Children make a very rapid collective assessment of you the moment they see you in a classroom. That’s why I think it’s so important to set a positive, authoritative tone at the start of the day. Most children feel relieved when a confident sub takes charge. It’s scary to be in a room with no control.

Within the first few minutes, it’s likely that one or two students will try to challenge your authority. They’re testing for weakness, unconsciously trying to establish dominance. You have to win the first skirmish by being kind but firm. Issue your directions in a way that leaves no room for debate or argument.

A petite girl raises her hand, “Mrs. Camileri [the regular classroom teacher] always lets us switch seats so that we can work together.”

Your reaction must be calm but firm. In a no-nonsense voice, you respond, “No, you may not switch seats for group work. Your teacher may let you work with your friends and that’s great. But on sub days, we do things a little differently. Thank you for understanding.”

All the begging in the world will not change your mind. The class sees that you are serious, and they are relieved. Someone is in control.

Should I Try to Make the Class Like Me?

All of us want to be liked, and substitute teachers are no exception. But it’s a mistake to try too hard to be liked by your students. There are times when your students won’t like you, and that’s okay!

Students are happiest when they feel safe and protected. It’s your job to establish a safe and secure classroom environment, even if it means that your students feel that you’re being authoritarian. “That’s not fair” is a common exclamation when you work to avoid chaos. But a few frowns are a small price to pay in order to maintain control.

Remember, when chaos reigns in the classroom, everyone is miserable. The quiet, well-behaved children are uneasy, even frightened. And the boisterous few who are trying to disrupt the flow of the classroom aren’t really happy. Someone needs to be the “heavy,” and that someone is you! Even if the students don’t like you for that instant, they will all feel better in a classroom that is calm and orderly.

Should I Raise my Voice or Even Yell if it’s Appropriate?

It’s very important to understand that classroom management is not about yelling. In a firm, confident voice, you say, “No, that is not acceptable.” Your tone and body language—your most important communication tools—telegraph the absolute expectation that your comments will be heeded. If the students try to ignore you, repeat yourself, calmly.

I recommend that as the volume of student voices goes up, your voice level should go down. A quiet, but strong voice in the midst of chaos can have a profound effect on those who hear it. It is never acceptable for students to ignore your words.

When order is restored (without yelling), you will be liked and respected for your strength and fairness. This is a wonderful feeling, and it is what makes you an effective substitute teacher.

How do I Respond to “That’s Not Fair”?

You will hear these words often, and as a sub, you must be careful not to fall into the trap of trying to be perfectly fair at all times to all students. Children may use these words to manipulate you, so be careful not to fall into the trap of defending yourself. You won’t win!

Children sometimes feel that you are not being fair when they feel slighted or hurt. They want to turn a perceived injustice into revenge. And you are the tool!

I always tried to explain to the class that we all try to be fair, but they must understand that life’s not fair. A good teacher tries to give each student what is best for that student, and what may be fair for one is not always the best for the next person. Sometimes we must do what is best for the whole group, and that may not feel fair to one or two individuals.

If the discussion about fairness continues, tell the students involved that you will discuss it and resolve the situation later, but now it is time to get back to work. Then you may take the children aside and resolve the problem privately.

A worthwhile discussion of fairness can be found in the book Positive Discipline, by J. Nelsen et al. The authors provide pragmatic solutions for handling situations in which students try to push your “fairness button.”

How Should I Manage Rewards and Consequences?

In the classroom, a carrot is almost always better than a stick. Rewards provide positive reinforcement for good performance and good behavior. But rewards have to be balanced with consequences if performance or behavior is less than satisfactory. Use them both, and your ability to manage the classroom will be greatly enhanced.

The system that most good teachers establish encompasses both tiered rewards for good performance and behavior and a warning system with consequences for performance or behavior that doesn’t meet school standards. Hopefully, there is a reward system in use in the classroom. Ask your special helper to explain it to you. 

