Tips for Substitute Teaching at the High School Level

Substitute teaching at the high school level doesn’t have to be as intimidating as it may seem. When we keep in mind that although teenagers have adult size bodies, they still have childlike minds, it’s easier to address their needs when you substitute teach. Here’s a list of tips and wise advice to use, which I hope will help ease your mind and help you have a rewarding high school teaching experience at the same time.


1. Be aware and prepared before you get there.

If you are called to substitute by someone other than the teacher, ask how to contact that teacher or if the teacher can contact you. Ask the teacher to go through the daily routine with you, and provide any tips you’ll need in dealing with specific teens. If the teacher is unavailable to discuss these issues with you, ask for the name of another teacher or administrator who can. Make sure the lesson plans will be in place, easy to find and complete with everything you’ll need to teach. Read them ahead of time.

Some conscientious teachers leave a substitute folder on the teacher’s desk, filled with detailed instructions as to the classroom rules, the fire drill routine, the school dress code, lunch schedules, pep-rally days, hall pass slips and attendance strips, along with anything else that a substitute would need to know. Still, if the class you are to substitute for didn’t provide these things for you, be sure to ask if there’s any special event or activity that day that you need to attend to. Clerical duties are tedious but a necessary part of every high school day.

It’s always wise to show up early just in case, but since some schools don’t contact the substitute until the last minute, it’s also wise to be prepared ahead of time. You can do this by packing a teacher bag with the supplies and teaching aides you’ll need to create a lesson plan of your own, should you need to fill extra time. Journaling assignments are great ways to spend extra time. In an English class, you might also want to take a few of your favorite poems to analyze or memorize. Take some games where you’ll use math or games designed to enhance history or social studies. Now and then, there will be emergencies where the teacher is unable to leave what you’ll need, so it’s always better to have too much than not enough to do.

2. Present yourself as a professional who knows what to do in a high school classroom.

Never wear what teens wear to school, or you’ll be breaking the number one high school substitute teacher survival rule. It’s imperative that you are able to get the students respect right from the start, and that’s hard to do in baggy jeans, mini skirts, logo t-shirts and tank tops. Wear something basic, subdued and conservative. It’s okay to smile, laugh with the kids and be friendly, but there’s no need to use teenage language or pretend to be cool. Teens aren’t easily fooled, so present yourself as the legal adult you are, whose mature enough to be in charge. Don’t wear jeans, shorts, flip flops or tennis shoes, no matter how comfortable they are.

Stand outside the classroom door to meet and greet each teen. Look into their eyes and tell each student who you are and how happy you are to be there as you shake each hand with firm command.

3. Never allow teens to see you sweat or become a nervous wreck.

Stay cool and calm at all times and try not to lose your temper, raise your voice or act as if you can’t wait to leave. Just be at peace and know you’re never alone. There are other teachers close by if anyone gets out of hand. Take command of your classroom right from the start and begin with being more firm than sweet. As you go through the day and the students are cooperating with you, that will be the time that you can relax a bit and enjoy them too. Teens can be interesting to talk to when they know who is in control.

Praise their efforts and good behavior. Give them attention and listen. Talk to them like adults, but don’t expect them to be anything but kids. Never use a sarcastic attitude when dealing with a high school classroom, even if and when they do. Don’t humiliate a student, no matter how obnoxious he or she may be. Every teen needs to have the ability to, “save face,” for future days. Don’t set up a teen to feel the need to prove to you and everyone in the room how rough and tough he or she can be.

4. Ask students to assist you and participate with you.

The worst thing any high school substitute teacher can do is to assume that a group of teens will want to sit and quietly listen to anything. Teens need something to do or they’ll do what they choose to do, and very few will choose to listen to you lecturing from a text book. Instead, try to alternate activities with instruction to break up the class period into shorter sections of time. Teenagers work better that way.

There will always be at least a few future teachers in your classroom, so allow them to assist with things like taking up papers, doing the attendance, explaining the routine and why they do certain things. On the other hand, it might also be wise to pick and choose the few who will obviously be the class clown or the leader of the pack. It’s been my experience that if you can get those two to be on your side, the rest of the class will be a breeze that you’ll teach with ease.

5. Keep detailed notes for the teacher.

Although it’s normally not required of you, it’s nice for the substitute to attend any faculty meeting after school. If you do, keep notes to leave for the teacher so that when she returns, she’ll be up to date on the news, and besides, she will appreciate you too.

Jot down your observations throughout the day and make sure you mention the students who behaved instead of just those who didn’t. Find something positive to say about your day.


At the end of the day, be aware of how grateful the teacher, the teens, the administration and the community will be. Your professional and positive attitude and your ability to relate to teens has not gone unseen. You’ve provided what every high school needs, which is to be blessed by a true blue super great high school substitute teacher, like you.