The Teacher-Substitute Partnership

Creating a Dynamic Duo

As a substitute teacher, when I walk into a classroom and see brightly colored sticky notes filled with quick tidbits of information placed in strategic places, I know that the classroom teacher is setting me—and the students—up for a successful day. 

A successful day for a sub means the teacher can rest assured that her students have continued to learn in her absence.

Every worker needs the right tools to do the job. Just like a carpenter needs a hammer and saw, a sub needs clear and concise instructions, materials organized and readily available, and an understanding of established classroom procedures that cover everything from turning in homework to requesting restroom breaks. 

After subbing for nearly a decade, I’ve learned that some factors will make a good sub leap at the chance to return to a class, providing both the teacher and students with continuity and forward momentum. For example, when the lesson plan is clear and meets the Goldilocks test of not too much, not too little, but just right, I not only feel confident, but I also feel like the teacher is treating our relationship as a mutually beneficial partnership. 

I’ve also learned over the years that some other factors will compel a sub to greet a job offer as if it were an invitation to participate in a train wreck. More specifically, when the lesson plan is either far too brief or absurdly long, the desk is chaotic, and the key for the computer cart is nowhere to be found, I know that my day is going to be stressful and the students are likely going to be shortchanged.

In order to make your teacher-substitute relationship feel like a partnership instead of a hostile takeover, I’m offering some insight into the mind of a substitute. Below is a list of questions I frequently ask when substituting. I believe the answers to these key questions will help your sub achieve the educational goals you have set for the day, and ensure that a good sub wants to partner with you in the future.

  • Do you have a classroom aide or nearby teacher that can be called upon in a pinch?  Good classroom aides are worth their weight in dark chocolate. They know the students, can help maintain the flow of the day, can fix technology snags, and can explain established classroom procedures. In classrooms that do not have the benefit of an aide, I always appreciate the recommendation of a teacher (say the friendly one across the hall) who can offer help when needed.
  • Do you have a list of trustworthy students capable and willing to help out if needed? Having a list of a few students who can be counted on to answer questions (such as guidance on tech issues with the interactive screen) is invaluable. If there is no aide with institutional knowledge present, the trusted students are exponentially more important.
  • Do any of your students require special attention? It is important to have a heads up on students who may need special attention due to medical or behavioral issues. I want to know about students who may need extra help academically or who do not wish to be called on to read out loud. 
  • Where is the first aid kit? If you ensure I know where the first aid kit is located, I will probably nominate you for teacher of the year.
  • Do you have a routine? It is a pleasure to sub in a class that can essentially run itself because the students are so well-trained in the procedures and routines of the classroom.
  • What are your best attention-getting techniques (such as callbacks like “One, two, three, eyes on me”)? The more I can employ your strategies and even your language, the better the day will go. 
  • What are your school’s discipline policies? I need to know about the school policy and procedure for sending a student to the office or another class.
  • What are the rewards systems you employ and what criteria should be used? For example, if you use a point system, spell out how points are awarded for groups that work quietly and cooperatively. 

I have heard “business” defined as “solving people’s problems.” And I like to think of subbing as a type of business relationship where both the teacher and sub are solving each other’s problems. A successful day for a sub means the teacher can rest assured that her students have continued to learn in her absence. 

I do not believe that substitute teaching has to be substandard teaching. So much is determined by the actions, attitude, and commitment of the classroom teacher. When a good teacher makes it a priority to team up with a capable sub, they can become a dynamic duo for the students. And that is good for the business of teaching.

Dale enjoys living in beautiful northern California. When she is not in the classroom, she loves to garden, paint in watercolor, and kayak with her husband Dave. Dale and Dave have two grown sons. 


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