What makes a great substitute teacher?

Over the past two months, two of the four teachers on my team has been out for personal reasons, having been replaced by a collection of long- and short-term substitute teachers.  Spending an entire academic quarter working with subs has given me a new perspective on the qualities that make them effective.  I’ve given more thought than ever to the important role that they play in our classrooms and on our teams.

Like any educator who has needed to miss a day, or been on a team with one who has, I’ve worked with my fair share of substitute teachers.  They come in a variety of personalities, teaching styles, experience levels and some may possess online education degrees.  They have varying expectations about their responsibilities.  And, in all fairness, we classroom teachers have equally varied expectations for them.  Some want a stand-in who will simply maintain order for the duration of the absence, while others are looking for a sub who will teach class in virtually the same way that the primary teacher would.  With such a wide spectrum of needs, it would be impossible to make every teacher happy.

mischievous-studentFor the purposes of the list below, therefore, I decided to consider my own expectations for substitute teachers and assume that I am a fairly average teacher.  By way of a disclaimer, I might add that what I like in a sub might irritate or even anger other teachers.  In addition, high school and elementary school teachers who work largely alone probably don’t care too much how well their sub works with their colleagues while they are out.  For middle school teachers who team-teach, having to apologize afterwards for the incompetence of a bad sub can be painful.  With all of this said, here is my wish list for a perfect substitute:

  1. Middle-aged.  In my experience, older (retirement-age) subs are easily frustrated and easily insulted.  I’ve even heard some comment that “children today need more discipline” and seem intent on providing it.  Young substitutes suffer from a lack of life experience and a desire to befriend the students rather than earn their respect.
  2. Firm and fair.  Students inevitably challenge a sub in the first few minutes of class.  They want to affirm their dominance in the classroom, and a sub needs to reaffirm that they have control.  Otherwise, things get rough and the primary teacher ends up picking up the pieces when they return.  Oh, and teammates often have to step in during the day and bring order, on top of having to do their own jobs (sense any bitterness?).
  3. Willing to do more than she is paid to do.  Let’s face it: Substitute teachers barely get paid enough to simply show up in the average classroom. They don’t get paid the exact same as the average teacher salary. Throw in a rough group of kids and a complicated lesson plan and the financial injustice becomes downright immoral.  We’re not even talking about long-term subs who sometimes grade work and even write lessons.  Nonetheless, my vision of a perfect sub is one who is willing to modify the lesson plan as necessary, and adjust to the needs of the students.
  4. Confident but willing to accept advice.  Any teacher who exudes confidence is going to have an easier time handling any classroom, but some subs come into a new situation with the attitude that they can conquer all–without help from anyone.  This is a particularly frustrating trait on a team of teachers who know the students and can offer sound suggestions for being successful with them.

It’s not a complete list, but these are the basics of a good sub according to this one teacher.  I’d love to hear your ideas, good or bad, about the list and what you would add to it.  Let the comments flow!

14 thoughts on “What makes a great substitute teacher?

  1. I am a retired Marine Officer with 25 years of leadership and life experience. I went into Law enforcement as a patrol officer in San Diego. When I left the Marine Corps I went to Grad school to become a teacher, only sidetrack by Law enforcement. I am now a substitute teacher which I love doing. I am always seeking professional opinions on the expectations of substitute teachers. JonBoy your post was a good read and I agree with your points.

    I have so far have no negative experience with the exception of lack of professional courtesy. Some regular teachers don’t even have the professional courtesy to greet you when you are on campus. The mindset seems to be, he/she is just a sub, they are not one of us. I have had a teacher walk into my class room and just start calling out students names to take them somewhere. I had to explain to the teacher that this is my classroom and these children are my responsibility. Please introduce yourself and talk with me offline about why you want this particular student and where your going.

    I am not substituting for the pay, I am doing this because I love teaching and welcome the opportunity to work with children. Most of my experience is with middle school age children.

    One valuable lesson I have learned throughout my career is that we all have different leadership styles as well as different teaching styles. There is no cookie cutter teaching style that fits for everyone. I learn from all teachers and substitute teachers. My goal is to be effective and evolve as a leader and teacher. Even after 25 years as a Marine I am still trying to become a better leader. I am just starting as a teacher and I will continually try to become a better one. I make mistakes and I always try to learn from them. I have always been proud to say I am a Marine, I am just as proud to say I am a teacher. Thank you all for what you do on a daily basis.

  2. Correct: The idea for what a substitute teacher should do while in the temporary role of the classroom teacher is wide and varied. I’ve had teachers to require I teach a lesson and that’s fun for me, but I’ve also had teachers who give me assignments that require no real effort or care from the students. Or just as bad; they have a habit of not grading anything done with a substitute. Giving no grade for the assignment equates to no assignment at all. Students then misbehave and are more difficult to manage because they have no work to do. Although I enjoy when a teacher leaves me her lesson plans and instrucs me to run it, I am astounded at how often the preceding lesson was not taught or learned by enough students. Additionally, there are times when I have given an assignment to students who tell me they’ve never had the lesson at all and are clueless as to how to approach the lesson let alone complete it. I believe giving a students activities that will be graded and an abundance of it and saying to the substitute to do what you can and have fun; don’t feel you have to complete everything, is the way to do it. I would like the teachers who view substitutes as uneducated and lazy to never request a substitute when they are out. If you devalue substitutes, then don’t request a substitute. Allow your classroom when you are not present to be divided up among your team and/or leave them unattended perhaps for your Principal to assume responsibility. What you should not do is look down on the profession. Yes, it is a profession!

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