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10 Major Challenges for Substitute Teachers

For substitute teachers to do their jobs well, they must be prepared to shift between age groups, classroom norms, and academic subjects with relative ease.

But—as schools rely on them to fill staffing gaps during an urgent season of academic recovery—substitutes often feel unsupported and unprepared for the challenges they face on the job.

That concern fueled the creation of an unusual statewide effort in Washington state to provide professional development and networking opportunities to these important, but sometimes overlooked, educators.

“We knew there was a problem we needed to address, and we knew it was affecting students,” said Megan Conklin, a former classroom teacher who helped develop convenings for substitute teachers after she started working as a sub and saw the need for support.

Those initial meetings, held in a private room at a restaurant, grew into regional convenings of substitute teachers that serve as a key plank in Washington’s program known as the Emergency Substitute Teacher Project. At those regional meetings, substitute teachers meet face-to-face to swap strategies for doing their jobs effectively.

Using state survey data and feedback from subs, Conklin identified 10 key concerns, listed here in no particular order.

1. Helping students with disabilities and ensuring classroom inclusion

Substitute teachers stepping in for a day or two may need help providing accommodations for students with disabilities, experienced substitutes told Education Week. And even experienced educators need support to ensure their classroom routines and social norms are inclusive for all students, including those with intellectual disabilities.

2. Recognizing bias and serving students from diverse backgrounds

As the nation’s school enrollment becomes more diverse, substitute teachers must be able to relate to new students of various racial and ethnic backgrounds without the benefit of time to build relationships. Schools in Washington state use approaches like culturally responsive teaching, which may be unfamiliar to substitutes who don’t have formal training in education.

3. Managing and accessing classroom technology

Even full-time teachers find it difficult to juggle the various tech platforms schools use for lessons, tutoring, and communicating with parents. The use of such technology swelled during the COVID-19 pandemic, and it often varies widely between schools, and even classrooms.

4. Quickly building rapport with students

Teaching and learning rely on positive relationships. Substitute teachers must quickly build trust with students they may have never met. Among their strategies: Let students ask substitute teachers questions about their pets, families, and hobbies at the beginning of class.

5. Addressing challenging student behaviors

Substitute teachers without education experience may not know common classroom-management strategies, like standing closer to a misbehaving student’s desk to send a non-verbal cue that they should settle down. And classroom rules may vary, even within a school.

6. Using effective instructional strategies to engage all students

Some students soak up academic concepts at a quick pace, while others may take more time. Some may be comfortable reading aloud or contributing to a discussion, while others may be shy or anxious.

7. Understanding and implementing positive behavior interventions and supports

Positive behavior interventions and supports is a multi-tiered approach schools use to address students’ emotional and behavioral needs. The lowest tier includes strategies used to teach and reward positive behavioral expectations for all students. As students demonstrate more intense need, they are offered more targeted levels of support.

8. Understanding social-emotional learning and strategies to help students experiencing trauma

Schools use social-emotional learning approaches to help students build stronger relationships, to teach them about managing and identifying emotions, and to weave those concepts into academic lessons. Schools have also placed a growing emphasis on recognizing how traumatic experiences, like exposure to violence, can affect a student’s ability to learn and engage.

9. Supporting English learners

English learners are one of the fastest growing student groups, making up about 10 percent of the public school population, federal data show. The term refers to multilingual students who need support to learn and grow proficient in English. Educators need support with skills like co-teaching with English-learner specialists and engaging all students in group work.

10. Making do with no sub plans

A substitute teacher may be asked to step in in case of an emergency that leaves the classroom educator little or no time to create sub plans.

Substitute teachers who spoke to Education Week quickly identified the lack of lesson plans as one of the most frequent—and irritating—challenges their peers talk about in discussion groups. What do you do when you don’t know what students are supposed to be learning?

There’s no easy answer, Conklin said. One strategy: Have students spend a few minutes writing out what they did in class the previous day. Use their responses to identify what chapter to read in a book or where to pick up a discussion.

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