In the Classroom

Easy Classroom Management for Substitute Teachers in the 21st-Century

If you have ever subbed, you know that classroom management for substitute teachers can be a struggle. Your management style may be completely different than that of the classroom teacher, you might not know any of the students, and there’s nothing worse than hearing, “Yes! We have a sub!” from that kid that you already know is going to give you a hard time.

This is why it is important to have a plan for classroom management for substitute teachers, whether you’re the sub or the classroom teacher preparing for one. Let’s take a look at some effective classroom management ideas for substitute teachers.

If You’re the Substitute…

1) Admit to your students you need their help.

It may sound silly, but it always helps to be upfront with students about the fact that although you’ve had experience filling in before, this is new territory for you. It also sets the tone that you’re not here to be the “bad guy” and instead need their help teaching. This classroom management for substitute teachers technique works better than bursting in and pretending that you know everything. It’s okay to not.

2) Set clear limits from the beginning.

You have a limited amount of time, so it’s important to establish boundaries early on in order to get your students back on task quickly and efficiently before they take advantage of you. Once you’ve made it clear to your class that they can’t talk while you’re trying to teach, and there will be consequences if they do not follow the rules, they will be more likely to listen.

3) Be prepared with a plan B for when things don’t go as planned.

Kids may not always respond quickly or in the way that you want them to in your classroom management for substitute teachers planning, and that’s okay. You need to be ready for this. Plan B could be anything from sitting the student in question out of your lesson (if they’re not listening or getting along with others) to asking another student for help (if they’re struggling). In terms of classroom management for substitute teachers, this might need to be built as you go along, and that’s okay.

4) Give students choice.

Choice keeps kids engaged. It lets them know that you’re not just there to use them as robots, and they aren’t just there for your benefit – you both have the opportunity to learn. For example, after checking their homework, instead of saying “Okay, today we are going to do math”, say “Today we are doing Number Sense practice. Would anyone like to play the game or do the worksheet?”

Although it may seem like an unnecessary step, asking students gives them a feeling of ownership and allows you to get what needs to get done more quickly, and really works in terms of classroom management for substitute teachers.

5) Be flexible with your time frame.

If students are on-task and following rules, don’t let yourself get flustered if you’re finished early. Instead, let students know that you have some extra time at the end of your lesson if they still need help. This also gives you the opportunity to find out what they personally need more work on so next time you can plan accordingly. A good rule of thumb in terms of classroom management for substitute teachers is to have some “early finisher” activities that you bring with you “just in case”.

Easy Classroom Management for Substitute Teachers in the 21st-Century

If You’re Preparing for a Substitute…

1) Talk about classroom management strategies with your substitute.

This is important in the same way it’s helpful when you’re talking to teachers about lesson plans – you want them to know exactly what they are supposed to do so there isn’t any confusion. After all, if they get one student out of their seat and encourage another student to join them, chaos will ensue very quickly. Help them with their classroom management for substitute teachers planning if possible.

2) Give them a list of student routines and procedures.

The more information your substitute has about your students, the more likely they will be able to get through an entire day without too many problems. Routines help students know what is expected of them and give substitutes a clear guide for how they should, such as handle certain behaviors. Procedures for certain tasks, like passing papers to the front of the class or transitioning between activities, also reduce the chances of problem behaviors.

3) Talk about your classroom management philosophy.

At its core, this is really just making sure that your substitute knows how you would handle things if you were there – what are some appropriate consequences for common behaviors? What are some important rules your students need to follow? How should they handle different situations? You want them to feel comfortable coming to you with questions, so giving them a general idea of how you would do things can help avoid confusion and truly help with their classroom management for substitute teachers’ planning.

4) Include emergency contact information.

You don’t want substitutes having to call the school office for “what to do in case of a fire” – that’s their job! In addition, you also don’t want to get a phone call from the office because your substitute didn’t know how to handle a situation. When looking at preparing for classroom management for substitute teachers, this is something to always remember.

5) Be understanding.

As mentioned before, it takes time for people to adjust and get used to new environments. Your substitute may not have experience with classroom management or they may be shy and struggle to speak out. It’s important to give them the benefit of the doubt whenever possible, but also let them know if there is something they aren’t doing that you would expect them to, like calling students by name or having students stay in their seats during independent work time.

Emergency Classroom Management for Substitute Teachers

Sometimes a teacher will get “thrown” into a classroom without much notice, on behalf of the sub or the classroom teacher. Then what?

How do you prepare classroom management for substitute teachers when no party knows this will be an option?

Best case scenario? The students are fully aware of the situation and are doing their part to make things run smoothly.

Worst case? It’s quickly apparent that the room is messy, on-task students are scarce, and that you don’t know the names of any of your students. You didn’t expect to be there in the first place! What do you do? How can you manage the class effectively without making things worse? Here are some suggestions for how to handle these situations:

1. Take control immediately.

Don’t wait for students to start behaving as your classroom management for substitute teachers plan. Ask them to sit down and let them know you’ll be taking attendance (if they don’t already know) and other vital information. Make sure everyone is at their desk, where they are supposed to be before you get started. If there’s a mess, put it away. If students are talking, get their attention by raising your voice (in a firm yet friendly way) or telling them to stop talking. Show them that you mean business by standing up and getting eye-level with the class.

2. Get everyone involved in some kind of seatwork right away, even if it’s something very short like solving a math problem on the board.

