7 Classroom Management Secrets for Substitutes | Teach 4 the Heart

7 Classroom Management Secrets for Substitutes

Substitutes, I don’t have to tell you that you have a unique and challenging job, especially when it comes to classroom management.

I reader recently emailed with a great question: “How do I get students to realize they need to follow instructions even though I am ‘just a sub’?”

Great question. One that, to be honest, I didn’t feel completely qualified to answer, having not had much experience as a sub myself.

So I put it out to my Facebook group (which is amazing, by the way, and you can request to join here). And they didn’t disappoint. Here’s some of the great advice from substitute teachers (and some of my own advice sprinkled in).

Classroom management tips for substitute teachers

Classroom Management Tips for Substitute Teachers

  1. Don’t ever view yourself as “just the sub.” The students might imagine this is a free day, but that should never be our point of view. We’ve got to have high expectations and a definite goal of helping these students actually learn something new. If we expect things to go poorly, there’s about a 99.999% chance that they will.

    Chris C. always starts off by saying, “Your teacher called me because she said you were the best class, and I am the best substitute. That means we have lots of great learning to do.” 
  1. Always be armed with extra activities. If the teacher doesn’t have an activity to start class, have one ready to go. That will give you time to get adjusted and should provide a less-chaotic start to the class (See my post “how to start class without the chaos” for more details.) Extra activities are also great in case students finish early and become disruptive.
  2. Learn their names as fast as you can. Start memorizing their names while you take attendance – the “good” kids as well as the challenging ones. This builds relationships and helps you accurately report problems to the teacher.  – Laura T.
  1. Let them know your expectations. Tell them you are a guest teacher and explain what you want from them.  – Patricia D.
  1. Deal with the very first problems. Explaining your expectations is an important first step, but you’ve got to follow through. The first time someone is disruptive, you need to kindly say something, even if it’s simply, “Natalie, please remember to raise your hand for permission to speak.”  
  1. Identify a “helpful student” and ask them about procedures. If possible, ask the teacher ahead of time for the name of a helpful student. If they don’t provide one, try to identify one by asking a question about a procedure and seeing who volunteers an answer (and seems trustworthy). When you’re not sure how you should handle a procedure, quietly ask that student (when the rest of the class is doing something else), “When do you guys normally take a restroom break?” etc.
  1. Learn & adapt standard classroom management techniques. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking “I can’t do that because I’m a sub.” Most classroom management techniques work across the board or can be adapted to work for relief teachers. You can sign up for my free classroom management minicourse or check out some of my recent classroom management articles.

Substitute teachers, we’d love to hear from you. What else helps you gain & keep your students’ attention?



Linda Kardamis

I believe that when God calls us to teach, He promises the strength & wisdom to do it well. All we need to do is keep learning, growing, and depending on Him. I'm here to provide practical advice and Biblical encouragement so you'll have the confidence and perspective to not only inspire your students but reach their hearts as well.

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Kelsey Cunningham - November 6, 2015

I play a particular game with elementary-aged students throughout the day. It’s really simple and takes no prep, but kids go crazy over it and always want to participate.

I call it “Thumbs Up, Thumbs Down” and it’s really just a take on Two Truths & A Lie. Basically I tell the kids three facts about myself, and after each one they have to guess whether it’s a “thumbs up” (I’m telling the truth) or a “thumbs down” (I’m telling a lie). They do the corresponding action, which conveniently means they don’t need to talk to play the game! After I model it, I pick a few kids to have a turn talking. I usually ask them to do two statements each (any longer and their classmates start losing focus).

How this helps with classroom management: If the kids take to the game (and they usually do), I string reminders throughout the day that I’m only picking well-behaved, polite students to take a turn at the game. Individual kids will often come up to me and ask, “Mrs. C, can I be the next person to play Thumbs Up, Thumbs Down?” and that gives me an authentic, organic opportunity to be able to discuss their behaviour with them.

Anonymous - January 23, 2016

I think these are great steps to take. I need to remember to stay positive from the start and make my expectations clear for the students.

Sparrow - February 14, 2016

My best advice to a substitute teacher is don’t even sit at the desk. You have to earn the students’ respect. Put your track shoes on and circulate helping the kids and prompting them to do their best. Physical Proximity

Jen - February 15, 2016

I don’t refer to myself as “the substitute” – when I introduce myself, I tell the students, “I’m your teacher today.” Even in elementary school (where I usually sub), I think that helps set the students’ expectations (I have had students try the, “You’re not my real teacher; you’re just a sub” line even in younger grades). I also remind them right off the bat that I might do things a bit differently than their regular teacher, and from the very first make it clear that I’m the one in charge of the classroom. Younger kids especially are burning to be helpful, and if you aren’t quick to nip this in the bud, you’ll have half the class arguing with you about how their teacher normally does it, and often all talking at once to do it.

