Substitute Teaching Preparation: Culture, Procedures and Policies in a School Environment

Ask any substitute teacher who works in several different schools or school districts, and he or she will tell you that no two schools or school districts are alike. Not only do age differences in students and differences in geography, demographics, and economy among areas play a part in school atmosphere, but so do school boards, administrators, faculty, buildings, and resources. Substitute teachers who plan to work in a variety of schools and districts need to be prepared to face small and large differences in each environment.

Orientation and Training

Some states and individual school districts require that any substitute teacher go through an orientation or training program prior to starting work. If you find that you face this requirement, be grateful for the opportunity. While some programs will be better than others, they at least give you the chance to experience the school district from the inside and the opportunity to ask questions before that first day that you find yourself in front of a class of students. Even if an orientation or training session is not required but is offered, you should avail yourself of the opportunity.

While the topics that would be covered in orientation or training vary, you may find a segment on classroom management. Working with students and keeping them behaved and on task is often a top concern for new substitute teachers and school personnel. (See Chapters 9 and 10 for more information on classroom management.)

Many orientation and training programs will also focus on the culture, expectations, and policies of the school district. This information is valuable because it can give you insight into what the district values, and you can act in accordance with the culture in the classrooms you cover. You may learn the demographic makeup of your students along with some tips to work successfully with them. It is also important to know of any essential district policies, such as a drug or weapons policy, or how they handle the release of sensitive information. The more you are aware of possible situations that may arise, the better prepared you will be to handle them.

Some school districts will provide a manual for substitute teachers. If you receive a manual, take the time to review thoroughly all the material it contains before you receive your first assignment. Information on policies and culture will be contained, and again, you will be more successful in your teaching if you are well prepared.

You may even find yourself fortunate enough to have an orientation session to an individual school within the district. If this is the case, it is wise to take advantage of it. You may be treated to a tour of the school (which will be helpful to find your way around on that hectic first job that you get), an introduction to the basic procedures of the school, and tips for working with their specific students.

School Procedures

Whether you have an orientation to a school or district, you should be aware that schools could vary greatly from one to another in the procedures that they follow. For example, morning attendance might be written on a form and sent to the office with a student, or it could all be done on a computer. Most schools have morning announcements, some are televised, and others are presented over the intercom. If you need to contact the office in case of emergency, is there a call button on the intercom system, or does each room have a telephone? And if there is a telephone, what is the number to the office or nurse? Some schools have a specific hall pass system where students carry their own pass cards; others require teachers to supply them. Identification badges may be required in some schools. If you need to, what is the proper procedure for writing a student referral or sending a student to the office?

The possible procedures above are not meant to feel overwhelming. There are just simply too many possibilities and variables to know how to handle every possible situation that will come your way. However, an orientation or training session or a manual for substitute teachers will go far in helping you be prepared.

"On Your Own"

What happens if there is no orientation or manual for substitute teachers? There are many schools and districts where this is still the case. If you find yourself in this circumstance, there are still a few things you can do to help prepare yourself.

First, you can research the school district's website. See what you can learn. Are there policies and procedures that you can read? How about school schedules or maps? What are the names of the administrators and support staff that you should know? You may be able to find a bit just through a little research.

Interested in learning more? Why not take an online How To Be a Substitute Teacher course?

Second, you can speak with any other people you know. Perhaps you know someone who works at the school, or you know a student who attends. They may be helpful resources.

Third, the school itself is a resource. Think of a few questions you know that you need to have answered, and on your first day, when you check in at the office, ask the secretary these few questions. Just remember that mornings are very busy for school office staff, so try not to monopolize anyone's time.

If you take advantage of the opportunities available to you to become familiar with the schools and districts where you will be working, you will be better prepared to face many of the challenges that you may find in your days as a substitute teacher.

Preparing for the Day

Determining your success for a day of substitute teaching starts as soon as you wake up in the morning. Even though a substitute teacher's day starts very early, a positive attitude, good preparation, and a pleasant disposition will go far in helping you enjoy the day and get repeat teaching assignments as well.

Getting the Day's Assignment

The first step in a day of substitute teaching is getting the actual teaching assignment for the day. New substitute teachers often get calls the morning that they are needed. Experienced substitute teachers can often have assignments prearranged days or weeks ahead of time. This is simply because when teachers have a planned absence, such as conferences, field trips, personal days, or other reasons, the school district will first turn to the substitute teachers that they know will do a good job. When a teacher calls in sick or with an emergency early in the morning, school districts will start with substitutes that they know and are available, but ultimately, they will give the assignment to the first available person.

At the beginning and end of a school year, substitute assignments are in short supply. Likewise, in secondary schools that have midterm exams and semester classes, assignments are short at that time as well.However, new substitute teachers should have patience; their time will come. That first school year for new substitute teachers may require extra patience as it often may take an unusual circumstance when many teachers are out, such as a large field trip or workshop or even a flu epidemic, before they are called. However, that first assignment is then the perfect time to make an excellent first impression.