This doesn’t have to be the end-all-be-all of what you’re doing in the classroom, but it will give a moment to get everyone organized. It’s also a chance for you to see what you have to work with and what the best plan of attack will be for both classroom management and schoolwork completion. In your classroom management for substitute teachers plan, this is key.

3. Later on, ask for volunteers to share what they’ve been working on or bring small groups of students up to show their work or tell you about it.

This is not only a great way to be interactive, but it also adds an element of classroom buy-in. In the younger grades, the other students will want to participate and “vie” for your attention into their work. In the older grades, they won’t want to be the odd man out when others are showcasing their work.

4. If possible, find out if the teacher has any individual routines (like with seating charts) that they would like you to follow. If not, then just listen to the students and go with the flow.

Always check for what the teacher has left first because we know that kids will be kids. When the cat is away, the mice will play as the saying goes. If you legitimately can’t find anything that the teacher has left, then listen to what the students have to say and come up with a plan that seems legitimate and will work for all in the classroom on that day. Classroom management for substitute teachers is sometimes figured out on the fly, and that’s okay.

5. Above all else, keep your cool! Kids can sense when a substitute is anxious about being there. The whole class will be more likely to cooperate if they know you’re going to be calm throughout the day.

Honestly, asking the students for help can not only calm your nerves about the situation but will also have the opportunity to have some of them feel like they are being useful in the classroom. I have even found that calling for assistance from some of the kids who look like they may be a bit of a handful is good classroom management for substitute teachers technique because it takes them out of what is normal for them (as long as it’s obvious they’re not sending you on some crazy wild-goose chase to get a chuckle out of their friends and a rise out of you).

6. If you have trouble getting students to settle down or pay attention, you can even give them a “break” by letting them work in pairs for a couple of minutes.

Brain breaks do wonders. Take note of what age level you are working with and have a toolbox of ideas that you can use to implement brain breaks as necessary. These can be to energize or to calm, but you do want to make sure that no matter what you choose, it is age-appropriate. There is nothing that will turn off a group of students quicker than an activity that is either way above their head or seems too childish to them.

7. If you have trouble with behavior management later on in the day, you’ll just have to deal with it as best you can. Monitoring your own behavior is important because kids will imitate how you act and react.

This is another opportunity to try a brain break, but once the end of the day comes, you might just have to grin and bear it. Make sure you take note of any students who are giving you long-term headaches so the teacher can take any action that he or she deems necessary upon their return. This is also key to remember in classroom management for substitute teachers’ planning.

Substitute Teaching Advice for Current Teachers

As a teacher, you might be called upon to sub every now and then yourself.

The following substitute teaching advice for teachers will help you understand what students are going through when they have a substitute in the classroom.

If you try to be the “perfect” teacher during your own substituting experiences, it can be difficult to realize how frustrating it must be for your students when they have someone else in charge.

One thing to keep in mind is that it may be difficult for them to learn from you if you are too strict. This isn’t good classroom management for substitute teachers’ strategy.

If the students aren’t obeying your rules or directions, then let them know that they can earn back some of your respect by getting back on track.

Remember, you’re not just teaching them how to behave in class; you’re also teaching them how to work with someone who doesn’t know their routines yet.

The Most Important Thing to Remember as a Substitute Teacher

The most important thing to remember in terms of classroom management for substitute teachers is that you are in charge.

Remember: the school and the administration support you and expect you to maintain discipline, even when you’re not fully prepared or don’t know all of the policies or routines.

As daunting as this may seem, it really is possible to get your students on board and you don’t have to be mean, demeaning, or authoritarian to do so.

Do your best to model positive behaviors and the expectations you have for your class.

If students aren’t listening when you call their name, ask them to put their hand up so they can hear you better. After that, be sure to call on the students by name.

You may also want to have each student write their own name on a piece of paper so they can refer to it when you are calling on them, especially if calling their names is difficult for some reason.

If you have trouble getting students’ attention after that, then you might suggest standing up when they are supposed to be listening so that they can see you better.

As a substitute teacher, you can help students learn how to work with different teachers and leaders by modeling good behavior yourself.

This is something that will be especially important if you’re subbing for someone they know well, like their first-grade teacher or coach, who they’ll need to respect even when it’s not their teacher in charge.

If the students are misbehaving, then it’s best not to react right away. Instead, just explain that they can earn back your respect by getting on track.

For example, you might let them know that once they raise their hands before talking instead of blurting out answers to questions, then they’ll earn the right to sit down.

This way, you can teach students that they need to respect authority and follow directions in order to get what they want.

Keeping this in mind will help your students learn how to behave in class and interact effectively with their own teachers once you’re gone for the day. When students don’t know how to do a problem, give them steps and remember to include the answer in your explanation (make sure you’re not giving away the answer though!).

If students appear confused by something, ask if anyone can help them understand.

Offer meaningful praise when you notice good behavior or hard work.

At the end of the day, be sure to let students know what they can do to make your subbing experience better next time. The more specific you are, the more helpful it will be.

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After moving from a teacher-dominated classroom to a truly student-centered one, Jenn found herself helping colleagues who wanted to follow her lead.  In 2018 she decided to expand outside of her school walls and help those out there who were also trying to figure out this fantastic method of instruction to ignite intrinsic motivation in their students.  Read more about her journey with Student-Centered World at

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