Bag of Tricks for the Substitute Teacher

By — McGraw-Hill Professional
Updated on Sep 27, 2011

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.

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