How to Be a Successful Substitute Teacher

Most newly certified teachers dread subbing. You’ve heard the horror stories. If one thing is certain, it’s that everybody wants to get beyond subbing as quickly as possible and move on to a full-time teaching position.

Below is some advice for making a success of your time as a sub. The aim is twofold: First, you want to get more days subbing — it’s rather hard to make a living subbing only a few days a week. Second, your goal is to put yourself in the best position for getting hired full-time.

Dress to Impress

I put this at the top of the list because it’s a no-brainer that failing to dress appropriately will put you out of the running for full-time employment. Most of the teachers I know don’t get all spiffed-up each day to go to work, but you can bet they did when they were subs. An education professor I had used to say: Remember, the teachers in your school already have a contract; you don’t . . . yet.

Make Friends with the Secretaries

This is the single most important thing you can do as a substitute teacher. The secretaries are the ones who set the subbing schedule and call the subs, so you want to be on the list of teachers they call first. That is never going to happen if they don’t know who you are and if you’re not friendly with them.

Secretaries are often over-worked and underpaid (like substitute teachers). Put on a smile, ask questions, and thank them for their help. Don’t be afraid to be upfront about asking how you can get on the “short list” of subs they call first. I never met a secretary who didn’t tell me straight out.

Accept Jobs in Every Grade Level and Subject

The best way to be the go-to sub is to take each and every job offered. This can be a scary prospect, since teachers today are trained to work with certain age groups and in specific subjects. Jobs outside of your area of expertise will take you out of your comfort zone.

The thing to remember is that you aren’t expected to work miracles; you’re filling a gap. If you sub for a high school physics teacher, and your area is elementary reading, no one is expecting that you will teach rocket science.

Saying yes to every job communicates one thing loud and clear to the secretaries who make subbing calls: When they need someone they can rely on, you’re the one they can call.

Introduce Yourself to Administrators

You don’t necessarily need to become friends with the administrators, but it’s a good idea to introduce yourself. In large schools, you may rarely see the principal or athletic director. In a small one, you may see them everywhere. Either way, let them know who you are, and stop by to say hello every now and then.

This is especially important if you want a job in the district. When the time for interviews comes around, you’ll want administrators to be able to put a face to your application.

Get Yourself Some Business Cards

Leave your card with every teacher you sub for. Often a teacher will be impressed with a sub and want to get ahold of her again in the future. Unfortunately, this is rather difficult if she has no way of tracking you down. Sure, she can call the secretary and ask for your contact info, but that’s extra work for her.

Make it easy by leaving your name, number, and email for teachers to contact.

Leave Personal Notes for the Teacher

Every time you sub, you should leave a note for the teacher about what went well during the day and what didn’t. Many subs feel worried that leaving a negative note — one in which you explain how the students misbehaved — will mean you won’t be asked back. I never found that to be the case. It’s best to be honest.

Try to make notes more personal by including the names of students and any particular education-related observations you made. You want the teacher to feel like you connected with the class and that you got to know the students in some small way. This will demonstrate that you’re attentive, engaged, and hard-working.

Take a Breath and Relax

Subs struggle most when they try to impose too much order in a classroom. It’s easy to feel like your job is to discipline students whenever they seem to step out of line. Unfortunately, subs have no real power in the classroom — a reality every sub understands.

What makes the subbing experience easier is relaxing. Be aware that students will test the boundaries. They’re kids; that’s what they do. Don’t be surprised, and don’t let it bother you. Take a breath, relax, and pick your battles carefully.

The more relaxed you are, the more relaxed the students will be, too.

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