Many classrooms use multilevel warnings (e.g., green light, yellow light, red light) with consequences (e.g., write student’s name in a special book, make a check next to name, miss recess, call the parent). If this approach is not effective for your needs that day, you will need a backup system.

There are many rewards systems that are effective. Here are a few that have worked for me. Try some of these and see which work best for you.

  • Recess as a reward. On the board, write the word R-E-C-E-S-S in big letters. Tell the class that you will give them a recess period at the end of the day. However, if you need to remind them to be quiet, instead of telling them, you’ll simply erase one letter of the word recess from the board. If the whole word is erased, recess is gone. However, even if just one letter is left, they are safe!
  • List of names. Tell the class that their teacher has asked you to leave the names of any students who misbehave. However, say that you prefer to give the teacher a list of excellent students. You can write these names on the board or keep a list on paper. Just make sure all can see the list. Those on the list will be given a reward at the end of the day, and the names will be included in your teacher note.
  • Contest. If the classroom is arranged in pods, rows, or sections, give each section a number. Each time a section is behaving well, put the number of the section on the board. Each time you want to compliment them, put a check next to that number. The section with the most checks will be rewarded (e.g., stickers, treats, extra time for a free choice activity).

When children are arranged in groups and the whole group wants a reward, they will self-police. If one student is noisy, he can ruin the chance of a reward for the whole group. Usually one or more members of the group will act as your surrogate to quiet the noisy child. This can work for whole-class rewards as well.

Because you are not the classroom teacher, your survival tools are limited. I’ve found that if you use rewards effectively, they can make a real difference. So try some of the suggestions, and be on the lookout for others in the classrooms you visit.

But remember, always be consistent. If you start the day using a reward system, continue to use it throughout the entire day. Be sure that if you threaten consequences, you must be able to follow through.

There is much more that can be said about reward systems. In fact, entire books have been written on the subject. If you have additional interest, I recommend Assertive Discipline by Lee Canter and The First Days of School by Harry and Rosemary Wong.

Where Should I Sit/Stand?

One of the best things you can do to maintain order is to circulate while students are working independently. Show an interest in their work, commenting on what you see. Compliment handwriting and content. A good sub rarely sits at the teacher’s desk.

When giving a directed lesson, you should keep moving. Walk from side to side. Walk around and into the area occupied by the students’ desks. If you see someone daydreaming, get into his or her space.

How Do I Know if my Pacing is Right?

You should begin the day with a personal introduction. As soon as the introduction is complete, begin the lesson immediately. You need to get the day started so that the students can see that you are there to teach and accomplish the goals of the classroom teacher.

Once your academic day has begun, pacing is important. If you move too slowly, children get bored. If you move too quickly, you’ll lose some students. Even worse, you may finish with too much time to spare and then have time to fill—not a good thing!

Always pay attention to your students’ faces and their body language. Try to sense where they are. If they seem very interested in the topic at hand, stretch out the discussion. Continue an activity or discussion when interest is high. Conversely, if they are wiggling in their chairs and looking bored, you need to adjust your pace accordingly.

What are the Specific Grade-Level Challenges?

Each age group presents its own challenges. An experienced sub is ready for all of them. After a few weeks of subbing, you will see patterns begin to emerge, and you will prepare yourself accordingly.

  • Primary grades. Little ones are needy. Some will cry when they learn that their regular teacher is absent. You must be kind and nurturing in this environment. Reassure them that you are going to be their teacher for the day and that you promise Miss X will be back just as soon as she is feeling better. Compliment the class and tell them that Miss X must be a wonderful teacher to have such a great class. This calms them down and shows them that you are on their side. You are not the enemy!
  • Intermediate grades. This age group is used to having subs and may see today as an opportunity to have a day off! You can assure them that they will have a great day, but everyone must get the work done that Mr. Y has left for them. I always promise that we’ll do something special, but only after all work is completed. Be sure to have a story to read to them, an art project, or a quiet, organized game. 
  • Middle school. Dealing with older students is a special challenge and requires different techniques. As I noted earlier in this chapter, your first few minutes in the classroom are very important. Let the students know about your background and experience. Try to personalize your introduction by telling them something interesting about yourself, your family, or your career. You want them to see you as a person, not as an object. If possible, take the time to learn something about the content area that you will be teaching, if you have advance notice of the position for the day. Your knowledge of the subject matter gives you added credibility.

