One of the most difficult aspects of being a teacher is teaching for someone else. While subbing is a necessity of this profession, one that offers an amazing opportunity to refine our craft, it’s not always easy or obvious. It can be challenging to navigate a space we did not personally cultivate, and it can be intimidating to face the visible disappointment or even outright resentment wafting from the students. Our mere presence puts us at a clear disadvantage: we are not their teacher!
There’s one very important truth to consider when stepping into the role of substitute teacher: You are a guest in their space. While it can be challenging to stand in front of a room full of strangers who appear uninterested or resentful, it’s important to remember that it’s their class, not ours. In the comfort of our own classrooms, we can relax into the standards and expectations that have been established over time. As a sub, we’re essentially starting from scratch. Students have no idea what to expect from us and will undoubtedly compare us to the standards upheld by their teacher. As such, it’s imperative that we surrender our own expectations and not waltz into someone else’s class and try to coerce the students to comply with our own standards. We must, instead, anchor ourselves in clear, clean teaching and hold the space with an open mind and a generous spirit.
Here are five tips on how to be an effective sub (and how to survive the experience with grace)!
Know Yourself (Under Pressure)
We all experience nerves. Every. Single. Last. One. Of. Us. Period. The key is knowing yourself so that you understand how those nerves manifest in your teaching. Nerves reflect one of two things: insecurity and/or sincere care. If you have an inflated ego, or if you don’t truly care about what you’re doing, you’re probably not going to be very nervous. Experience helps to dissipate our nerves, but even after all these years, I still feel nervous in certain teaching situations. Understanding your insecurities and, more importantly, how you tap dance around them, will help you navigate the landmines. Conversely, cutting yourself some slack and remembering that you’re nervous because you care and not because you think you’re not good enough can help you get out of your own way.
Maybe It’s You
There’s value in considering that at least some part of the resistance we feel from students stems from our own projections. When we let our insecurities get the best of us, we might make assumptions about what people are thinking—about our teaching, our sequence, but really, about us. If we can recognize that most of the stories we make up in our minds serve to validate our own story, it can bring us back to the truth of what’s happening in the present moment.
If It Ain’t Broke
Don’t try to win people over with innovative, entertaining sequences. Stick with what works. Pull that crowd pleaser out of your sequencing library and let it roll. Using tried and true sequences will give you more bandwidth to focus on the students in the room.
Keep It Simple
I feel like I’ve said this before. For the love of God and all things holy, keep it simple. Don’t over-teach. Keeping it simple is really about keeping it clean. Trim the fat. No nonsense teaching will land in a room full of students who may or may not understand your language.
You Do You
I recommend attending the class in question before you sub it so you can get a feel for the teacher’s style and so you can get the vibe of the classroom. It’s good to know what you’re getting yourself into; it will help you deliver on expectations. That said, you need to be steadfastly and unapologetically yourself. You are not expected to morph into someone else, no matter how badly the students appear to want you to transform into their teacher. The more you apologize for your teaching, the worse it’s going to be. Just be yourself.
Whatever happens, spend some time after the class to comb through the experience. What worked? What fell flat? Be honest. Journaling is a great way to get all those post-teaching vrttis out of your mind and onto paper where it’s a little easier to see the forrest through the trees. Thank the teacher for the opportunity to sub and ask if there was any feedback from their students. Svadhyaya can help us continuously refine our craft.
Photo credit: Hailey Wist
I always struggle with my subbing, though I have regularly attended the classes of the teachers I sub for. One of them sticks to a well-defined sequence of hatha yoga. I got in with a vinyassa flow, simple and sweet. But the yogis strangely could not handle it. I had to stop and switch to yin to cool things down!
The other subbing is easier, as the teacher anyways does a vinyassa. What has always helped me is to set expectations from the beginning. A bit of philosophy about the theme or why we are doing some postures or sequences helps… it keeps yogis entrained to “discover” the experience.
