How To Be An Effective Sub

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

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