What Every Substitute Needs to Know


Read With You interviewed long time substitute teacher, Arlene Neilson to get her best ideas on how to be a successful substitute. She also talked about ways for teachers to prepare for substitutes, what parents can do at home, and what she wishes she would have known when she started.

About Arlene

Arlene Neilson got her associates degree out of high school, but didn’t go back to school until she was 40. She was a mother of 3 and her work paid for her to go back to school and get her teaching credential.

After receiving her credential, she thought about teaching, but she wanted to have flexibility because her kids were still living in the home. She has been substitute teaching for the last 18 years.

Getting a Degree

Going back to school when she was older helped her stay focused. She had to balance home life with her family.

She was able to take a lot of day classes, but there was still some overlap between school and family life.

Substitute Experience

Arlene has worked in many different school districts with different socioeconomic levels. The difference in the schools was based on the economic background of the children attending there.

At some schools, 99% of the children received free lunch. There was a difference between the children who had the parental support and those who didn’t.

Teachers Set Up Substitutes for Success

In the classrooms, you can tell when a teacher has control of a classroom. The kids are polite and respectful and know what the rules are. Other classes are utter chaos.

Sometimes teachers will tell the students that if they get a bad report from the substitute, they will have a worse consequence than if the teacher had been there. It helps when teachers show the students that they need to respect the sub.

Many teachers have a reward system, such as candy.

Some teachers do Dojo points or a little ticket for a drawing.

Students sometimes need a little extra incentive to help them get back on task. It helps to talk about good behavior rather than focusing on poor behavior.

Another reward system is as simple as using praise to help children know when they are doing a good job.

One long term substitute used a clicker. When he saw kids that were on task, he would walk by and click. It worked! The kids were motivated by it and it helped them do what they need to do.

Another way is to walk around and say, “I love how Luke is reading and has his book open,” and pointing out and rewarding good behavior. Notice what kids are doing right.

Parents Can Help Too

Children who come to school with homework completed or with homework signed, those students do so much better in class because they know what’s expected.

I know we try to teach children that it’s their responsibility to get things done, but when children are young, parents need to see what the homework is and if they are getting it done.

If the parents don’t know, then the kids aren’t doing it and they aren’t prepared for class.

Connect with the Class

“With lower grades,” says Arlene, “I show them pictures of my kids and grandkids. I tell them about my family so that they can see I’m a human being.

My sons are 6’10” and kids are fascinated by that. I’ll say, ‘I’ve taught my kids to be respectful and I expect you to be respectful also.’ Later through the day, they remember that.

I want the children to realize that I’m human and I’m there to help them with the day.

I want them to know that I’m there to accomplish what the teacher has laid out to accomplish and together we can have a great day.”

What do you know now, after 18 years of subbing, that you wish you would have known when you started?

Arlene says:

You have to have control of the classroom. I wish I would have known a few tactics to get control of the classroom. If you can’t teach it becomes a wasted day for the students.

When it gets loud, I like to turn off the lights, or clap in a rhythm. Little things like that help you get control of the classroom.

For teachers, it’s so important that they have thorough lesson plans.

Include the little things, like where substitutes are supposed to be and let them know what’s expected. That is so appreciated!

When teachers leave the answer key, that really helps substitutes and they can help grade the papers.

I love substituting and the flexibility. Some people get scared because you don’t know what the class is going to be like until you get there, but for the most part, it turns out great.

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