Search form


Setting New "Sub" Standards


The demands of the school day are altering the role of substitute teachers as placeholders or baby sitters. More districts are training their subs in classroom management and instructional skills so a teacher's absence does not mean a lost day of learning. Included: Ed World explores substitute training programs.

Think back to a first day of school, or worse yet, the first day ever teaching. The students, the room, the procedures all were new, and you yearned for a familiarity and a routine that would guide you through the day and year.

Most substitute teachers, though, never experience the relief of routine, since every day for them is like the first day of school with a new group of students. Often administrators just hope the subs can hold academic ground for a day or two, until the regular teachers come back.

As demands have grown to do more during the school day and year, though, administrators are reluctant to risk losing a full day of learning if a teacher is out. School systems now are rethinking their attitude toward subs, and are working to recruit, train, and keep better-prepared substitute teachers.


While districts are starting to pay more attention to substitute preparation, most subs in the U.S. still walk into classrooms relative neophytes.

Fewer than 10 percent of substitutes get any skills training, and only about 42 percent go through an orientation, according to Geoffrey G. Smith, executive director of the Substitute Teaching Institute at Utah State University. Which is too bad, because by offering even a little training, districts could deepen their substitute pool, he said.

The most common complaint among substitute teachers is that they are unable to manage a class, Smith added.

"There are a lot of well-educated people who'd like to sub, but who don't want to be thrown in front of a group of students," Smith told Education World. "It's like the first day of school every day. We find that training is the most common attribute of successful sub programs. People tend to stay longer and complain less."

Fewer than 10 percent of substitutes get any skills training, and only about 42 percent go through an orientation.

Requirements for substitute teachers also vary widely among the states; while some states allow high school graduates to substitute teach, a few only permit certified teachers to substitute. The majority of states allow those with a bachelor's degree or some college credits to substitute, according to data from the Substitute Teaching Institute.

Since 1995, the institute has been trying to improve the quality of substitute teachers and their working conditions by researching substitute teaching issues and best practices. The institute also provides on-site substitute training and teaches school personnel how to train substitutes. In addition, the institute offers a substitute-teacher handbook, online training, and assessment for subs.

Institute staff members have identified five critical skills for substitute teachers. Their training is focused around those skills:

  • Getting and keeping students on task
  • Positive interactions
  • Teaching expectations
  • Responding non-coercively
  • Avoiding traps

Part of the training for administrators involves teaching them what they can do to help improve substitute skill levels; how they can manage subs, that is, recruit, train, and retain substitute teachers; and how to prepare students and teachers to receive subs.

"Once the program is implemented, you can see a big difference," Smith said.


Districts that have invested time, money, or both in sub training told Education World the value was quickly apparent.

When the Boston Public Schools wanted to improve its substitute teaching program, it instituted mandatory training for candidates. Potential subs are required to pay $29.95 for the Substitute Teacher Institute's curriculum, and they must pass the Institute's online test with a score of at least 85 before they are granted an interview for a position.

"There are a lot of well-educated people who'd like to sub, but who don't want to be thrown in front of a group of students. It's like the first day of school every day."

Rather than see the numbers of applications plummet, as some predicted, the number of potential substitute teaches increased, said Barbara McGann, the district's assistant superintendent for human resources. Boston has a pool of about 1,200 subs for its 145 schools.

"I think the fact that we have gone to recruiting online has increased the number of substitute and teaching applicants," McGann told Education World. "It makes it easier to apply for positions. At the same time, we don't get people who want to dabble; they take this seriously."

McGann began revamping the substitute screening process about a year ago. "It occurred to me that the quality of subs was not good, based on observations and complaints from principals," she said. "We began to use substitute teaching as a path to teaching."

Feedback from principals about the quality of subs has been positive since starting the program. "Very rarely do we have disciplinary or other issues for which subs had to be dismissed before," McGann said.

The training takes a lot of pressure off the substitutes as well. "Once they've been taught some teaching strategies, they seem to enjoy it more," McGann added. "They are able to do constructive things in the absence of the teacher."


A desire among substitute teachers for more preparation prompted Lansing, Michigan, school officials to add classroom management training for its substitutes this year.

