Carmen Morales is always prepared. When students see her walk into their classroom, they relax, knowing that this substitute teacher will be in control and ready to spend a productive day with them. There will be no chaos when Mrs. Morales is in charge.

Carmen keeps her “bag of tricks” packed with teaching essentials and brings it to school each day. The bag contains items that might be useful for any circumstance that she is likely to encounter.

“Are we ready for today’s spelling test?” asks Mrs. Morales in her trademark lilting voice.

A hand shoots into the air, attached to a little boy with a growing frown.

“Mrs. Morales, I can’t take the spelling test. I don’t have a pencil.” The little boy seems close to tears.

Carmen smiles in a way that shows mild disapproval (after all, the student should have a pencil) but at the same time expresses sympathy. She reaches into her bag of tricks and out comes a well-sharpened pencil.

Later in the day after recess, a student named Lily reenters the classroom with a smudge of dirt on her face. Mrs. Morales takes out a hand wipe and quietly hands it to her, maintaining her privacy and saving her from embarrassment.

Lily’s eyes widen as she wipes her face. “Wow, you have everything in there, Mrs. Morales!”

There’s a reason that the Boy Scouts adopted the motto “Be Prepared.” For a substitute teacher, nothing could be more important. In this article, I’ll discuss some of the items that should be placed in your personal “bag of tricks.”

Why Should I Bother with a Bag of Tricks?

It’s a reasonable question. After all, the classroom is full of educational materials, there will be a complete daily schedule and plan that will guide you through every minute of the day, the children will always know where things are kept, and if they don’t, a grade partner surely will. Right?

Think again. In too many cases, I’ve found that the right teaching materials may be missing or incomplete, the lesson plan is sketchy, the children don’t know where things are kept, and the teacher next door can’t provide much help. That’s where your bag of tricks comes into play, and that’s why you need one.

What Should I Pack in my Bag of Tricks?

Look at your bag of tricks as a portable mini-classroom. It should contain everything you’ll need to make it through the day when classroom materials are less than adequate and you’re left with open time after the lesson plan has been completed. Your bag of tricks should contain:

  • Storybooks appropriate for three different grade levels (one or two really good short stories or a short age-appropriate mystery story for older grades)
  • A book of funny poems
  • Stickers and other rewards
  • A whistle (for those PE and recess days)
  • Worksheets for all levels
  • A how-to-draw book
  • A collection of reliable games and brainteasers
  • Assorted school supplies (e.g., markers, crayons, pencils, notebook paper)
  • Personal items for your use during the day

Browse the suggested websites (pointers can be found at and find a few worksheets that will be both fun and educational for a broad range of grade levels. Hundreds of websites provide brainteasers, math puzzles, word finds, and hidden pictures that can be used as a reward when students finish their work or as time fillers when class work is completed early.

As you gain experience as a sub, you’ll collect many items for your bag. You may alternate these items depending on the grade level, the disposition of your students, and the available time. If you see a wonderful activity or set of materials that is being used by the classroom teacher, make yourself a copy so that you can use it in the future.

Can you Suggest Specific Books for the Bag of Tricks?

Here are some favorites that have worked well for me. This list includes books for many different age levels and interests:

  • Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day by Judith Viorst
  • The Arthur series by Marc Brown
  • Chicken Soup for the Pet Lover’s Soul by Jack Canfield
  • Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul by Jack Canfield
  • Doctor De Soto by William Steig
  • Encyclopedia Brown by Donald J. Sobol
  • The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein
  • Great-Uncle Dracula by Bonnie Bader
  • The Keeping Quilt by Patricia Polacco
  • Miss Nelson Is Missing! by Harry Allard and James Marshall
  • Pinkerton, Behave! by Steven Kellogg
  • Sideways Stories from Wayside School by Louis Sachar
  • The Substitute Teacher from the Black Lagoon by Mike Thaler
  • Sylvester and the Magic Pebble by William Steig
  • The True Story of the Three Little Pigs by Jon Scieszka

Obviously, I’m not suggesting that you put all of these books into your bag of tricks at one time (you couldn’t lift it off the floor!). Rather, select two or three books that will be appropriate for the class you are going to teach on any given day and put them in your bag.

Can I Use These Books for Anything Other Than a “Read Aloud”?

Some of these titles are great for initiating a wonderful extension activity. For example, after reading The True Story of the Three Little Pigs, I told the students that we were going to have a “court session.” I chose a student to play the Big Bad Wolf, and the rest of the class asked him questions for “testimony” to determine if he should be found guilty or innocent. Instant civics lesson!

The Keeping Quilt is a wonderful kickoff for an art project. Children can design and draw their own family quilts.

In almost every case, you can ask the children to analyze a book using a story map.

What is a Story Map?

After reading a story to the class, write the following on the board:






Sequence of Events:


Happy or Sad Ending?

Have students fill in the blanks with you or make their own form and complete it at their seats.

What Should I Do if I Finish All Planned Lessons Early?

