Five Things Schools and Districts Can Do Today to Improve the Substitute Experience

November 18 is the final day of American Education Week, and today we appreciate the contribution of Substitute teachers across the country. In honor of their critical role in schools, here are 5 practical ideas you can implement to improve the substitute teaching experience, starting today:

  1. Send thank you notes. Yup, your mom was right: thank you notes are important.  Substitutes often feel isolated and under appreciated; let them know they are an important part of your school community. This simple gesture helps build a relationship, making subs more likely to return to your school. Thank yous can come from anyone or everyone: students, teachers, school secretaries, principals.
  1.  Invite subs to school events and in-service trainings.  It’s great if you can pay folks for these things, but even if you can’t, inviting substitutes to school events is an important gesture of inclusion.  If you have an online system or resource for professional development, think about making the platform available to substitutes too.
  1. Standardize the sub folder. Consider walking into a brand new school or classroom every day and having to wade through a different set of instructions. We can acknowledge the reality of a substitute teacher by trying to make this part of their day a little bit easier and a lot more consistent. Building a common folder for use across classrooms in your school, or schools in your district helps subs know that you care about them and their daily experience. We recommend folders live in the front office, so they can be regularly checked, updated and supplemented—by anyone on staff—especially if a teacher has to call out sick.
  1. Solicit feedback, every time. Taking substitute teachers’ experience and advice seriously will help you build a stronger, more welcoming school community.  You can do this by creating a survey for subs that you include in the sub folder, or a link to an online survey they can take when they get home. Whether you use a survey tool or not, make sure you ask subs how their day went and share what you learn.
  1. Finally, encourage subs to do activities that build trust and rapport with students, and remember that these activities take time.  Two things that we often forget to mention to subs before we send them into the classroom are: first, spending time with students can and should be fun; and second, teaching is much harder if you haven’t established trust with students. Give subs permission to get to know students—and for students to get to know the subs. Games, going outside, art, music, and experiential learning activities engage students and set the sub up to succeed.

However you decide to convey your appreciation, take this day to say thanks to substitute teachers. They play a critical role in our schools but often don’t feel included or appreciated.  Without them, it would be more difficult for our nation’s educators to step out of the classroom when they need to care for themselves, care for their families, get married, have children, and, of course, grow professionally.  


Photo Credit: Thank You! By Carol VanHook (CC BY 2.0)

A National Dilemma: Substitute Teachers In America’s Classrooms

Today, schools require a blend of preparation and talent from their teachers to promote achievement and personal development from their students. Classrooms reflect a diverse group of children impacted by unstable families, finances, and societal factors. Many students are not prepared for higher education, held to different social expectations than others. This reality appears inescapable for educators, regardless of their training, experience, or expertise.

For substitutes, who are by definition assigned to a situation that is out of the ordinary, the situation is exacerbated, and even the most exceptional substitute struggles when placed in a classroom with at-risk learners. Lacking prior exposure to a school’s climate, substitutes are destined to struggle, regardless of their motivation or competence. High schools can be particularly problematic because of teenager’s resistance to authority and desire for independence. Without an orientation to the classroom, substitutes often struggle to manage a classroom full of young adults used to another teacher.

Schools need to design a system that benefits both schools and substitutes, otherwise, student performance will remain an unsolved issue.  Besides improving certification training, school districts need to implement a more comprehensive orientation for substitute teachers. Creating a list of potential candidates for placement throughout a community is too unreliable. Each substitute should attend a complete training before any placement is determined. Attracting substitute teachers with specialized certifications or previous experience complicates this idea however, especially in scarce areas like math, science, and special education.

A proactive process to prepare substitutes for their assignments should include the following procedures:

  • An orientation session to teach basic district information, including the administrative structure, academic departments, and program initiatives
  • A manual of district policies regarding daily obligations
  • Power point modules/handouts illustrating instructional strategies and classroom management methods
  • Crisis intervention policies
  • An introductory training course on characteristics of special education learners
  • Preliminary visits to schools before substitutes are given placements
  • Formal meetings with building administrators/specific classrooms/staff

Once assigned, substitutes should receive timely supervision and mentoring, especially for lengthy positions with a single class. It’s essential to ensure substitutes are attending faculty meetings and training activities, as well as communicating with other substitutes.

With expanding enrollment and quicker teacher turnover, substitutes are a critical necessity for the nation’s school districts. Our country deserves better substitutes, and our substitutes deserve better care and attention.

Donald Perras, Ph.D.

Donald Perras, Ph.D.

Donald Perras, Ph.D. has been an educator since 1967. As an associate professor of special education at Southern Connecticut State University for 37 years, he prepared more than 6,600 teachers to become conscientious practitioners of their profession. He specializes in programs to help educators deal with students who have serious emotional disturbance (SED) and related behavior disorders. In addition to his current consulting work, Don continues as an adjunct professor at University of St. Joseph in West Hartford.