I always try to get into my classroom as early as possible to review the lesson plans. The more familiar you are with the day’s schedule and lessons, the more confident you will be in front of the class. I’ve found the more confident that I am (or am able to pretend to be, in cases where I’m having to wing it!) the more likely the kids are to listen and follow my directions.

Sarah - March 19, 2016

In middle school, I find that if you’re given an activity for the day ask them to do it independently and quietly for 5-10 minutes. If they can pull that off they’re usually good to work in groups/partners and can handle more privileges.

When subbing in high school (where I’m usually at) make sure you keep the line of friendly/professional clear. Some students intentionally ask a bunch of personal questions or plead with you to ~be cool~ in order to distract you from the task at hand. Whether a teenager thinks your cool or not doesn’t really factor much into whether they’ll listen to you or not.

Also be sure to keep your own cool. Some students love to antagonize in order to get a sub’s goat. Do not get into a play for dominance and avoid appearing angry. This is what the student wants. Simply explain the infraction and rules calmly and offer them options. “You can put the cell phone on my desk or you can go the office.” “You can focus on your work or you’ll be moved from your group.”

Though I think the most important thing as a Sub (or teacher in general) is to have a sense of humor! It’ll keep you sane during the rough days and it’ll help you relate to the class clowns in a good way!

    Adria Gullickosn - September 27, 2017


    I have just subbed my first few high school classes and am looking for ways to help manage the classes. For the most part I have been successful in starting the class by introducing myself, laying out the expectations and providing clear directions for their assignments. I then walk around the class to see who needs help.

    In one of my last classes I had a really hard time from the onset. The students were coming into the class and would not quiet down. They were so loud and would not even take a break for me to introduce myself. I tried using my outside voice to get their attention to introduce myself, but to no avail. I was doomed…. The Discipline Dean had to come into the room to get it under control. I felt like a failure.

    I have bought a bell that might help and plan to use that to get the attention next time, but what else might you suggest. I am having a hard time with finding substitute classroom management for high school students. I have not found that this school has put any sort of rewards / discipline systems in place and was thinking about bringing some sort of reward in for positive students.

    What are your thoughts?


    Adria G.

      Vicki Ryan - December 5, 2017

      I would like to know how to handle this too. I have had the same issues with students cussing, yelling, throwing things around the room etc. The noise level was so loud we didn’t hear the fire bell go off. I had the principal come in the room many times through out the day. The students and principal said this was a normal day for them. That was the second class at the same school like that. I won’t go back to that school.

        Nerttie - November 1, 2018

        Vicki – AGREED. Sadly this has happened to me too, recently. There are 2 elementary schools I will not work at any more, because of the behavior. It’s plain ridiculous.

charlie rose - September 26, 2016

When students, most, see a sub come in, they have it in their minds already that “it is party time,” and most things you try won’t reverse that biased.

Jo - November 10, 2017

Sometimes it doesn’t seem to matter how many of these great classroom management ideas I use. There are just groups that are going to be “that class”. Worst day ever was when a student that wasn’t even in my class walked in, ignored requests to leave, and started a fist fight with a student in my class. I went home and cried, and it took every bit of mental strength in me to get up and go sub at the same school the next day. It’s a very rough middle school.

    Linda Kardamis - November 10, 2017

    That’s super tough. Yes, all you can do is your best. So focus on doing that and try not to let the bad days bother you too much.

Mrs. R - December 3, 2017

I guest teach lower elementary usually. I always remind my kids that today somethings will be the same and somethings will be different. And that is ok. Also when ever I talk to child, one to one, I get down to their level and I make eye contact. I always look for opportunities to remind them that they are filled with all kinds of “Awesomeness”. And they need to share it. When a child makes a poor decision, then I just remind them that when they make decisions like that, it distracts from their awesomeness. I tell them I can still see it, but it is harder for others to see it. I sometimes will ask them to take a quiet moment to think about how they can make better choices. I remind them that I want them to shine but not to cast shadows on others. This always seems to work.

Christine - April 14, 2018

I have been subbing or guest teaching over the last year. I always introduce myself and let the students know that I have over 20 some years of experience and in many grades so I have seen the behavior that they will try to get away with. I also let them know that I will follow the teacher’s set rules and that I will not be changing them for one day IE, bathroom breaks, snack time, water bottles. I do tell them that I will follow what has been written down and if I don’t have any notification that it most likely will not be done or allowed. I have also told every class that I have not left any “bad” notes this year and I would hate to have their classroom be the first. It usually makes them change the path that they are thinking about taking. I do tell them that I love leaving positive notes and encourage the teacher to reward the class as a whole because of the great day we had together. At the end of the day I will ask them to rate their behavior on a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 being the best. They need to compare themselves to how they would be with their regular teacher. They can be much more critical than I would be. I expect students to try to get away with some things as they wouldn’t with their regular teacher and give them some slack for this.

