Substitute / Supply Teaching
Tips for Subs AND Suggestions for Full Time Teachers
(so we can make our subs' professional lives easier & more productive)

It's undoubtedly the toughest job in the teaching profession...coming into a situation in which you might not know the students who may see the absence of their teacher as a "day off".  You're unfamiliar with the routines and behavior management procedures (if they exist), have no history with the students (and thus no positive relationship), and find that no plans have been left for your use.  You don't  know the other faculty members adjacent to your room, and sense little if any support from the school's administration.  That's the worst case scenario, and I hope that you never experience it.

In a best case scenario, you've been hired as a "permanent sub", working everyday in the same school, "covering" for teachers who are absent for one period or several weeks.  You are known and supported by the administration, faculty, and pupils.

There is no substitute for a substitute
The value of substitute teachers can not be overstated.  They allow for continuity in instruction and safety for our students while their usual teacher is visiting the physician, addressing important family affairs, attending professional development sessions, or taking a "mental health day".  Remember to thank our subs.  Their job is often thankless...Sort of like peeing a pair of dark pants: It gives you a warm feeling, but no one notices.

This page has two purposes:

1. To guide full-time teachers in promoting a positive experience for the substitute teacher and the students.
2. To provide substitute and supply teachers with tips, information, and strategies that will increase their effectiveness and make their experiences more rewarding.


Substitute teachers are a valuable, and often limited resource.  If your school wants to increase it's chances of a substitute teacher saying "Yes" when asked to replace a soon-to-be-absent teacher, it should make the experience a supportive and positive one.  Here are some things to do:

1. Convince your school to establish a building-wide substitute procurement procedure.  One person should be designated as the "substitute teacher locator".  When teachers have to find their own subs, unfriendly competition results.  The school, as an entity, seems disorganized to the substitutes who are receiving calls from many sources and getting mixed (and mixed-up) information and answers.

2.  Convince the school to establish a committee to devise a handbook that provides important information, delineates procedures, and addresses the issues/problems that a substitute may face.  This document would delineate proper procedures for everything from class assignments to administrative support and assistance with discipline problems.  It would provide important phone numbers.

3. Set up rules with your class for when there is a substitute teacher present.  This activity should take place in the beginning of the school year because illnesses and emergencies don't provide three days notice.  Talk about how substitute teachers are deserving of respect and compliance.  Mention the importance of helping the substitute to feel welcome and at ease, and providing him/her with helpful assistance.  Perhaps assign certain students to various duties (with an understudy/replacement person in case of their absences).  Positions might include: "procedural advisor", "material finder", "note deliverer/help seeker", "cleaner uppers", etc.  These duties can be rotated monthly to provide all students with responsibility (even if you are not absent during that month).

4.  Prepare a folder full of important information for the substitute teacher.  It would include a schedule (including special service schedules for your special education students), a simply explained description of your behavior management system, tips for getting along with your class, favorite educational games/recreation activities, names of responsible students of whom to  ask questions (so that a small group of your mischievous kids don't try to trick the sub), activities/lesson plans for the whole day that can implemented at any time of year (in case your absence is unforeseen), and other important information.  Think about what you would like to know if you were one day transferred to another school and grade.  What would help you with the quick immersion into another setting?

5.  Devise an incentive plan to motivate your students to behave well when a substitute teacher is in charge.  Perhaps you will ask the substitute teacher to rate your class on a 1-10 scale during each period/hour.  Those earned points can them be traded for privileges.  To read more about `creating positive peer pressure' to behave well, read the link on the home page of by that title.

6.  If you do know of an impending absence, inform your students.  Remind them of their responsibilities.  Mention your belief in their ability to remain on their best behavior.  Perhaps role-play a likely scenario (e.g., substitute teacher asking for information, substitute teacher arriving late to class, substitute teacher wondering how things are done, etc.).  If you know the identity of the teacher, perhaps you can tell your students a bit about him/her and speak of him/her positively.  This act should help to ease the transition to the new instructor.  Mention that you will be receiving a report from this person about his/her experiences with your class.  Follow that comment with a statement expressing your belief that they will perform well and make you proud.

7. Give your cell phone number to the substitute teacher.  Allow him/her to call you to tell you (in front of the class) how well they are doing.  Have the sub place you on "speaker phone" so that the students can hear you thank them for making you proud.  State how you know that they will continue to make you proud.  Make it clear to the sub ahead of time that you will NOT accept calls to discipline or scold misbehaving students (In this case, say a quick good-bye and refuse future calls if they are sent).  The substitute should engage the students in an interesting lesson/activity early, call you quickly, and deal with a positive experience.  This cooperative act will set a positive tone for the day.


1.  If you have the opportunity to meet with the teacher previous to his/her absence, go over lesson plans, units, materials, procedures, student traits, etc.  If not, attempt to speak with the teacher over the phone or via e-mail to learn about your future assignment.

2. Get to the school as early as possible.  Obtain the keys and other materials in the school office.  Find out the locations of important places (bathrooms, cafeterias, water fountain, person in charge of discipline).  As you approach your classroom, introduce yourself to the teachers in nearby rooms.  Go into your classroom and scan it for rule charts, materials, and evidence of what is being studied that week.  Locate the folder left by the teacher.  Read it for information on lessons, behavior management procedures (and any individual behavior management procedures for particular kids), etc.  Review the lesson materials/texts if you have the time.  If you are unfamiliar with the topics to be taught, ask another teacher for clarification of the material.  Don't confuse the students by presenting material about which you know nothing.  Can't find a folder?  Go to #3 (below).

