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by Tim Grivois-Shah, Ed.D., Director of Professional Learning and Community Engagement and former substitute teacher.

From time to time, teachers need to be away from their classrooms to care for their families and for themselves, to attend conferences and workshops, or to collaborate with their grade level teams. The substitute teachers who care for students when teachers need to be away are important. When schools can’t recruit enough substitute teachers, the consequences are classes being split among whole grade levels, teachers postponing medical care, and less time available for professional learning.

Last week at Edcamp Tucson, I joined a conversation with a group of substitute

Supporting Substitute Teachers
Experienced educators at Edcamp Tucson (including several current substitute teachers) discuss how to support substitute teachers

teachers. Because I, too, had been a substitute teacher, I was curious to see how their experience had affected their thoughts on teaching and learning, and if they had any ideas for how schools could help substitute teachers be more successful.

Say “Hello” and “Thank you.”

Most substitute teachers find out which school they are working at the night before. Sometimes, they find out a few hours before school starts. Frequently, substitute teachers arrive to a school for the first time and find that everyone in the school office is busy. If anyone says anything to them at all, it’s usually “Here’s the school map, and you’re going to Mr. Delgado’s classroom.”

Few people believe me when I tell them that, when I was a substitute teacher, rarely did anyone except for the students say hello. As a principal, I did my best to greet each guest teacher in my school by name and to thank them for being here. If I couldn’t greet them in the office, then I made sure to visit them in their classroom.

I encourage principals commit to greeting substitute teachers each day and for teachers to greet substitute teachers when a they know a colleague is absent. “I’m a retired teacher, so I understand that the principal is busy in the morning,” said Jose Colchado, “but if the principal were to make it a point to say ‘Thank you for being here today!’ that would send a message that what I was there to do was important.” 

Be realistic.

Most teachers leave detailed lesson plans for substitute teachers. Although substitutes preferred detailed plans, expecting substitute teachers to read over lesson plans for an entire day minutes before students arrive and then to lead a classroom as effectively as their regular teacher is rarely possible for most substitute teachers.

Miriam Pattison said, “The best teachers left me good plans and underneath wrote a note saying, ‘Do your best, and I’ll get to the rest when I get back.” Miriam and Jose suggest leaving work that students can do independently and also having several options for students who finish early to choose from.

Be organized.

Schools that are organized support substitute teachers by having lesson plans available in a consistent location. Additionally, they have someone in charge of greeting substitute teachers who can explain unexpected changes to the schedule and show them where to find the staff bathroom. 

Professional Learning Communities
When schools can retain a network of reliable substitute teachers, they open up possibilities for professional learning.

Personally, the best school I ever subbed at, was one where the principal took me to my classroom and introduced me to the teacher across the hall. That teacher already knew that she was my ‘Buddy Teacher’ and told me that she’d send a student over to remind me about an assembly happening later that day. Schools that anticipate what a substitute teacher might need to be successful were the schools that our group reported going back to over and over again.

Greeting substitute teachers when they arrive, setting realistic expectations, and being organized are low-cost, high-yield strategies that help substitute teachers to be successful. When schools create a network of reliable, skilled substitute teachers, schools cultivate a resource that allows learning to continue when teachers need to be away and creates opportunities for teachers collaborate with each other. By connecting with and supporting substitute teachers, schools increase what they are able to offer teachers, families, and children.

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