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Dr. Ken Shore's
Classroom Problem Solver

Preparing for a Substitute

A substitute teacher has one of the more challenging jobs in education. An outsider who typically has no knowledge of, or personal connection with, the students, the "sub" is expected to pick up wherever the regular teacher has left off.

Substitutes have all the responsibilities of teachers, but little of the authority. In addition, they frequently face students looking for ways to take advantage of their position and test their limits.

You can help ease the job of your substitutes by doing some advance planning for the days you might be absent. That can include, for example, developing a "substitute survival kit." The more information the substitute has, the more likely he or she is to have a productive and problem-free experience -- and the easier life will be for you when you return.


Ask for a specific substitute. If you have had experience with a substitute you know has good classroom management skills and knows your students, request that sub when you are absent.

Let students know your expectations when they have a substitute. Make sure students know that substitutes will report on their behavior and collect their class work. Tell them that classroom rules are in full effect and you expect them to be on their best behavior. Let them know that they should follow the instructions of a substitute even if they differ from your own. Ask them for ideas about how they might help a substitute feel welcome.

Refer to substitutes as a "guest teachers." If your students view the sub as a "guest," they are more likely to be respectful and cooperative. That term also will convey the idea that the substitute is there to teach, not baby sit.

Create a guide for substitutes. The substitute guide should include at the very least a class roster, a seating chart (use self-stick notes in case you change your seating arrangement), a list of school and classroom procedures, a school map, the daily schedule, lesson plans, and the location of materials and supplies. You also might add the following information to help the sub deal with behavior problems or special situations:

  • the school's code of conduct,
  • your classroom rules,
  • a brief description of the reward system you use,
  • a beginning-of-the-day activity or brainteaser,
  • the names of responsible students who can be called on for assistance,
  • the names of students with medical concerns,
  • the names of students with academic, emotional, or behavior problems, and helpful strategies for dealing with them.
  • a request that the substitute inform you in writing of how the day went.

Provide activities for students who have completed their work. Behavior problems often surface when students have free time; provide the substitute with some appealing activities for students who finish their work before other students, or for those awkward moments at the end of the day. Word searches, brainteasers, trivia questions, crossword puzzles, games, arts and crafts projects, books on tape, riddles, and fun math problems are some activities you might provide.

When you return to the classroom, talk briefly with students about their behavior with the substitute. If a sub indicates that a class was cooperative, let students know you are pleased and reward them in some way. If the sub reports behavior problems, however, address those directly, either with the entire class or with individual students. Let students know you hold them accountable for their behavior even when you are absent.


About Ken Shore

Dr. Kenneth Shore is a psychologist and chair of a child study team for the Hamilton, New Jersey Public Schools. He has written five books, including Special Kids Problem Solver and Elementary Teacher's Discipline Problem Solver.

Click to read a complete bio.