3.  Bring your suitcase full of ready-to-go activities for multiple age/grade/ability levels.  Be prepared for a whole day with the kids.  Ongoing activities to which kids can return periodically throughout the day are helpful.  Consider cooperative learning tasks so that you can guide students rather than having to lecture (For details, read the link on the home page of titled "cooperative learning").  Activities should be educational and interesting/fun in nature.  Bring "back up" materials and "time fillers".  Sheets with pictures to color, dots to connect, word searches, and mazes are great for elementary school aged students.  Some great games for this age group are "Follow the leader" and "Simon says" (If a youngster follows your action that was not preceded by "Simon says...", DO NOT make him or her sit out.  Kids who make mistakes in this game are the ones who need practice in listening and following directions.  Make kids who goof up go to the back of the group and try to work their way up toward the front again).  Older pupils respond to word puzzles, crossword puzzles, "brain teasers", and popular kids magazines (with an educational emphasis).  Newspapers and current event postings are good discussion starters.  Games like "20 questions" (Teams decide which questions to ask in order to identify a famous figure or historical item of which you are thinking) and "The never-ending word" (Teams, in order, decide which letter to offer to the word you are spelling on the board.  When it is the turn of a particular group, they must add a letter or challenge the previous group to identify a word that contains the letters on the board so far.  If a team is challenged and cannot identify a word that includes the letters on the board, then the challenging team earns a point.  If the challenged group can offer a real word, then they earn a point.)  Have a few good storybooks in your bag.  You might want to read it in installments as rewards for on task and compliant behavior, or as an educational time filler.  You can also make creative, spontaneous assignments from the readings.  Check out the web sites and books mentioned in the "Resources" section (below).

4. Arrive with your own discipline plan in case there is not one present in the classroom (or you are unable to decipher its procedures or use them easily).  It is usually best for both you and the students to make use of the existing system.  In case that might not be possible, bring a rule chart, ways to catch them being good, and a series of consequences for misbehavior.  To prepare for this eventuality, read the links on the home page of titled "Creating you own behavior management system", "Assertive discipline", and "Ways to catch them being good" (especially the raffle ticket system, the "secret student" idea, and the "stop watch" idea, etc.).  You can also enhance your chances of having a great day by reading "Managing behavior with your teaching style" and "Managing the behavior of groups".

5. Remember that your presence is rather disorienting to kids.  It breaks the routine to which they've become accustomed, and may make them feel uncertain or uncomfortable.  Smile and greet the students as they enter the room.  Open the session with a greeting, a short autobiography so that they know a bit about you (Perhaps shown in photographs on poster board...presenting your life in a time-line), time for questions about you, a few questions about the class procedures, your expectations for the day, and your statement expressing your belief that a good day is going to happen.

"I know that it can be hard to have a new teacher in the classroom.  I know I'm a good teacher, but you don't know me yet.  I remember when I was in school and I had some substitute teachers.  It was uncomfortable for me then.  I also remember that things always seemed to go better when we helped the teacher to feel at home.  I'd really appreciate that.  Let me tell you a little about myself before I ask you a few questions about how things are usually done in your room."

6. Consider providing name tags or having students produce name cards for their desks.  To ensure that the correct names are provided, have each student write that name on a "raffle ticket" too.  A ticket will be drawn from a container at the end of the period day for a small prize (Keep the prize a secret if you're not sure that everyone will be motivated by it.).  The drawn student name must match one on the roster if that student is to receive the prize.

7. Start the day's activities with a fun one.  This act will help you to establish rapport with the students.

8. Learn the names of the leaders in the classroom.  You'll know them by their influence on others.  Befriend them and engage them in duties like handing out papers (If the leader cooperates with the activity, the followers will also engage in the task).  Get the leaders on task first and keep them on task.  Perhaps ask them for help in reminding any on-task students to return to task.

9. Be supportive and helpful.  Look for the students who are doing the right thing and recognize their actions.

10.  Leave a note for the teacher when you are getting ready to leave for the day.  Most teachers like to know how the day went and what objectives were achieved.  Be sure to identify the "high points", along with the negative episodes.  Offer specifics, and describe the physical characteristics of misbehaving students in case they have provided false names.

11. Check around the room to be sure that it is orderly.  Return all books and objects to where they were located when you arrived.  If you collected any assignments, mark them with a post-it note and place them in an area where they are easily visible.  If the room is disorderly, make a note to yourself to be sure to have kids engage in cleaning up previous to their departure.


Cary Seeman and Shannon Hofstand (1998). Super Sub: A must-have handbook for substitute teachers. Addison-Wesley (ISBN# 0673363805)  This site has a bulletin board for substitute teachers to share ideas and experiences. This site has many resources for substitute teachers, including links to songs, journal topics, activity pages, brain teasers, worksheets, and much more. A site just for subs.  It contains tips, lesson plans, and resources in all areas of academics. A site with lots of tips for subs.

I hope that this page was helpful.  Got any other ideas?  If so, send them to Dr. Mac at
             If he uses them, you'll be given credit.


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Author: Tom McIntyre at

Thanks! to the many contributors to this page: Ezra Starr, Nidi Muni,  & Shoshana Motechin.