Spotlight! This Book Reveals What Makes a Sub Successful

What makes a successful substitute? As long-time educators and administrators, we both were curious about the difference between a successful substitute and one who struggles. After talking to many substitute teachers, it became clear they had strategies and ideas that helped them thrive in this very rewarding and challenging position. 

In fact, they not only thrive but also enjoy the job and the freedom to work when and where they want. They love children of all ages and love working in energetic school settings.

After spending time with these amazing professionals, we felt the term “substitute teacher” did not fit their role and renamed them “guest teachers.” They truly are guest teachers and keep students learning and growing as they serve in a very important role.  

In talking with these guest teachers, observing them, and working alongside them, here are some suggestions we share in our book, The Successful Substitute: How to Prepare, Grow, and Flourish as a Guest Teacher

The best guest teachers sport positive and flexible attitudes

Successful guest teachers show up with a very flexible and positive mindset. They are willing to work with a wide variety of students and personalities and find change to be their friend. Guest teachers jump in with enthusiasm and a smile.

Here are a few additional qualities we’ve observed in excellent guest teachers: 

  • Focused on growth: They are focused on growth as teachers and always pick up new ideas from other teachers and different classrooms. 
  • Forgiving: They realize students who make mistakes or act out are not “bad” but just need to be retaught how to behave. 
  • Engaging: They come to the classroom with energy and enthusiasm and engage the students in lessons and activities. Students realize quickly they are there to teach and not babysit. 
  • Respectful: They show respect to the students and ask for respect in return. 
  • Empathetic: They understand students can have off days, especially when their routine has been altered with a guest teacher. 
  • Strong communicators: They can explain lessons and directions clearly and enjoy talking to students and other staff members. 

The best guest teachers carry a professional survival kit 

Strong guest teachers always have a backup plan. They are firm believers in proactive preparation. Show them a room full of children with either no or poorly written sub plans and they not only roll with it but end up making it a great day for the students. How do they do this?  They come ready to go with a substitute survival kit. This kit (which can be a backpack or bag or electronically stored) includes some of the following items, which are all elaborated upon in our book.  

  • Teacher supplies: Pens, paper, crayons, colored pencils, tape 
  • Personal care items: Snacks and water, sunscreen, hat, jacket 
  • Read-aloud books: Numerous great read-aloud books 
  • Easy classroom games: Games that require no equipment and are simple to teach  
  • Worksheets: There are great websites that generate good time-filling activities 
  • PE game ideas: Have PE games (outdoor and indoor) ready to teach and play  

Strong guest teachers are great time fillers and add to their survival kit as they go.  

Excellent subs have the best classroom management skills 

Excellent guest teachers come with strong classroom management skills that do not include yelling at or sending students to the office on their first offense. They understand that kids are kids and they are going to make mistakes. 

“Before you can be a successful teacher, you must be a successful manager of students. This means students know you are the boss, and you know you are the boss. It also means students are truly clear about what behaviors you expect of them, which means you must be clear about how you want students to behave.” 

The Successful Substitute: How to Prepare, Grow, and Flourish as a Guest Teacher

Managing student behavior is one of the most important skills an educator needs in order to be a successful teacher—so much so that we dedicated an entire chapter in our book to this important topic.  

Connection is the greatest superpower a sub can have

The strongest guest teachers have a superpower: Connecting with students and staff at any school they are at from the day they arrive. Some ways the best teachers build connections with students quickly include: 

  • Meeting and greeting students each morning or at the beginning of each period 
  • Letting students get to know them as a person 
  • Using humor (appropriately) 
  • Acknowledging each student individually 
  • Being present in the work 
  • Using engaging transitions and routines
  • Incorporating brain breaks 
  • Creating a collaborative atmosphere 
  • Demonstrating an inclusive and respectful mindset 

These guest teachers also make an extra effort to intentionally interact with other teachers, the office staff, and other adults. These relationships help the guest teacher feel more connected to the school and help those in that school feel more comfortable and invested in the guest teacher.   

Looking for more ways to connect quickly and effectively with students? Check out our blogs, 3 Soft Tactics to Easily Motivate and Engage Students and Kicking Open the Trap Door of Student Engagement.

The best guest teachers always end the day strong 

Guest teachers end their day with purpose and intention. Once they’ve said goodbye to the students, they do not grab their keys and follow the students out. They take additional time to clean up the classroom and leave a detailed note about how the day went so the classroom teacher can start the next day with that information and follow up on anything that needs to be done.  

Once that is done, strong guest teachers head to the office to turn in the classroom key or anything else provided. They positively interact with the office staff and often compliment the office staff on what a wonderful school they have. These guest teachers also frequently leave their business cards and tell the office staff they would love to return.   

Guest teachers are a critical part of all of our schools. By providing support and training to them on an ongoing basis, we are helping our students have consistent days of education when their regular teacher is absent. We felt so passionate about their vital role in a school ecosystem that we were motivated to write a book to help these individuals continue to grow into excellent guest teachers! We love our guest teachers!  


About the authors 

Kim Bailey is former director of professional development and instructional support for the Capistrano Unified School District in California. She also served as an adjunct faculty member at Chapman University in California. Find more resources from Kim!

Kristen Nelson is an elementary school principal for the Capistrano Unified School District in California. She also serves as a college professor, leadership teacher, educational consultant, author, and leader of her district’s Spanish dual-language immersion programs.

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