make a good impression if you are late. A late substitute teacher can throw off the day’s agenda entirely. Aim to be in class at LEAST 15 minutes before the start of class, so you’ll be ready when students come in the door.

Also, don’t rely solely on the assignment’s listed start time. Block days, late starts, and testing schedules can cause discrepancies between the listed and actual bell time. To avoid mix-ups, check the bell schedule by calling or visiting the school’s website. It’s not a bad idea to save a copy somewhere if you plan to teach at the same school often enough.

If you think you might be late, even a couple minutes, be sure to call the school’s principal secretary as early as possible so necessary arrangements can be made. A campus supervisor or another teacher will be able to open the classroom and get the students started on the days’ tasks so the agenda isn’t thrown off.

Follow the Lesson Plan

The primary responsibility of a substitute teacher is to follow the lesson plan. If possible, get this in advance by emailing the teacher before leaving your house, or even the night before. When a teacher has to be absent, their biggest concern is usually their students falling behind a day. Sometimes, the plan is to catch up on homework, watch a movie, or busy work. But not all teachers can afford that luxury, especially if there are projects or exams coming up soon.

Find the lesson plan early on, get familiar with it, and adhere to it. Be sure to let the teacher know if you weren’t able to get any part of it accomplished for whatever reason. If the teacher requests silent working time for their students, do not walk around talking or making jokes. You don’t want to be the reason your students weren’t able to focus on the tasks they were given.

Make Connections

If you plan to work at a school more than once, you need to make connections with the people you work with. The most important person for you to connect with is the principal’s secretary. They are usually responsible for submitting the absence assignment you accepted, and they may keep a preferred-substitute teacher list. Get to know this person, be polite and respectful to them, and keep contact with them whenever possible. Learn the their phone extension and call them if there is an issue with the class. During your prep period, ask them if you can cover another class that day. Before you leave for the day, be sure to greet them and leave your card or contact with them.

Aside from the principal’s secretary, you need to make a good impression on the students as well as the other teachers you meet. If they see you dedicated, hardworking and professional, they will remember you when they need a substitute. Meet with them in the staff lounges or in the hallways. Word of a good substitute spreads between teachers quickly. I’ve gotten emails from teachers who heard about me from other teachers I worked with, or from the secretaries. Never underestimate any connection you make with anybody on campus.

Stay positive

This is the most important and comprehensive advice I can give, and I can’t very well break it up into small sections:

As a substitute teacher, almost everything is new. It’ll be easy to find the negatives. Students will try to challenge the new authority to see what they can get away with or if they can get you riled up. The teacher will usually leave a specific plan of action for negative behavior. If not, pick your battles well and don’t start yelling or handing out referrals. When a student’s behavior prevents other students’ learning, firmly, but calmly, warn them to stop. If the problem persists, call a campus supervisor or the principal’s secretary for help.

The important thing is to not make a mountain out of a molehill. That is, don’t make an issue big when it is really small. I like to focus on positive behavior and give negative behavior as little attention as possible. Some classes use reward systems like Class Dojo or class money. Be sure to make use of these. Even if these aren’t available, feel free to get creative.


I like to keep a pillowcase full of goodies from the dollar store – decorative erasers and pencils, glitter markers, little notebooks, noisemakers, bead necklaces. Avoid food and candy. I put each item in mini sandwich bags. I bring this bag along and get an extra attendance sheet before class.

On the attendance sheet, I keep a tally through the day of great behavior, and I tell the class early on that the best students (usually 3 to 7, depending on how good they all are) will get to randomly pick something out of the “mystery bag”. I make it easy to earn points and I tell students when they earn a point and for what.

I started doing this with elementary school students, but even when I tried it on a high school class, their faces lit up at the idea of earning something for free, even if it’s a little lame.


It’s really important to stay positive. Never let the students find out how easy it is to get you upset, or it will become fun for them. Also, by focusing on the negative students, the well-behaved students will be left unattended and may feel their efforts are not appreciated. Be firm and ensure that the classroom remains an environment of learning without distractions.

A wise man of the past once said: “Don’t be so sweet that people swallow you up, nor so bitter that they spit you out.” Maintain a healthy balance between friendly and firm. If you’re too easygoing and jovial, it will be hard to control the class if things get out of hand. But if you are too strict or firm, students may lose hope in trying to please you and rebel. This is a thin line to walk, but once you find the sweet spot, you’ll see how important it is.

A substitute teacher who shouts and yells and kicks students out of the classroom usually just wastes everyone’s time.

Avoid “Time Killer” Activities

Sometimes, you get an easy day and just have to put on a movie or something. Other times, though, there’s no lesson plan and nothing to do. Some subs bring a few movies on a USB or use an online service to put on a movie. Some might even play card games with students. My problem with this is that it wastes a valuable day of learning. Many students can use this time to catch up on extra homework, or do some extra studying. Allow them to do so.

For students who want to be on their phones or do nothing, I like to pull them aside and teach them something new – cool mental math tricks or phrases in a foreign language. If you don’t know one, ask a bilingual student to teach the class a few useful phrases in their language, like “How are you?” “My name is…” etcetera.

When I started learning American Sign Language, I’d often pull a few students aside and teach them sign language. Pretty soon, a few other students would see us having fun and come to join in. Younger kids especially love sign language. I usually teach a few signs, like BATHROOM and WATER early on. If we have a really good day and get everything done, I teach them more before they leave class.

Putting on a movie can be an easy solution, but it doesn’t really help you stand out against other substitutes. Try to use your skills to widen the students’ perspectives and teach them something they never thought they’d learn before. This can help their confidence and self-esteem in learning new things.

Before You Leave

It goes without saying that every substitute should always let the teacher know how the day went, so when the teacher returns, they’ll know where to pick up. Written reports, often on the back of a lesson plan or on a piece of printer paper would often do the job, but could get lost in a hectic classroom or by future substitutes. The handwriting may be illegible or you might forget a few details.

Instead, at the beginning of class, I like to start an email with the teacher. Throughout the day, I detail by period or section how things are going. I’m sure to include names of well behaved students and, if necessary, any issues that arose. Even if you have to report bad things, try to keep a generally positive mood in the email. Some teachers may even leave their phone number and are happy to receive text updates as you go through the day. You can quickly ask questions about the lesson plan or make quick reports about problems.

Emailing or texting the reports has solved so many issues for me. You don’t have to worry about handwriting or lost reports, and the teacher can easily leave feedback in return and it is also an easy way to leave your contact for the teacher in the future. You can also leave a link to your website, if you have one!

Lastly, before you leave, make sure the teacher has your contact information. The silliest thing you can do is make a great impression on a school and then leave no way for them to contact you directly. Look into making a business card for yourself, with your name, phone number, and email address. You can leave this card on the desk, in the staff lounge on a bulletin board, or with the principal secretary. If you don’t have a card, include your name and number on the substitute report or leave it with the secretary.


As a substitute teacher, you have only a few hours to make a great impression on the students and staff. If you do so, this may open opportunities for you to work again in the future. You’ll get contacted first for longer assignments and you may be offered other positions if you qualify.

Do you know of other ways substitute teachers can stand out? Let me know in the comments section below or on my twitter account. If you liked this post, be sure to like, share, and subscribe to my website for more content like this.

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