Catechist Chat: Substitute Survival Skills

Sometimes, as educators, we have to do things that make us uncomfortable. Set aside our nervousness, our need for control, our desire for a safe and predictable outcome.

In other words, we have to substitute teach.

I remember when I was in Teacher Grad School, and our professor was giving us all sorts of helpful tips for managing behavior, planning engaging lessons, etc. I raised my hand and asked, “Do you have any specific for suggestions for being a substitute teacher?”

She looked me straight in the eye: “Never sub.”

I have a friend who is a permanent substitute teacher for a small school district, and she’s terrific at it. She has an easy rapport with the students, she gets them to do their work, and she has fun with it all. She enjoys the unpredictability of getting to visit a new classroom every day and she thrives on the challenge.

I couldn’t do it. I get so nervous when I’m subbing, EVEN if the students are MY OWN STUDENTS. At one school, we all covered one another’s classes during our planning periods when needed, because there was no budget for substitute teachers. So occasionally I’d be monitoring a room full of students I’d just seen for 55 minutes in my own classroom. I *still* felt apprehensive. I just like to have a plan, going in.

(I also have to say that it was far more often the reverse – my fellow teachers having to cover my classes – because I was both pregnant and migraine-attacky all year long. I still owe them my appreciation and probably a batch of cookies.)

It’s probably my perfectionism that makes it so stressful for me, and I’ve certainly gotten more laid-back about it. (Here I do not mean “perfectionism” as code for “it’s because I’m so awesome.” It means “I labor over minute details that are irrelevant to the big picture.”) I’ve also learned a few things along the way:

1. Try to learn the kids’ names. You won’t get it right. They know that. Show some effort. I like to repeat the students’ names one after the other, then keep starting at the beginning. “Carlos. Carlos, Amanda. Carlos, Amanda, Mikayla. Lawrence.” Even though you’re just going to be there for one day or one hour, making the effort gets things off to the right start. Use humor. If you don’t know a student’s name, make up a ridiculous name from the planet Randomia. Look the child in the eyes as you attempt to remember his/her name. It helps.

2. Break the ice. Amanda Brunet at Suite101 provides some clever ideas for getting to know your students as a substitute teacher. I particularly liked this one:

Unique Quirks
At the beginning of class, the substitute teacher can ask each student to write down something unique about himself on a small piece of paper. Subs can provide their own personal examples such as: “I like to eat pickles and peanut butter” or “I have sky dived three times”.

Teachers then collect the pieces of paper and place them in a hat. Throughout the class time, the sub can pull out each piece of paper and read it out loud. Students should guess which unique quirk belongs to each classmate.

The suggestion to space this activity out over the course of a class period is great, as it helps you dangle a carrot in front of the class periodically to remind them “okay, let’s stay on task for another ten minutes and then we’ll try to guess some more of the quirks!” You would, of course, want to make sure you read through all of them in advance yourself…especially if you’re teaching middle schoolers.

3. Follow the lesson plan. Sometimes, you’re subbing because the teacher suddenly collapsed in the break room with chills and fever, and the lesson plan is “I don’t know, because she was going to write the lesson plan for today during her lunch break but then she started to feel nauseated.” Fair enough – we’ll come back to that. But often, there’s at least some semblance of a lesson plan. Follow it, and don’t make comments about the caliber of what they’ve been assigned.

4. Be ready for the unexpected. Perhaps there is no lesson plan.

Bring a book to read aloud to the students – something with lots of voices and action, that will hold their attention.

Take a set of logic problems – most kids enjoy these (along the lines of “There is a room with no doors, no windows, nothing and a man is hung from the ceiling and a puddle of water is on the floor. How did he die?”) and they can easily be turned into a class discussion activity with students raising their hands to make guesses.

Have some kind of prizes/rewards handy. I have lamed out on this the last few times I’ve subbed, and resorted to giving quarters to the winning team in Jeopardy. It was ridiculous, and yet – they were motivated. (Stickers are a perfectly adequate reward.) (I also promise them “thirty thousand imaginary dollars” in instances where I am truly unprepared to give any semblance of a reward.)

5. If it’s not working, change the plan. Last week, I tried to do a game of Make Your Own Bingo as a review with a class of second-graders. They were very excited about it, but I realized that I hadn’t allowed enough time. They were still painstakingly writing words from the chalkboard on their papers when I decided to scrap that plan. They…were displeased.

You can go with this, or you can go with thatSo I stood them all up and announced we were going to play a game called “This Way, That Way.” An awesome, incredible game that I…would make up on the spot. Awesome.

“I’m going to give you a clue and two possible answers. You stand on the side of the room you think is the right answer. Ready?” (It helped that this classroom had a large open space up front with a rug.)

“This word means the special super-food for your soul that you receive through the Sacraments. If you think the answer is ‘grace,’ go stand over here. If you think it’s ‘Psalms,’ go stand over here.” Patter of little feet, keep it moving, keep it moving. We went through 20 vocabulary words in five minutes. Was it the most in-depth, profound review experience of their young lives? No. Did thy pay attention? Did we salvage those last 10 minutes of class? Yes.

So – how about you? Do you like subbing? Fear subbing? Got any good tips?

  • William O’Leary


    I love this…great post!

  • Christian

    Never subbed…but doing a catechetical sub gig sounds like an adventure.

  • Jennifer Fitz

    Great post. I haven’t subbed in a while. But I just come in ready to teach, as if it were my own class. I have great sympathy for professional subs in the schools, who are often not in a position to be able to teach the subject they are subbing for. But in catechism class, it’s pretty easy to just come up with a lesson if you are yourself a catechist.

    –> But when I’ve lined up subs who aren’t proficient teachers, what I do is set up a worksheet-based activity that teaches the lesson. Something that any parent or high school student can figure out how to do, and just follow the instructions and work through it with the class, wandering from table to table. And then a pile of crossword puzzles and stuff for kids who finish early and need something to do. [I keep stacks of Saint Bingo cards on my shelves, too.]

    We have a pile of reproducible RE-activity books in one of our classrooms, and I can usually find an activity in their that goes with the chapter in the book, if the teacher’s manual doesn’t have something suitable. Our teacher’s manual also has some good-any-time activity pages that can be used whenever you need a generic lesson.