Substitute Teaching Resources: Creating a Survival Kit

by KarenTBTEN

There's a lot that can go awry in a substitute teacher's day, but much of it is preventable. Sometimes it comes down to having enough glue and sharpened pencils.

Surviving and Thriving as a Substitute Teacher

No, he (or she) who brings the most stuff doesn't necessarily win... but sometimes it really does help.  There's a lot a person encounters substituting.  Sometimes there are no lesson plans, or there are big gaps in time due to cancelled assemblies or other surprises.  Often, materials run in short supply.  In many elementary classrooms, the teacher provides the pencils, and she or a designated helper sharpens them.  But there are times when the teacher has been out all week, when you walk in the room and find there are no sharpened pencils and there aren't a lot of dull ones either.  Glue sticks look plentiful... until you examine them and realize they're unusable.

Then there's the behavior.  Children may act act for any of a number of reasons.  Some are anxious, insecure, and low on trust.  Some want to test the boundaries -- or have a vacation day.  Those who haven't learned to "use their words and not their hands" are more apt to have a bad day when there aren't enough scarce resources to go around, whether it's not enough attention or not enough scissors. 

There's one tool you don't have when you walk into a classroom for the first (or only) time.  You have no relationships; you haven't had a chance to build them.  Hopefully, though, you have tools... and materials.

Substitute Teaching Resource #1: Basic Supplies

It's not an uncommon event:  There are six six-year-olds to a table, and four pairs of scissors. A child gets up for a moment.  When she sits back down, her scissors are in someone else's hand. You're busy -- or maybe she isn't big on getting help from grownups or stranger.  Maybe she shouts.  Maybe she grabs for the scissors.  At the least, there's probably a moment of commotion. At the worst, someone ends up getting slapped or hit.  Someone ends up in tears.  Someone ends up in the office.

There are a lot of situations children need to learn to handle.  Part of the curriculum of those early school years is taking care of materials and not losing them.  Another part is handling conflicts appropriately.  But it takes time, and there's not a lot of point in trying to teach those things in a day of subbing -- not if you can prevent the situations. The goal is to keep things running smoothly, and to keep little ones busy and in bright spirits. 

There are different strategies, but I find one of the easiest ones is to invest a bit of money and a bit of time beforehand:  Have a few pairs of extra scissors, a few glue sticks, some sharpened pencils, a couple of domed pencil sharpeners.

Substitute Teaching Resource #2: Activities

When All Else Fails, Stick Post-Its to the White Board

It's important to have some learning activities that can be used as fillers.  Books can be great, especially if you have a theatrical voice.  Most elementary classrooms have a classroom library, but it doesn't hurt to have a couple books with you when you are substitute teaching.  They should be tried and true, snappy and entertaining... long enough to fill up some time.  You might try the Magic School Bus or The Stories Julian Tells.

Sometimes you need something even longer, though, and something that kids can actively participate in (as opposed to just listen to).  A lot of classroom teachers do at least occasional word building activities using blackline masters -- the lessons build spelling and phonics skills. Children are given six or eight letters that, rearranged properly, make a word.  They start by making short words that use just a few of their letters.  ("Can you make 'tea'?") As they work, they try to guess what they can make with all their letters.

I wouldn't do exactly that with a class I was subbing for -- at least not using the photocopied papers and scissors.  Instead of blackline masters, I bring stick notes: 1/4 of standard size.  A table helper can pass the right number out to everyone at his table, and the children can write the letters themselves.  Standard size Post-It notes (stuck to the white board) help the children follow along. 

Resource #3: the Prize Bucket


Ideally, children are intrinsically motivated to listen, participate, and respect others.  Relying on intrinsic motivation, though, doesn't necessarily help you meet the realities of subbing. You may well want to hand out little tickets throughout the day or award table points.  It's a good idea to instruct children to sign their name as soon as they get a ticket.  This prevents theft.

An eyecatching prize basket can be do just that... catch children's eyes when you stand at the board. This is actually a gift bag in an atypical shape -- it fits easily in a laptop case. What goes good inside?  Highlighters, sparkly pencils, mechanical pencils, sticks of glitter glue... Keep your eyes out!  Walgreen's has a lot of "lost leader" sales in the late summer.

Resource #4: Your Own Small Comforts

Days vary -- tremendously.  Some days you'll find yourself with quite a bit of down time: a prep period, short recesses where you're not on duty.  Other days, you'll be running around even during your lunch.  Think about what makes the day easier on you.  You'll want a lunch that you like, but that isn't too difficult.  It can be good to invest in one of those salad containers with the different compartments and the fork that's more or less built in. You may want to have those powdered beverages in little tubes you can add to a water bottle.  If you need caffeine or magnesium some kind of joint compound to manage pain, you may want to look for it in this form.

You may also want to have your netbook, headphones or book for those days when there is a break (and no materials to prepare, copies to make, conflicts to solve, staff members to see...)

BYOBP? (Bring Your Own Bathroom Pass?)

I haven't done the bring-your-own-bathroom-pass yet, but I saw some at the dollar store and a light bulb went off.  For those times when they're supposed to have a pass... and they need a pass... but there is no pass to be found. It's hard to manage the "Who's already out of the classroom?" issue when you haven't got the names down.  And having a bag of tricks -- literally -- can send a message to children that things are in control.  And that includes the children who crave routine.

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Updated: 09/03/2011, KarenTBTEN
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ohcaroline on 09/04/2011

You have some great ideas for substitute teachers. Good job.

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