Each of us has an educational specialty. Some teachers love writing, others enjoy history, some specialize in math. As a sub, you’ll be no different. You’ll have a favorite subject area. But as a sub, you’ll need to be adaptable and willing to extend yourself when the need arises. If I had let my incompetence and insecurity as an athlete affect my decision to accept a job as a PE teacher, I would have missed out on an enjoyable longterm subbing assignment.

Being a sub for a “special” can be a challenge, but you also can count on an interesting day with plenty of variety. Students are always happy to be in your room because specials are a pleasant break from the normal academic day. The arts provide a much-needed creative outlet while the computer lab and media center enable students to explore the world of information. PE provides them with a way to burn off excess energy.

So don’t be afraid to become a “specialist” for a day or a week or a month. You might find the experience rewarding in ways you did not imagine when you accepted the assignment.

Why are Subs Assigned for Special Teachers?

When students are sent to specials, classroom teachers get a well-deserved break. In most cases, the classroom teacher uses that break for planning. In other situations, the break might be used for a special meeting with administrators or parents. It might even be used to visit the bathroom! So when a specialist is absent and there is no sub, the classroom teacher is not happy.

What Challenges Will I Face?

Teaching a special is different and will pose a number of unique challenges. Among the most common are:

  • You will see all the grade levels in one day. This means that you will have to adjust your demeanor accordingly. With each grade level, you’ll set a different tone and your activities will have to be age appropriate.
  • You will have each class for a short period of time. This may present pacing issues, and it’s important to plan the class well. But overall, it’s a good thing. If the students present behavior problems, you only have to put up with them for an hour or less. And when things go smoothly, you’ll be sad to see them go.
  • You will be expected to have some basic, general knowledge of the special area of interest that you are teaching. Most specials provide sub plans that do not require any great skill level (often a video). However, I recommend that you have a few ideas for each special in case you need them for extra fill-ins. If you know about the assignment in advance, it’s best to stop in and see the teacher the day before so that you can have advance knowledge of what you might be teaching.

What if I am Asked to Sub for the PE Teacher?

The PE teacher will generally leave plans that require an easy game that the group is comfortable with. Some examples are kickball, soccer, field hockey, and volleyball.

A special helper can give you advice on the way things are “usually done.” (See the Helpers chapter.) If the game requires a monitor or referee, I always appoint a student to help me with this. You may not be familiar with the rules, but your special helper will be.

If the students are cooperative and they finish the game early, they may ask for free, unstructured time. They may want to organize teams and play in small groups. Use your judgment here, and make it a reward. If anyone takes advantage of this, remove the offending student from the group for five minutes. Tell the other students that you will stop the free time immediately if they are not cooperative.

PE teachers are trained to see everything and to be acutely aware of potential safety issues. Be sure to make yourself familiar with the procedures for handling accidents, authorizing trips to the nurse (be sure to send a classmate with the injured student), and handling blood borne pathogens. A good sub is informed of these procedures beforehand, and the school district may have a safety orientation. However, it is up to you to be sure you get the information you’ll need.

What if I am Asked to Sub for the Art Teacher?

Some of us can draw realistic portraits that result in oohs and aahs from everyone who sees them. Others have trouble drawing a good stick figure. The good news is that even the artistically impaired can sub effectively in an art class.

Most art teachers have special plans for subs. The projects require simple tools, usually crayons and paper for younger children and pencil sketching for older students. Regardless of the simplicity of the project, be sure to set guidelines at the beginning of each class. Explain the project clearly, define what the students are supposed to create, and establish a procedure for handing out and collecting supplies. Write all directions on the board.

But what if there is no sub plan? That’s why I always keep a few how-to-draw books in my personal bag of tricks. For primary classes, I show the children how to make a cat, horse, or cartoon character. Using the simple steps shown in the book, I draw each step on the board and have the children follow my lead. When they are finished, they can color their pictures or make more. I encourage them to keep practicing until they master the technique. For older children, you might try one or more of these ideas:

  • Have the students draw pictures of their rooms at home. See how many details they can remember. Then ask them to add some things that they wish they could have in their rooms.
  • Bring in a print or painting done by a famous artist with a distinctive style (Georgia O’Keeffe, Vincent van Gogh, Norman Rockwell). Promote discussion about the masterpiece. Why is it famous? Discuss brush stroke, lighting, and shadows. Using the artist’s style, have the students try to create their own works of art.
  • Have students create a CD cover for their favorite musical group.
  • Ask students to design a cool pair of sneakers with a unique brand logo.
  • Have students do a graphic design for their favorite website.

