Dear Substitute Teacher,

I have had some great supply teachers and some that were not so great over the years. The great supplies arrived early, engaged my students, left me a note about what they were able to cover, and got called on again for work. The supplies that arrived late, read a book or surfed the web while ignoring my students, or didn’t leave me any comment on how the day went, lost my confidence, and were not asked to return. Whether you are just starting out as a supply teacher straight out of teacher’s college or whether you are a retired teacher making a little extra pocket money, there are some things that you can do to get a leg up on the competition.

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Supply teaching IS a competition; you are competing against the other teachers on the supply list to get booked. If you are looking for LTOs or contracts then you are competing against other supply teachers for interviews.

My advice? Treat every moment you are in a school as a job interview. The administration, the secretaries, the teachers and the students are forming their opinions about your capabilities as a teacher every second that you are in the building. And if you don’t make a positive impression, you won’t be called back in as a supply nor are you likely to be invited in to interview for more permanent positions.

Your day as a supply teacher boils down to three things: making a great first impression, engaging with the students, and leaving a positive lasting impression:

First Impressions

Dress well – like it’s a job interview; no jeans, no miniskirts, no revealing clothing. If you have to ask whether or not your outfit is appropriate, err on the side of caution and don’t wear it. Have a simple, professional briefcase or book bag to store any materials – avoid carrying things loose in your hands. You should look professional and put together.

Arrive at least 20 minutes early so that you can find the main office, sign in, find your classroom and the work left for you, and get a nearby teacher to unlock the classroom door for you.

Smile and say “hello” or “good morning” to people as you arrive and move about the school. The staff and students will take notice of your friendly, positive demeanour.

It’s all about the students!

You have one goal for your time in the classroom: help the students to complete as much of the assigned work left by the teacher as possible.

– take attendance and send it to the office (have the students sign a sheet of paper if no attendance list has been left for you). Note the names of those late (and # of minutes late).
– write your name on the board to help the students remember
– write a list of work to be done on the board for students to refer to
– walk around the class as students work, talk to them about what they are working on, and help them if they are having trouble to the best of your ability
– have a few activities or worksheets prepared ahead of time for various subjects in the event that the teacher does not leave any work for the students or you are unable to find the work they did leave
– follow the instructions left by the teacher as closely as possible
– collect the students’ work at the end of the period (unless the teacher tells you to assign it for homework)
– ask a nearby teacher or call the office if you are unsure of any procedures or school rules (for example, student bathroom breaks, cell phones, etc)

– read a book or newspaper, or surf the web while the students work
– let the students convince you to tell them your life story or regale them with college/university anecdotes instead of them completing their work (no joke – I have seen this happen!)
– use your cell phone to text, play games, surf the web while the students work
– change or substitute the assignment/activity left for the students, no matter how much better you think you could make it. The teacher is expecting to return and have what they left completed so that they can move on to the next lesson with the kids. (I have had substitutes leave me a note saying “the students said you didn’t teach them how to do this worksheet so I played hangman with them” – so frustrating!)

Lasting Impressions

The most important thing you can do at the end of your day as a substitute is leave a note for the teacher about how the day went. You can do this on paper and leave it with the student work to be returned to the teacher or send them an e-mail. Things to include in the note:
– what the students were able to accomplish; they don’t always finish everything and that’s OK
– names of students you had difficulties with and an explanation of what happened as well as any consequences you assigned
– “thank-you for having me in” … show your appreciation for having been booked in for the day of supply work.

You will often have a break during the day with no class (what would be the regular teacher’s prep time). You could just hang out in the staff room and read a book or catch up on e-mail, but allow me to suggest two ways to make better use of that time:
1. Ask the main office if there are any duties they need covered. They might be scrambling to cover study hall or library duty and will be immensely thankful that you’ve offered the help.
2. Volunteer in another teacher’s classroom. Most teachers welcome an extra set of eyes and hands in their room – it’s very helpful to us. You get the chance to watch an experienced teacher in the classroom which can give you some ideas of strategies or styles you want to incorporate into your own teaching.

Should the day not go well – perhaps you didn’t enjoy the other staff members, or the students were particularly badly behaved – do not badmouth the school or the teacher … to anyone or on any forum. I heard a story of a substitute teacher who posted a message on Facebook about how awful she thought the school was where she had been that day. It was posted so that only her friends could see it, but a staff member from that school had a mutual friend with the supply teacher and heard about the comment through the grape vine. That supply teacher was never asked back. And news travels, so when one school or teacher does not want to hire you back, you might find that other teachers or schools will know your reputation even if you’ve never been in their building.

The job of a substitute teacher is not easy. Teachers are always on the lookout for supplies that we can trust and have confidence in to help our students with the work we have left so that we’ll be able to pick up with the next lesson upon our return.

Do you have any DOs or DON’Ts for substitute teachers that I’ve missed? Share them in the comments below!

– Laura Wheeler (Teacher @ Ridgemont High School, OCDSB; Ottawa, ON)


One thought on “Dear Substitute Teacher,

  1. This a wonderful post that more teacher, new and experienced, should read. It was always a pleasure to have you supply for me or other members of my department because you DID teach and provide clear feedback to us. Thanks for putting out these ideas and sharing them with your growing network.

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