Growing up, my peers and I always associated substitute teachers with having a laid-back and easy day. Having an alternative teacher was an opportunity to act as if we didn’t have any “home training,” as my 3rd grade teacher would’ve said. I had never reflected with any real effort on just how poorly substitute teachers get treated until I became one in 2022.
Earlier last year, I woke up at 3 o’clock in the morning and found myself scrolling on the internet. I came across an article in my local newspaper about teacher shortages. Hoping that I could do some good, I applied to well over a dozen substitute teaching positions that very morning.
I heard back from one private middle school almost the next day and had an interview within the week where I toured the grounds with the principal and even met a few staff members. My initial feeling was warm and fuzzy.
My first substitute assignment was a three-week stint to cover for a vacationing social studies teacher who taught every grade at the middle school. The teacher’s preparation for his absence was complete with Google docs, printable assignments, resources, videos, textbooks, teachers’ textbooks, and answer keys. Chef’s kiss! I administered every assignment, reading, test, and quiz while in the three-week role for social studies. It was a substitute teacher’s dream.
Everything was going smoothly until at the end of my first week when another teacher at the same school set to come back from maternity leave tendered her resignation. The school administration and staff appeared sympathetic to the teacher, but they weren’t prepared for it. Everyone was scrambling.
The school offered me a long-term position as an English teacher that would extend until the end of the school year, and I accepted it with some reluctance about the change in plans. Things quickly became a lot less warm and fuzzy. The differences in the preparation for my planned three-week social studies stint with my new English posting were vast. The social studies teacher had included clear, time-appropriate, and thorough lesson plans outlined with class dates, and I had even been able to shadow him in the classroom for three days before taking over.
But that wasn’t the case with this new, long-term position. I appreciate that teachers face emergencies, get sick unexpectedly, or have extended caretaking responsibilities. But my lack of proper preparation from the school for this position began to affect my ability to be effective in my new role, or at least as effective as I had hoped to be. Even more difficult than trying to teach my class without the appropriate materials and preparation was the lack of support I received from my new colleagues at the school.
Sure, it might have been nice to be met with a welcome fruit basket or some other token of appreciation, but even better would have been an updated school handbook, timely access to pertinent documents, lesson plans, and other instructional resources. The most I got was being added to a group chat that teachers mostly used to ask for bathroom breaks. (It was nice to have bathroom breaks.)
Substitute teachers need proper reception, training, respect, and preparation with a capital P.
I also bore the brunt of short fuses, blameful tones, and just good old-fashioned tiredness from both students and staff—all while still trying to learn exactly how to be a good first-time substitute teacher in the first place. Obviously outright bullying is never acceptable. But even smaller and more subtle actions can have an effect on morale, especially for those acclimating to a new position. Like the tone of an email. Or the way we remind someone of a task due. It’s often not what we say but how we say it that matters.
Shouldn’t school staff just plain be kind to one another? It’s easy to undervalue a job that still reminds many of us of TVs strapped down on metal carts by a woven strap and VHS players (do those still exist?), but substitute teachers shouldn’t be punching bags for existing frustrations and bubbling tensions. After just a few weeks, I was so tired of feeling disrespected that I resigned.
To support the success of a substitute teacher, I urge full-time teachers to organize materials, lesson plans, and other resources before you need to take time off. Labeling work materials and any other visuals in the room will help your substitutes find what they need. Make sure to include the class schedule, any rules that are specific to your classroom, and the disciplinary consequences for students who don’t follow them.
It is also important to set clear expectations with your students for how they behave. Communicate those expectations clearly in a class email or on a sheet of paper placed in an obvious area in the classroom, where both the substitute and students can refer to them.
It’s also helpful to let your substitute know which students need extra help or closer attention.
Finally, don’t forget to welcome your substitute. Leaving a friendly welcome note or a brief introduction about your class can help the substitute get acclimated more quickly. This can also help set the tone for the first day and subsequent ones. Make sure to include contact information if you’re available to answer any questions during your absence.
With proper preparation and support from the administration, the substitute will be more effective and the students better able to learn.
Substitute teachers usually come into schools to fill an immediate and pressing need. They’re usually people who have time to spend and energy to give—skilled professionals in our own fields, retirees, or just naturally helpful humans. Whatever our background as substitutes, we’re all deserving of appreciation for the classroom roles we fill, whether it’s for a day, three weeks, or a year.
Substitute teachers need proper reception, training, respect, and preparation with a capital P. Maybe skip the fruit basket and start with a well-stocked Google drive full of assignments. At the very least, save a simple “thank you” for the next time you see your favorite sub.
A version of this article appeared in the March 15, 2023 edition of Education Week as Substitute Teachers Shouldn’t Be Punching Bags