Being a substitute is tough. Your work week is not guaranteed. You often have a class you have never seen before at a school you don’t know. You don’t know the routines and the expectations. On top of all that, the kids know that they can test the limits again now that their teacher is away. However, substitute teachers can take some steps and preparations to improve their experience. This post will outline a few practices that I have found to be incredibly helpful as a substitute teacher, especially at the primary and elementary level.
Stay Organized. Ok, so this one goes without saying for a teacher but as a substitute without a home base, what can you do? Use the cloud. I have a folder in Google Drive with every school and class I have been in. I save everything I can in there. For the school, I put the duty schedule, newsletters, computer login information, iPad or Chromebook cart combination, and any other relevant information. (I keep passwords safe by using a simple algorithm to encrypt them). For the class, I put in the lesson plan I received, the class schedule, the seating plan, my report to the regular teacher and anything else that might be useful in the future. At first, it seemed like a lot, but it just became a routine to take pictures of all the material and load it to the relevant place in the Drive. This way, when I get called back to that school or class, I can review what I did last time and feel more confident.
Have some tricks up your sleeve. Things don’t always go as planned when you don’t know the students and their abilities. Therefore, you are sometimes left with a class of students with nothing to do, which any substitute knows is a scary proposition. That is why I always have a collection of activities that can be used in a variety of situations. For example, I have an account on Kahoot, Plickers, Match the Memory, Quizlet, and other sites like this. My material is saved on those accounts so I can access them anywhere. I also have PowerPoint games and activities that I can use in various classes, from Jeopardy-esque quizzes to Rebus riddles. All these things need a computer and online access, so in the absence of assumed ubiquitous access, have a stack of cue cards on hand. My favorite no-prep, back pocket, cue card activity I will call Extra-Ordinary. I get an object from around the class and show it to them. A stapler or a block, for example. Invent some extraordinary use of it. “This looks like a whiteboard marker, but when I stick it in my ear it tells the weather for the rest of the week.” Students can then find an everyday object and endow it with an extraordinary ability. The blank side of the card can be used to make a realistic or fantastical drawing of the item. I have had enthusiastic success with this activity from Grade 1 to Grade 7. It is not just time killing, either. It meets various outcomes of description, representation, and creativity.
Get the scoop. There are so many things a regular teacher does throughout the course of the day. They rely on repetition and routine to keep it all flowing well. As a substitute, I am often bombarded by “Miss does this!” or “Sir lets up do that.” I usually take aside a couple of students before the bell rings to get the scoop on classroom routines to avoid these pesky interruptions of instructional time. It also gives the impression of competence if I know how certain things work. For example, what is the policy for using the washroom? One at a time? Sign out sheet? One finger or two fingers in the air? How about getting the group’s attention? Clapping? A bell? Does the regular teacher have a method of choosing groups? What about the routine for students that ordered lunch. Once I interview a few students I have a better chance of smoother transitions and more seamless class control. If I have time, I put these little tips in the class’s Google Doc folder as well. It also helps to ask a couple of teachers about certain policies. What students may need a closer eye? What behaviours warrant a trip to the office? What is the policy on phones and electronics? The more you seem to know, the less the students will try to push limits.
Learn a magic trick and a few good jokes. It’ll help.
This is hardly a complete list. The transitory nature of the life of a sub is complicated and specialized. I would love to hear any tips or trick that help you stay organized and on task as a substitute teacher.