As the day progresses, try to learn the names of as many students as possible (this applies to all grade levels). When you begin to address the students by name, it’s likely that they will respond more readily to your requests and instructions.

When confronted with disruptive behavior, avoid direct confrontation but use body language and a clear, firm tone to establish control. It’s a good idea to use proximity to assist students with their tasks and to maintain order. Circulate throughout the classroom and be willing to help individuals.

Most schools use referrals. These are slips of paper used to write up an individual. The student is then given a detention, or a day in a special room where he or she will be monitored. Find out if your school has this system, and plan on using it as a last resort. But don’t threaten to use it if you do not plan on following through.

A student with nothing to do will find something to keep himself busy, and that something may be disruptive to the classroom. For that reason, be sure to have some extra work for those who are off task. If one or two students are particularly disruptive, hand them a worksheet and tell them they must complete it before returning to the group. Make it a fairly simple exercise so that they will be able to complete it in five or ten minutes. If possible, offer a small reward for successful completion of the work.

Finally, recognize that the peer group is by far the most important thing in the life of a teenager. Do not feel hurt if you seem invisible to these students. It’s not that they are rude or uncaring. They are consumed by their image, their friends, and their stature in the group. Learning about exponents is not the top priority when hormones are raging!

How do I Handle Students who Represent a Special Challenge?

If a student is particularly challenging, a good strategy encompasses isolation and communication. First, isolate the student from others in the classroom. This may require taking the student to the back of the room or into the doorway so that you can keep an eye on the rest of the class. Once isolated, the disruptive student receives no feedback from others and often will calm down. Also, the student must face you—one-on-one.

Next, initiate communication by making direct eye contact. Ask whether there is a special problem. While looking directly into her eyes, indicate that you are unhappy and disappointed with the behavior. Tell her you do not want to embarrass her in front of classmates and suggest that a change in behavior begin “right now.” Ask whether she understands what you’ve said.

These quiet, private talks can work wonders. When you take away the audience, and it’s just the two of you, the student loses her incentive for misbehavior! Why show off if no one is watching?

When you return the student to the classroom setting, remove her from her current seat and place her in an area where she will not distract classmates. A referral may be needed if a challenging student continues to be uncooperative.

What is the Best Way to Praise Students at Different Grade Levels?

Praise is a wonderful tool in the lower grades. Younger children thrive on it. I have found it to be the best reward possible. Praise for the whole group is very powerful, and praise for small groups and individuals is equally effective.

Be aware that middle school students have an image to maintain. Sadly, being a nerd or the teacher’s pet can be very embarrassing for the sixth grader who wants to maintain his or her cool image. In some communities, students will be ostracized if they are considered “too smart.” So when you praise an older student, be subtle. Wait for a private time. If the student looks uncomfortable with your praise, sometimes a smile of recognition is just as effective.


Classroom management is profoundly important. A well managed classroom allows you to teach and ensures that your students will have a good day. Be sure you follow these guidelines:

  • Your initial introduction to the class is your opportunity to display your strength and competence. Use it to your best advantage.
  • You may not always feel as if the students like you, and that is okay. Your job is to maintain order so that you will be able to teach.
  • Use proximity to students to keep them on task. Be aware of your pacing by watching for student cues.
  • Remember to use rewards and consequences consistently and fairly. A variety of reward systems are available for your use. When you have to threaten with consequences, be sure you follow through.
  • If necessary, you may need to send in a referral on a very challenging student. Find out the procedure and use it as a last resort.

If you apply these guidelines effectively, you’ll find yourself getting better at classroom management each time you sub!