Dervis Tippen - September 22, 2018

I am a retired teacher and I have written a book about one day in the life of a substitute teacher. The book is entitled “GOOD MORNING CLASS.” It is interesting, informative, and can be helpful to all teachers.

Mrs. B - September 29, 2018

After 15 years of teaching high school Sped reading classes, I retired and moved to Oahu, Hi. I know, you are saying lucky lady, but Sped teachers can go anywhere with some extra perks! In Hawaii, I chose to guest teach at the elementary level. The children are awesome and California “touching ” issues. The are full inclusion, a regular AND a Sped teacher in each room, Awesome!
However, due to family issues in .CA, we had to returned to the mainland…temporarily. I started guest teaching here, what a nightmare! High school kids here ( where I am) are loud ,rude and disrespectful! I love it when the techer leaves a note saying …just write down the names and they’ll get after school work. No one sits in assigned seats and no one is going to give you their own name. It would be wonderful if teachers would give enough work to engage the class for 2 days, and make it count! Cell phones should be banned at school, that would be a BIG HELP. Thanks for letting me vent, hard for non teachers to relate 🙃

Ann Marie - October 18, 2018

I guest teach in elementary schools in FL, primarily in Title I schools in a low income area. I have a natural connection with young children and I enjoy teaching.

For every assignment, I dress professionally and arrive early with my sub kit, a positive attitude, a friendly greeting and introduction, learn the students’ names quickly, have several classroom management strategies at hand and…many times, none of that matters.

Some days are good but most of the time, all of my planning, preparation and intent to follow the regular teacher’s lesson plans go out the window because it’s party time. I spend most of the day managing chaos. Even after going over the class rules and explaining that we will follow the teacher’s plan and I will leave a note on how the day went, a lot of students choose to do their own thing. They talk when I’m talking, tattle on each other, fall out of their chairs, rush me with questions, randomly leave their desks, refuse to follow directions, etc. The actual amount of learning time we achieve is minimal. That bothers me because I do not sub to be a glorified babysitter. I want students to learn and I strive to make the most out of the school day.

Typically, I build in little breaks and try to allow a little slack because kids will take advantage of having a sub. I walk around the room continually, helping students and using proximity to manage behavior. I avoid yelling and I try to remain calm and cool while attempting to refocus students and keep them on task.

I do my best but many is the time I go home feeling like a failure because I had to send students to another classroom or another teacher stepped in to try to regain control of the class or I had to leave a negative note for any reason. It would be nice to just enjoy the day with the students and make a positive impact on them. Instead, I feel like it’s a matter of surviving the day and that life is too short for that kind of punishment, especially for low pay and no benefits.

Nettie - November 1, 2018

I started subbing this August, so it hasn’t been very long per say. But already I will not return to two elementary schools because the behavior is so awful. The 3rd grades on up are mouthy, loud, disrespectful, and disruptive, even with their regular teachers. It’s ridiculous. I don’t know if this grounds from the home life, or on the playground with other kids. I am not a screamer, and will not holler or loud talk at the students all day. That’s too much on the stress to deal with.
If anyone has any extra pointers for handling disruptive behavior with the 3rd grades and older, by all means … thank you. 🙂

sharon lee - November 2, 2018

I too am at a loss when the students simply will not listen. When another teacher or disciplinarian walks in they are silent, this makes me feel like I a total failure and extremely disrespected. I refuse to scream at the top of my lungs as I feel that teaches them you only respond when the yelling gets to a certain decibel. Should I simply quit? I feel I am bad for the school in that the students are out of control when I am in charge.

    Alexx Seipp - November 3, 2018

    Have you tried implementing any of these strategies? Have you checked out the podcast? We have a whole season about Classroom Management.

    Ramona Pack - November 7, 2018

    I think it takes trying a process of elimination. I had several groups in one day (freshmen) who were unruly and would not listen. The best strategy seemed to be quietly going around to those who WERE WORKING and asking for their names, writing the names down as positive reinforcement and letting the ones who were not working deal with the fact that they were not on that list. I then asked the ones I had not put on the list yet to return to their task as I passed them. Substitute teaching has definitely been a challenge regardless of which grade I am working with.

    Nettie - November 19, 2018

    It’s just plain ridiculous that a teacher or interventionist/disciplinarian has to step inside to help get the students situated. I never feel like a total failure with this, but completely irritated. And the staff realizes the class will only return to disorderly after they leave. My worst two have been 2nd and 3rd grades, of 4-5 staff intervening during the 2nd and 3rd hours. I have been released early from two jobs because the classes went out of control even with the staff involved. My health couldn’t take it.

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