Depending on the school district or substitute teaching service, teaching assignments may be given through telephone calls or on a website. If it is the latter, you should check in online as soon as you can to see what assignments are available and to select the one that you want. If it is by telephone, you need to be prepared to receive the phone call as early as 4:00 a.m. Secondary schools, which usually start (and finish) an hour or so before elementary schools, will usually call first. It is also a good idea to begin preparing for the day early in the morning, even before you get an assignment, because you may find yourself pressed for time to arrive at the school. After all, substitute teachers need to be ready promptly in cases of emergency.

When the call arrives, you are given the details of the assignment, or sometimes a choice of assignments. The school, grade level, and subject are presented, and you have the choice to accept or decline. It is always a good idea to answer the phone, even if you are not available for the day; you want to make a good impression with the person who makes substitute teaching assignments. If you regularly do not answer the phone, they may stop calling you. Always be pleasant and grateful to this person for it is a hard job to start early in the morning, trying to find available people to fill in on short notice. This person is your key to getting work!

Preparing for School

When you accept an assignment, you need to get ready! Do what you need to do to get physically ready for the day, shower, dress appropriately, and make lunch.

There is not a lot of break time in a day of substitute teaching, so prepare accordingly. Lunch times are usually about thirty minutes, but by the time the students are sent off and you have time to use the restroom, there may only be twenty minutes to eat. That is why packing a lunch is essential; stepping out for lunch is usually not an option.

When you are dressed (with an extra outfit, plus an apron or smock and physical education clothes, just in case), have your lunch, and have your bag or briefcase for substituting assignments (see Chapter 6), you are ready to get to school. If you have prepared well ahead of time, you have directions to the school, and you have an idea of how long it will take to get there. Well prepared substitute teachers do make sure to arrive at the school at least thirty minutes before the students arrive in the classroom because there are several things to do before the start of the day.

Arriving at the School

Upon arrival, you need to check in at the school office. For a first time to substitute at a particular school the secretary can be a wealth of knowledge for you; it is wise to make the secretary your ally! If you are unsure if you parked in the right place, which is particularly important at a high school where students drive, check with the secretary, and move your car if necessary. Sign in with the secretary if required, and receive any materials that you will need for that day. These may include a classroom key, lesson plans, and attendance lists. Sometimes, you will need to stop by the teacher's mailbox to pick up attendance lists and lesson plans. Some schools will also give substitute teachers a folder of school policies, procedures, and other useful information for substitutes.

If you are at a school for the first time, it is a good idea to ask the secretary for a map of the building so that you can easily find your room (or rooms if you will be using several), the office, the restroom, and the teacher's lounge. It is also wise to ask how to contact the office in case of emergency. While it is rare that you will need to ask for help, emergencies do happen, and it is better to know ahead of time what to do.

Before arriving at the classroom (or first classroom if you will move among several), locate the teacher's lounge, and put your lunch in the refrigerator. Then, on the way to the classroom, use the restroom. This is an important step since school schedules are highly regimented, and opportunities to use the restroom may be hours apart. Because of this, it is smart to use the restroom when you can, and it is not smart to load up on coffee, tea, or other diuretics that will cause you to use the restroom frequently. Drink just enough water to stay hydrated.

Preparing for the Students

Now it is time to find your classroom and unlock the door. You may want to lock the door behind you to keep students from entering while you are getting settled. This is a good time to look over the folder of information, lesson plans, and other materials provided. Sometimes, the teacher will leave extra information on his or her desk.

This is the best time to learn many valuable pieces of information for the day's success. For example, in case of a fire drill, you need to know how to exit the building. Some teachers serve as monitors in halls, cafeteria, playground, study hall, or provide some other special duties; you will learn that, also. Seating charts are also extraordinarily helpful and are hopefully provided. Procedures for taking attendance should also be provided.

Now, it is time to focus on the lesson plans. In some instances, the teacher will leave instructions as to where to find materials (if audio/visual equipment or craft supplies are needed, for example), and in other instances, materials (like photocopies) need to be made. A well prepared substitute teacher uses this time to gather all the materials needed for the day's lessons because this may be the last opportunity to do so. Line up the books, worksheets, and other materials that you need ahead of time.

If you have any questions about procedures for the day, where to find materials, or how to interpret lesson plans, then take the time to introduce yourself to a teacher near you. Ask for his or her help, but be polite and courteous for this is often the busiest time for a teacher as he or she prepares for the day as well. Even if you do not have specific questions to ask, it always helps to know the teachers who are near you in case you need help later in the day.

Then, write your name and an outline of the work to be done on the chalkboard. Some substitute teachers find that this helps keep order in the classroom by keeping a visual reminder of the tasks to be completed. You can also write your classroom rules if you decide to make any as part of your management strategy (see Chapter 9).

Now that you have a handle on the school's procedures, know what the lessons are, and have all the materials ready, you are prepared to face the day. Unlock the door, and greet your students!