Hi, Mohammed! I love that you take some time in the beginning to set expectations and explain the why behind what you’re doing. I think that goes so far and helps students relax into the moment with you, the sub. Thanks for sharing your thoughts here on the blog! Always great hearing from you. Warmly, Chrissy
Hi Chrissy! Thank you so much for this post. This is a topic I wish we talked about more and something I’ve honestly been struggling with recently. A few months ago I subbed a class that is a heated class, as well as a sequenced class. I am always honesty with the class that it won’t be the normal sequence (because I’m not trained in that) and that if they want to leave, I respect that. (I also tell my boss that I will serve as a last minute sub because I don’t know the format of class and it sounds like they’d rather have a sub than have to cancel). I’ve subbed classes like this before and sometimes get the response afterwards, “Wow it was great to do something different!” And that’s great to hear! It’s also necessary for your reminder that this is their class. I’ve gone through the journey of assessing how I feel under pressure, and subbing is a great tool for learning that! Whew, after that ramble, back to the point and question: So after I said people are welcome to leave, we started class and there was a problem with the heater; it wasn’t getting as hot as normal and I had been warned about that, so I shared that information with the class. There was one student who reminded me twice throughout the class that it wasn’t hot enough and I gently reminded them that there was an issue with it, but I’ll do my best to check on it. A little bit into class another student left. And a third student, who also reminded me about the heat not working, began doing her own practice in the space. Of course all of these things are fine, but I believe to an extent. I felt very defeated during and after that class. I recognize I’m not their teacher, but part of me (and this is where I could use your advice) feels that part of the yoga journey is accepting, being open to chance, not practicing judgement, (and knowing that even without extreme heat, your yoga practice is yoga), and in that space I did not feel welcome. Perhaps it was my ego speaking, but I contemplated emailing the normal teacher about my experience. Alas, I didn’t, because I wasn’t sure what my point was; that it was a bad experience?; asking for grace from her students that the heater situation was out of my control?; defending myself that I did my best in preparation for what her students may have complained to her or even our studio?. So, in the vein of thanking the teacher for the opportunity to sub and offer feedback from students: is it my place to offer perceived feedback? Is it even necessary for me to explain the heater situation, or is that just my ego talking? I even thought about emailing my boss and saying it may be in the best interest of the students and their experience to have only the teachers who know the sequence to sub and if they’re not available to cancel or make it known on the website that if there’s a sub it may not be the scripted class. Any perspective you have on this would be greatly appreciated. Thank you, again, for your insight. I look forward to more posts from you! (And thank you for reading this long response!)
Thanks for your comment! Your question about whether or not you should sub a style in which you haven’t been trained to teach, I think the answer is: it depends. Good teaching should provide the necessary foundation for flexibility, within reason, especially under extenuating circumstances. That said, it’s good practice to teach what you know. From what you’ve described, it sounds like the students welcomed your teaching, even if it wasn’t what they were used to. Should you choose to volunteer to sub that class in the future, you may find support in attending the class in question and familiarizing yourself with the sequence. It will only make you a more effective sub.
As for the heater debacle, I’d let it go. There are certain things over which we have no control, including the students’ reactions to the things over which we have no control! Their reactions belong to them. You can practice weaving humor or philosophy into your teaching to lighten the situation or to transform it into an opportunity to apply the principles of yoga in real time.
I hope that helps, Amy! Look forward to chatting more together here on the blog!
Hi Chrissy! Thank you so much for this beautiful post! Subbing is something that is a reality of the yoga profession, but I feel doesn’t often get talked about as much as it should. Personally, I have a mix of regular classes and subbing during the week — in some cases subbing more than my regular classes. It has been an amazing learning opportunity for me, and I’ve really embraced it. And, I’m wondering, when you’re working with a mix of your own classes and subbing, how do you manage an evolving sequence during the week? I generally plan out what I’ll teach for my regular classes, and then adjust as necessary for any subbing I might do. And subbing will generally be classes of varying levels, abilities and lots of question marks — especially if it’s a brand new subbing opportunity.
But the subbing is the unknown during the week — and it changes from week to week. Whereas my regular classes are the constant. So I guess my question is: When subbing a lot, how much should your plans inform your teaching and how much should your teaching inform your plans? How much should you allow your sequence experience in a subbing situation inform the sequence you planned for your students? Of course every teaching experience is valuable — but how do you best manage planning for the consistent classes and the subbing opportunities at the same time? Or, is it best when subbing to stay away from plans for regular classes and just do the basics? Thank you so much for your time, and for sharing your wonderful experience :). It is valuable more than you know :). Very best to you, M.
I’m so glad this post resonated with you! I think there’s a lot of value in sticking to a simple, foundational sequence when you sub because it inherently leaves room for adaptation and inspiration. If you use variations and props, you can take a single sequence and transform it into something totally fresh. By choosing to focus on different actions, you can open a new window into the same pose. I think it’s also fine to create one master sequence for the whole week and spin it depending on your audience. Because there are so many unknown factors in subbing, I recommend focusing on actions rather than attaching to a sequence. For example, instead of going in with a plan to teach Handstand, you could teach the actions of Handstand and then see where they take you. Maybe you’ll get to Handstand, but maybe you’ll find a more relevant application of those actions based on who’s in front of you. This way you won’t feel blinded or limited by your plan. Write out the actions you want to teach, and then make a list of all of the possible ways in which you could explore those actions. I think subbing is a great place to practice teaching what’s in front of you, and to surrender your plan!
Hope that helps 🙂
Much love, Chrissy
Thank you for writing this post and recommending it to me, Chrissy! All of it was so relevant to me right now. Most importantly, I need to be confident with my teaching and be present! I’ll take that into the class I’m subbing this afternoon 😉
See you soon,
I’m so glad this post resonated with you. I hope your class went well today! So great to see you this morning.