Bag of Tricks for the Substitute Teacher (page 3)

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

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.

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