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7 Tips for Substitute Teachers on How to Be Productive

Juggle your classroom work as a substitute teacher

Earn the respect of students and teachers in just one day with these substitute teacher tips.

As a substitute teacher, you might be called into a situation where the regular teacher couldn't leave any instructions, so you have to come up with a compelling lesson for a class you've never met. Other times, the teacher's absence was planned, and they've left so much work for the students to do that you find yourself sitting around, twiddling your thumbs. If you're ever in the latter group, the following tips for substitute teachers will help you to maximize this downtime in ways that benefit the students, the class, the absent teacher, and your own professional development.

1. Tidy Up a Bit

While teachers often plan activities for students to keep them occupied, they rarely leave a list of tasks for the substitute to accomplish. Take initiative by completing a few things you know the absent teacher will appreciate. Think of activities the class teacher might not have time for or the little administrative jobs that can add up and become overwhelming. You can sharpen pencils, organize books, and file work away in folders. When teachers come back to a freshly organized classroom, you'll quickly become everyone's favorite sub! Note: the advice here isn't to completely re-organize (that drives teachers crazy!), but simply to put things back in their already-designated places and do a bit of spot cleaning. 

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2. Listen to Individual Readers

One of the most important things adults can do with children is to read with them. But many teachers don't have the time to listen to individual readers every day. If you find yourself with nothing to do, calling up individual students to read to you and taking notes about their reading comprehension can be a really useful activity. It will help the class teacher see what work needs to be completed next, and it's great practice for the students.

3. Leave Detailed Notes

In my time as an administrator, teachers returning from time away often complained about substitute teachers not leaving them notes about the class or any progress students had made. Use down time to complete a detailed report about the day. Note any students who were having trouble. Be specific, use their name, and include the exact area they were struggling with. Mention any behavior problems, friendship issues, or other concerns you may have. Returning teachers will really appreciate having this insight.

4. Observe How Students Work

Class teachers rarely have time to simply observe their classes working; there's always something else they need to be doing. Take any dead time to carefully watch how students collaborate with one another. When you see opportunities, ask questions to expand their thinking, clarify points, and encourage further discussion. The observations you make can then be used in the detailed notes you leave for the class teacher.

5. Leave Positive Feedback

A substitute teacher once left me a lovely note and took the time to highlight the parts of the lesson plan that worked, share the thoughtful answers my class offered, and even compliment a classroom display we had created. It can be such a nice touch to thank the teacher for his or her detailed plans and say something nice about their classroom.

6. Grade Any Work You Assign

It's just good manners to mark and grade any work completed while you're on duty. The teacher will most likely look over the work again when they return, but by taking the time to grade it or correct spelling mistakes, you're lessening their load.

7. Talk to Students

Young people are interesting and vibrant, and they have so much to teach adults if we listen. Going around the classroom and quietly chatting with students while they work is beneficial to both you and them. Everyone likes to be listened to, and if you return to the school for future assignments, you'll be glad you made connections with some of the students.

As a substitute teacher, you might find you have classes where the students are quietly engaged in their work (lucky you!). While it may be easier to just sit back and scroll through your phone while they work, remember that you're not a babysitter. Use the opportunity to interact with the students, complete jobs around the classroom, and communicate with the class teacher. By following these tips for substitute teachers, you'll increase the likelihood of being asked to sub again.