"We found that we were not preparing subs to enter the classroom," said Jamie Hildenbrand, the district's substitute teacher specialist. "A lot of them welcomed that training. We instituted it based on feedback from the subs, and teachers said they would like to see more preparation for the substitute teachers."

The four hours of unpaid professional training is called All You Need to Know Before You Do It, and includes instruction from a retired teacher in classroom management, teaching strategies, and professional judgment, according to Hildenbrand. This component was added to an existing four-hour unpaid orientation on the district's policies and procedures. No one is hired until he or she completes the full eight hours of training.

"It occurred to me that the quality of subs was not good, based on observations and complaints from principals. We began to use substitute teaching as a path to teaching."

School officials also want to host follow-up sessions for the subs during the year, where they will have a chance to vent, exchange ideas, and support one another, she told Education World.

Officials also hope the new approach will help keep substitutes in the district. "We were losing some people out of frustration," Hildenbrand said. "If you have no education background and we don't equip you, you'll just wind up with frustrated people."


The Tucson Unified School District has a similar approach for training its substitutes. Candidates attend a day of training, which in the morning focuses on using the district's substitute teacher system and completing the necessary paperwork, and in the afternoon covers classroom management skills taught by staff members from the professional development office.

"For a lot of people, this is the first time in a classroom," Sara Gamez, a certified specialist and supervisor of the substitute office, told Education World. "A lot of them are college graduates who are considering teaching. We also are seeing more retirees and retired teachers and retired professionals."

Tucson school officials added the classroom management training about ten years ago because there were a lot of complaints from schools that the classes were out of control. During the training, potential subs divide into groups and role-play, act out classroom scenarios, discuss what worked and what didn't work for a situation, and review what they did.

The office gets far fewer complaints now about the performance of substitute teachers, Gamez noted. If complaints are filed about veteran subs who began working for the district before the training was instituted, they must complete the training as well, she added.


"We were losing some people out of frustration. If you have no education background and we don't equip you, you'll just wind up with frustrated people."

The School District of Hillsborough County (Florida) instituted extensive substitute training about eight yeas ago, and it has earned national recognition.

Hillsborough's three-day, unpaid training includes instruction in general teaching skills, instructional strategies, and ethical issues, according to a district staff member. Retired administrators teach the program. Candidates are trained in groups of 35 people. Hillsborough has about 1,500 active subs.

"We realized the subs needed training," the staff member said. "They can't just go in and baby sit. Every day counts. We wanted them to be able to follow minimal lesson plans. We get better trained subs this way."


Still, in many districts, orientation focuses more on paperwork and procedures. In the Cedar Hill (Texas) Independent School District, substitute candidates receive three hours of training that covers the documents they need, how to use the automated sub system, and the distribution of information packets about how to keep students on task and what to do if the teacher did not leave lesson plans, said substitute coordinator Sherida Phillips.

Jim Politis, president of the National Substitute Teachers Alliance (NSTA), agrees that training is necessary, but he has some concerns about how it is done.

Politis said he does not endorse relying just on a test score to evaluate substitute teacher candidates, as Boston does, because anyone can take the online test. Smith agreed there is no way to verify who took the test unless the test administration is proctored.

"There is the risk that someone else could take it, but the test should not be an exclusive screening tool," Smith said. "It should be part of the assessment."

Districts who want to hire better subs but don't have time to revamp the programs themselves can turn to outside resources, such as Kelly Educational Staffing. Kelly currently works with 2,900 public and private schools in 45 states.

"This is a comprehensive program," said Leslie Stoner, senior program manager for Kelly Educational Services. "We recruit, screen, train, and handle payroll." Prior to recruiting subs, staff members complete a needs assessment of the school or district. Kelly partners with the Utah State institute to provide mandatory substitute training, and uses Utah State's handbook and CD to train its candidates.

"This way, the school district feels it is not just getting a body, but someone who is competent to oversee a classroom," said Scott Smith, vice president for Kelly Educational Services.

The critical piece is for districts to prioritize sub training. "They need to move substitute teacher skills to the front burner," Smith said. When subs are trained, "they say they had no idea they could actually educate students, and teachers say they can leave more complex lesson plans."