Behaviour Management, Class Management, Classroom Perspectives

The Trials and Tribulations of Substitute Teaching

The Trials and Tribulations of Substitute Teaching

Originally published in TEACH Magazine, July/August 2015 Issue

By Edgar Rider

It’s 8:25 a.m. and there are no notes left in the classroom. I scramble around the room and a few papers fall from the desk to the floor. I can hear the students chattering in the hall. I then look up and realize that in about five minutes they will begin filing into the room. It’s all on me now.

Welcome to the trials and tribulations of the substitute teacher.

Many substitute teachers like me can teach a different grade every single day, from K–12. It can be challenging. Sometimes, the regular teacher leaves lesson plans and notes. Other times, in the case of a sudden illness for example, I’m left with a blank slate.

For us substitute teachers, classroom management is more paramount than teaching the curriculum because, let’s be honest, some students believe when their teacher is away, it’s time to play. You are a stranger to them and it can be hard to earn their respect.

Some key questions always come to mind: How do you manage a classroom that is out of control? How do you keep the kids on task?

Having a plan is essential. Students can smell panic. Fumbling through your papers or sounding uncertain are dead giveaways. After nearly ten years of substitute teaching, here are some anecdotal suggestions I want to share.

“Can I go to the bathroom?”

Knowing the classroom or school rules before you start teaching is very important. One time early on, I did not know the rules for going to the facilities and let five kids go at once. After they returned, a police officer knocked on the classroom door and informed me that the five students had lit the bathroom on fire!

I later learned that no more than two students could go at a time. You never know what students are capable of—even second graders, in this case.

Five-Minute Fillers

Some students may think they can get away with anything when there’s a substitute. And they will certainly try, especially when there are gaps in between the last minute lesson plans. In this case, try a “five-minute filler.” Education World has a wide selection of them.

One example of a five-minute filler is a game called “Detective Spellcheck.” What you do is write ten words on the board then tell the students to close their eyes. The words can be related to the students’ current studies or random words that are within their vocabulary and reading level. While the students’ heads are down, quickly erase one of the words and rewrite it, only this time, misspelled. Once students open their eyes, they will have to figure out which word is spelled incorrectly.


Another five-minute filler great for reading aloud is called “Poison Word.” Quickly scan the selected reading for a word that appears frequently in the text. This word then becomes the “poison word.” Each time a student reads the “poison word,” it’s time for them to stop and for the next student to read. Typically a teacher prompts the students, but with this activity, it’s up to them. This encourages the students to listen very carefully to the reading material.

It’s a good idea to have a couple of five-minute fillers ready to go. These are just a couple of examples, but go through the Education World website and you’ll find an extensive list of suggestions for different grade levels.

Impromptu Book Club

Learning is much more than what’s indicated in the lesson plans. Impromptu moments can teach students to think on their feet. I often like to look around the classroom and see if there are any books lying around. Pick one up and see if there are any interesting parts. If there’s extra time in the day, read that passage to the students, followed by a general open discussion about it.


If you are subbing for PE, you might consider taking attendance—twice. Once at the beginning of the class and again at the end. Some students may try to ditch after the initial roll call. In fact, I once had an entire gym class disappear on me halfway through. So I redid the attendance and they were all marked absent. The security personnel always give us a thumbs up.

Student Helpers

Sometimes the teacher will leave a list of reliable students. If not, I’ve found it doesn’t take long to figure out which students are the exemplary ones. Sometimes, these students may come up to the substitute and offer some assistance, or you can call upon them to be helpers. Several student helper jobs may include “line leader,” “paper passers,” “door holder,” and “lunch helpers.”

According to Truth for Teachers, the reason for these positions is simple: “The primary purpose of classroom jobs is to transfer responsibility to students for keeping the classroom running smoothly, resulting in uninterrupted instruction.” Students may accept the helpers’ leadership more easily because they are peers and familiar with each other.


These tips will hopefully offer a good starting point to help manage a chaotic classroom and prevent the storm before it hits. I speak from experience, and in most situations these tips will help keep you sane. Substitute teaching is surely challenging, but with a good plan in place, it can also be very rewarding.

Edgar Rider has been working as a substitute teacher for grades K–12 for approximately eight years. He has previously been published in the Criterion International Journal and the Copperfield Review.