You arrive early. Get a parking spot. Sign in at the main office and find your classroom. If all goes as planned, this is how your day should start as a substitute teacher. That was the easy part. Once you’ve put your bag down and taken off your coat, it’s a race to the finish line as to how the rest of your day will go.
With any luck, the teacher you are filling in for will have left a detailed plan for you to follow. For elementary school, it should include everything from taking the lunch count in the morning to the form you need to fill out to send a child to the nurse. The day should be broken down including how long to spend on math, reading, social studies as well as any specials. Read aloud books, homework and teacher answer keys should be left for you, as well. It is always best to bring a few lessons of your own, just in case nothing was left for you. Have at least one or two lesson plans that you can use for any grade (or make them grade specific if you can). This way you are prepared without missing a beat.
Perhaps the most important element of the day is lunchtime! You must be aware of when students have lunch and recess. If it’s raining, be prepared for indoor recess. The noise level is sure to go up in the classroom. However, this is the only free time the students have to unwind and play. They need this time to recharge and to be able to engage in the rest of the day.
What happens when the students have had enough of one lesson, but the time on the clock tells you that you still have another 15 minutes left to go on this assignment? Your students are the best judges of when to stop a lesson and to start another. If they have had enough, there is no use in trying to prolong a lesson, even if you have not completed it. Best to move on to something else. You can always return to it later in the day.
Read aloud books or picture books (depending on the grade) are another necessary part of the day. Students typically enjoy being read to, but it is sometimes a challenge getting students to the reading rug. Students in first or second grade in particular might be reluctant to join the group when a substitute is present. You have to be clever and one step ahead of them in order to get the group to sit down and listen. Once you are reading to them, they are usually engaged and attentive.
Perhaps the hardest part of a substitute’s day is knowing when to allow students to go to the bathroom or to the nurse. Invariably, nearly every student tests the substitute’s patience by repeatedly asking to go to one of these two places. You must try to gauge when the need is real and when they are testing you. For older students, you might tell them that they cannot go to the bathroom until the person who is already out comes back. For the nurse, you must determine if there is a real need to go or not. Keep in mind that the nurse has other students with real problems that need to be tended to and does not have time to deal with a student who just wants to get out of class because they have a substitute.
Overall, try to keep to the normal schedule that the students would follow if their regular teacher were there. If a student is out of line, you might want to take 5 minutes off his or her recess. If the class as a whole is noisy and won’t quiet down, give everyone a time out. Conversely, make sure to reward students for a job well done. Gold star stickers or "happy faces" work well as a reward system. Say the student’s name out loud and compliment him or her on what a nice job they are doing. Positive reinforcement is just as necessary to keep students on track just as it is to tell the class that bad behavior will have negative consequences (such as losing recess). A teacher from the class next door might stop by to lend a hand if they hear things are getting out of control. Teachers are there to support each other. If you can introduce yourself to the teachers next door before your day starts, you are one step ahead of the game. Just remember that it’s all in a day’s work. Take a deep breath, gather your forces and have fun!