Students of every age tend to love art class. Everyone has a creative side, and you can help students expand their potential creativity.

What if I am Asked to Sub for the Music Teacher?

Each time I’ve subbed for music in elementary grades, I’ve been told to show a video of a famous musical such as Peter and the Wolf or a Disney classic. This might work well, but in some cases, the children have seen the video many times, and they become bored quickly.

As an alternative to the video approach, here are a few ideas to add to the typical music sub plans for elementary grades:

  • Write the words to a patriotic song on the board. Discuss each line. Ask students to choose one line that has meaning for them and illustrate it with a drawing. One example is the line “From the mountains, to the prairies, to the oceans white with foam.” If you have a CD player, play the song while the students are drawing.
  • Play a CD from a popular Disney musical and have students draw a picture of their favorite character or scene.
  • Have children work in pairs or work alone to write a rap song about their school. Have them perform the song at the end of the period.
  • Create rhythm patterns—you clap a rhythm and students copy it. Make the rhythm more complex each time. Finally, ask a talented student to lead. Repeat until all students have a turn to lead.
  • Clap your name—have students say their first and last names and then clap the syllables to make a rhythm.
  • Have students choose their favorite breakfast cereal and write a jingle for a TV commercial for it. They can present their jingles to the class.
  • If you have time in advance, make up a word search with musical terms such as treble, bass, clef, piano, trumpet, orchestra, soprano, alto, tenor, and band.

What if I am Asked to Sub in the Media Center?

The Media Center is the place where the school’s library books are located. It also houses music and video players and other audiovisual equipment. Educational tapes, CDs, DVDs, and other digital media are also stored in the Media Center. It is here that resources for teachers are plentiful. There is usually a paraprofessional or a parent volunteer to handle book returns. He or she will know the routine and can help you with the administrative details.

The typical routine for a Media Center sub is first to allow the students time to return an old book and choose a new book to borrow for the week. After this has been accomplished (toward the middle of the period), ask the children to sit together in a designated area (ask your special helper where that is) and read a story to the class. If you are left with extra time, the children may read silently or discuss the story that you have just read.

What if I’m Asked to Sub in the Computer Lab?

Every sub should have at least a rudimentary understanding of basic computer operations and interaction. If you have specific knowledge of Windows or Macintosh application software, all the better. On the other hand, if you’re computer illiterate, you have some work to do. It’s time for you to correct that problem.

When you sub in the computer lab, it’s likely that the students will know far more about their computing environment than you will. This can make your life easy, if you choose your assistant wisely. It’s very important to select a special helper who can assist you as you manage the lab. If possible, ask another teacher for a recommendation. Virtually every school has a “computer genius” student who will be more than happy to help.

It’s likely that you’ll be given plans for each class that visits the lab. In most cases, students will be working on a project and will continue with work from the last session. Sometimes students work on presentations or research projects. Computer graphics or yearbook entries may be on the agenda. Your job is to circulate around the room to monitor students’ activities, ensuring that project work is being done correctly and that students are not surfing inappropriate websites or playing unauthorized computer games.

When students complete their activities for the day, they are usually allowed to play educational games or visit authorized websites. Use this option as a reward for good behavior.


When you are asked to sub for a “special” class, be prepared for a very different type of day. You’ll be in contact with each class of students for only one period, so that even if a group is difficult the students will leave your room relatively quickly. The following guidelines will help you get the most out of this type of subbing assignment:

  • Take the time to understand any special requirements. Will you need special clothing, materials, or equipment? Be sure you have whatever you need before students arrive.
  • Find a special helper to assist you in understanding the particular routines of the class.
  • Be sure to circulate and check up on inappropriate behaviors. Make yourself aware of safety precautions that lend themselves to these classes.
  • Have a few extra lessons in mind, in case children finish early.

In most cases, subbing for specials is actually easier than classroom teaching. Students are happy to be there because specials break up the day and lack the stress of academic subjects.