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The substitute teacher: Sometimes respected by other teachers, less so by students, but always in demand by principals trying to fill in for absent instructors.

Substitute teaching can be challenging and rewarding at the same time. A classroom teacher may define the substitute teacher’s success based on how well controlled his or her students were while they were absent. On the other hand, from the substitute teacher’s perspective, they too are measuring success by how well-behaved the students are during their short stint as the replacement.

The classroom teacher may blame the substitute when the work is not completed as planned, and the substitute may blame the classroom teacher for the unruly behavior of the students. Often, everyone loses, especially the students because it may be a wasted day at school. The regular teacher must “make-up” for the learning and time that may have been lost, and the substitute is worried if he or she will be called back to the school.

However, with proper planning, it is possible for substitute teachers to be effective and beneficial to students, especially when it is just for a day or two. The “regular” teacher’s perspective and the substitute teacher’s perspective are both important and must be considered.


The Classroom Teacher

It is not always possible to know when you are going to miss a day of school, but when you do know ahead of time, there are a few things to remember when planning for your substitute:

  • You are absent from the school; your students are not. They are entitled to a day of instruction as if you were there. Stress this fact to your students before you unexpectedly miss a school day as well.
  • Try to tell students ahead of time if you will be absent and that you expect them to follow the instructions of the substitute as if you were there. In fact, the substitute should be treated as a guest of each student in the same way they would treat a visitor to their homes.
  • Do not expect the substitute to teach your students using the same strategies and methods as you do. They likely have their own style of teaching which could be much different than yours.
  • The substitute cannot read your mind — only the lessons and notes you have prepared for them. The instructions should be as clear and concise as possible. However, do not burden the substitute with a lesson you do not enjoy presenting yourself.
  • Always include something extra for the substitute to use and present to the students. This ensures as little downtime as possible. Though most effective substitute teachers have backup plans, it is best if any time-fillers come from you and are related to the current lesson.
  • A good substitute teacher will include comments related to their day in your classroom. Upon your return, review the notes carefully. Whether the substitute had a great or miserable day with your class is less important than where you go from here with your students.
  • If there were problems with the entire class, conduct a discussion with everyone. If just a few students were disruptive, discuss their behavior privately. You do not need input from other students regarding a substitute teacher’s performance. It is disrespectful to the substitute.
  • Finally, along with the substitute lesson plans, you may ask the substitute to include their name and phone number. You later may choose to contact the substitute to discuss any problems they may have had with your class.

The key to an effective day for a substitute teacher visiting your class, and a less stressful day upon your return, is preparedness. You must be prepared for an unexpected absence from school or a planned absence from school, and the substitute teacher can then have a successful and productive day with your students.


The Substitute Teacher

Often, you never know where you will be teaching as you fall asleep the night before a school day. You may be in front of a class of first-graders, with a small group of gifted or special needs students, or leading high schoolers in calisthenics during a physical education class. However, one thing is certain: you must be prepared for anything and everything.

  • If possible, arrive at your assignment ahead of schedule. This will give you ample time to read over any lesson plans a teacher may have prepared for you. Teachers often know ahead of time when they will be absent from school.
  • Follow the plans left for you as best as possible. Do not do your own thing unless there are no plans. The teacher is expecting you to carry out his or her instructions and it would be disrespectful and counterproductive to do otherwise.
  • If no plans are provided, then you must use something you have already prepared in advance. Do not ask the students what they should be doing, or where the teacher left off, or what they would rather do. You are in charge and it is your responsibility to manage the classroom.
  • You may be in a self-contained classroom with the same students all day, or you may see over a hundred students throughout the day. Either way, it is less important for you to learn all their names but do learn the names of the students who can be of assistance and those who may turn problematic. This is especially helpful if you will be there for just one day.
  • The helpful students will be eager to assist you, and the problematic students will be happy with the attention. In short, get on their good side and ask them some questions about their favorite things. Most likely they will not be accustomed to the extra positive attention, but it may lead to better behavior.
  • As you go through the day, be sure to include helpful notes for the classroom teacher. They need to know what you accomplished or what you did not complete. The day cannot and should not be a waste for the students. Their regular teacher is absent from school, but they are not. They are entitled to a day of instruction presented by you, the substitute teacher.

There are many other tips and strategies for the substitute teacher and for the classroom teacher’s preparation for a missed day at school. The most important thing to remember is this: while the regular teacher and the substitute teacher are both important, the students should always remain the top priority.

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