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From kindergarten through the end of high school, the average student spends a whole school year with substitute teachers. And now – as schools grapple with a serious teacher and substitute shortage – the role of the substitute teacher in the school ecosystem is becoming even more important.

This blog provides strategies to help school leaders recruit and develop effective substitute teachers.

What Makes an Effective Substitute Teacher

First, let’s consider what makes an effective substitute teacher. There are five essential daily activities, as suggested by Trent Bowers in his eBook “From Survive to Thrive”:

  1. Know the building safety procedures and plans. One of the first things a substitute should do upon arriving is to locate and review the emergency procedures for fires, tornadoes, earthquakes, and dangerous intruders. Ask questions if any part of the instructions are unclear.
  2. Engage students in meaningful work. It is up to the classroom teacher to provide meaningful work for students, and the substitute should work equally hard to complete the teacher’s plan. Substitutes need to know effective instructional strategies that increase student engagement.
  3. Treat all students with respect. It is imperative that substitutes treat all students with respect. This can, at times, be difficult as students may challenge the sub. However, substitutes should find ways to quickly build rapport with students.
  4. Be present. Great substitutes are fully focused on the classroom throughout the day. They exude a sense of openness and relatability with students, and they recognize what is going on around them – in the sense that they have “eyes in the back of their head.”
  5. Be positive and optimistic. It is important to present a friendly demeanor while remaining professional with students. Thinking and speaking positively results in a more pleasant environment for the substitute and the students. It should be noted that having a good sense of humor can be effective in working with students; however, sarcasm is not appropriate, as children tend to be very literal. Students may interpret sarcasm as hostile or abusive.

How School Leaders Can Support Substitute Teachers

School leaders will be interested in attracting highly effective substitute teachers. How do they make their school an attractive place for substitutes? Here are a few suggestions.

Create a welcoming environment

 School culture and climate are important for many reasons, and attracting substitute teachers is one more reason to emphasize a welcoming environment. When the substitute arrives, they should receive a friendly greeting in the main office. They should receive pertinent information about the building — building-wide discipline systems and policies; emergency procedures; map of the building with their classroom, teacher’s lounge, and adult restroom marked; name of a “buddy” teacher or other individual who can provide assistance during the day; and any other helpful information. Throughout the day, adults in the building should make an effort to acknowledge the substitute and offer assistance if needed.

Develop a “buddy” system

At the beginning of the school year, pair teachers in the building who agree to check in with each other’s substitute teachers on days when a sub is needed.

Focus on student relationships

Positive student relationships are yet another important factor in schools, and they go a long way in creating a school and classroom climate that will be inviting for substitute teachers. Students who have a strong positive relationship with the classroom teacher and with each other will be more likely to cooperate with the substitute teacher. Creating a prosocial environment that encourages positive relationships among students cultivates the likelihood that students will hold each other accountable to the established classroom norms when a substitute is present.

Set expectations with teachers for substitute binders and lesson plans

Substitute binders

At the beginning of the school year, principals should ask teachers to prepare a thorough substitute binder and to keep it updated throughout the year. A substitute binder is a necessity for substitute teachers to quickly get up to speed on the protocols of the classroom and to lead instruction. A substitute binder includes the following:

  • Classroom information: Class list, seating chart, daily schedule, schedule of students who receive services, schedule of students who receive medication, student allergy or health needs, special accommodations, and water/restroom policies.
  • Where to go for help: Name and location of “buddy” teacher, names of students who are trusted to answer questions and run errands, how to use the phone, and numbers to contact nurse, custodian, or tech support.
  • Classroom management procedures: List of rules and procedures along with what to do if students don’t follow them, information on who to contact for backup if needed, list of commonly used materials and their locations, list of materials that are off-limits, and where to put collected work.
  • Additional responsibilities: Recess or bus line supervision that a substitute will be expected to complete, the process for obtaining extra copies, process for pickup/dropoff at specials for elementary students, process for sending students to the library, and any routines or details that might be unexpected for the substitute.
  • Lesson plans will be updated before a planned absence, but in case of an unplanned absence, the binder can include where to find lesson plans and how to translate abbreviations. Teachers might include a set of “emergency plans” for a situation where there was no opportunity to create plans for the sub and the planned lesson won’t work for the substitute.

Lesson plans

Teachers should consider the following guidelines for lesson plans when preparing for a substitute teacher:

  • Keep instruction straightforward. The lesson can still be engaging and rigorous, but it should not be complicated nor completely new. A good rule of thumb is to use a familiar learning activity with new content or to introduce new learning activities with familiar content.
  • Provide options to fill the class time. It can be difficult to predict how long activities will take students to complete, so include additional activities or material (such as a review game or read-aloud book) that can fill the class time. An exit slip activity allows the substitute to keep students engaged until the end of class and helps the classroom teacher determine how well students understood the lesson. 
  • Prepare students. When possible, prepare students for the substitute. Remind them of behavior expectations and that the sub will provide a full report. Classroom teachers might also prepare students for the lesson plan and activities that will occur with the substitute so they know what to expect.

Consider opportunities for training and development

With a growing shortage of teachers and substitutes, it is expected that more subs will have little or no formal experience before stepping foot in a classroom. Districts may consider a variety of approaches that help substitutes develop important skills.

  • Training. A district might offer training that helps substitutes learn about classroom management and instructional strategies emphasized by the district. This experience helps substitutes become acquainted with the district and to feel more prepared entering the classroom.
  • Networking and mentorship. Districts might create a “network” of substitutes who meet regularly to discuss best practices and to learn from one another. Such a system increases a sense of belonging that may improve recruitment and retention of substitutes. Veteran substitutes or retired teachers might be named as “master” substitutes to mentor less experienced subs. Master substitutes could be paid a higher rate for their services.
  • Peer observation. Schools might consider allowing substitutes to observe highly effective classroom teachers, especially when subs have identified a specific skill or strategy they would like to improve. 

Principal walkthroughs

When a substitute is present, principals might check in on the classroom for a couple of minutes during the school day. In this case, a principal walkthrough is not a method for evaluating the substitute but rather a way to communicate support for the sub and to deter student misbehavior. Students will come to expect a visit from a principal when a substitute is there. Before implementing this strategy, substitutes should be made aware at the beginning of the day that these walkthroughs occur and that the intent is not to evaluate the sub but rather to provide a supportive presence.

As students spend a year of their K-12 experience with a substitute, it cannot be denied that substitute teachers play an important role in student learning. School leaders would be wise to consider strategies that improve the effectiveness of substitutes and give them the greatest opportunity for success.

The Network for Educator Effectiveness (NEE) is a simple yet powerful comprehensive system for educator evaluation that helps educators grow, students learn, and schools improve. Developed by preK-12 practitioners and experts at the University of Missouri, NEE brings together classroom observation, student feedback, teacher curriculum planning, and professional development as measures of effectiveness in a secure online portal designed to promote educator growth and development.