I can still remember one of my first days as a sub. The classroom teacher had left me a sketchy plan for the day and, to be charitable, weak teaching materials and handouts. I did my best to present the material as effectively as I could, but as I glanced at the clock toward the end of the day, I knew that I’d finish early. I slowed down. I asked many questions. I did everything possible to s-t-r-e-t-c-h the final lesson so that the day would end when my teaching did. No luck! I finished and still had forty-five minutes until the final bell. What to do?

As a rookie sub, I hadn’t yet learned the importance of the bag of tricks. My only option was to “tap dance.” After exhausting all of my educational games and teaching a few songs, I left the class at 3:00 completely exhausted! And to be honest, I did not do very much to advance the curriculum. If this were to happen to me today, I’d open my bag of tricks and have plenty of ammunition.

If you need to supplement the plans for the day, a wonderful lesson for the primary grades is to read a story to the class and then discuss the main idea and characters. Then students can write about their favorite parts of the story and draw pictures of a favorite character or event from the story. Or, you can have the students make a story map with you.

Your poetry book can be an introduction to a poetry lesson. Students can write a class poem (each child writes one line), or they may write their own poems and illustrate them. Because of the popularity of rap music, poetry is now very cool! Students can illustrate their poems and share them with classmates. I recommend using a book like Where the Sidewalk Ends by Shel Silverstein. The poems are funny and short, and students love them. They are a wonderful springboard for discussion and an example for creative writing activities.

The drawing book will help during transition times or when children have finished work early and have nothing to do. You may copy a page for them to work on, or you may draw the picture on the board, step-by-step, and have students work along with you. I have found the following technique to be very effective:

  1. I draw a picture (using the step-by-step approach given in the how-to-draw book) on the board.
  2. The students follow along at their desks.
  3. I leave the picture on the board, letting them try it on their own.
  4. When they have finished, they can color their pictures and write short stories about the characters they drew.

You can let early finishers work on the drawing activity and allow others to join in when they have completed their work. Or, you may want to use this technique as a reward for the end of the day, if you need to fill time. As a sub, it’s very important to avoid giving the students too much free time. Too much free time leads to disruption. Once disruption starts, it is not easy to contain and get students back on track!

What’s in the Bag of Tricks for Middle School Classes?

I’ve found that a key strategy for filling time is to get students talking about something that interests them. Yet abstract discussions (e.g., What do you like best about school?) are difficult to sustain. It’s a better idea to have some props, and that’s where your bag of tricks comes into play.

With time, you can build a file of interesting pictures for discussion. Try to find pictures that are photographically intriguing and at the same time tell a story. Ask the students what they think is happening. Then ask them to take one minute to try to memorize every detail in the picture. Remove the picture from sight and ask them to describe the picture in writing. If you’d like, you can have a contest to see who can remember the greatest number of specific details. Revisit the picture and examine what details were missed by everyone. Then discuss why they think that happened.

A book of short stories can also be a helpful tool and should be added to your bag of tricks. I’ve found that even though they wouldn’t admit it publicly, most middle school students love to listen to stories, if the story is appropriate for their grade level. Try Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul or Reader’s Digest stories as starters. If you’re adventurous, excerpts from Edgar Allan Poe or even Steven King might be appropriate. Over time, you’ll find two or three books or stories that you know work well, and you can use them over and over. Just remember, the stories must be read theatrically if you expect to engage the students. Here is an opportunity to use your hidden acting talents!

What Personal Items Should I Place in my Bag of Tricks?

If it’s properly stocked, your bag of tricks serves as your closet, your office, and your administrative assistant. It can provide you with food when you’re hungry (pack sealed crackers in case there’s no time for lunch), clothes for when you get wet or dirty (a spare shirt or blouse might be appropriate), entertainment when you have free time (a magazine or book), Band- Aids for foot blisters, deodorant for PE days, and any other personal emergency supplies.

I also suggest that you leave a pair of sneakers in your car. You may come to school and find out that you have been assigned PE for the day, or you may escort a group on a field trip. If you’re wearing a pair of shoes that are terribly uncomfortable, you’ll suffer for the entire day. It’s easier to run out to your car to change into your comfortable extra pair of shoes.


Your bag of tricks is an emergency tool kit for subs. If you are assigned to a well-run classroom, you may never need it. However, on those days when you are left with no lesson plans or the plans are inadequate, you’ll need to rely on your creativity and the trusty items in your bag of tricks. Be sure you follow these guidelines:

  • Pack materials for all grade levels. You may think you’re working in a first-grade class when you arrive, only to find out that you’ll actually be subbing in a fifth-grade class.
  • Be sure to pack a variety of school supplies and “specialty” items (e.g., a whistle, how-to-draw book, stickers).
  • Have a few of your favorite books that will be appropriate for various grade levels as well as short stories for secondary school.
  • Don’t forget about your own comfort! Have some crackers just in case you are unable to buy lunch. Pack your personal comfort supplies as required.

When you arrive at school with a properly packed bag of tricks, you know that you’ve got “backup,” just in case the day doesn’t go as planned.