Teaching Material | Teaching English Better

Substitution: two sides of the same coin


Substitution is such a common phenomenon in the teaching profession, that you are bound to be involved in it one way or another. Under the term ‘substitution’ lie many different types; teaching a new class for a single lesson in too short notice, or initially doing it for a short period of time, only to be informed that you are to go on for several months. Having substituted in all the above situations for more than once, I would like to share my experience, hoping it will make a substitute teacher’s life easier.

Class teacher’s availability and proper action

Depending on how grave the class teacher’s health condition is, you will both act accordingly. The relationship between the class teacher and the substitute teacher is based on mutual empathy; you sympathize with their health problems and they, in turn, sympathize with you, knowing what substitution entails. If you can contact them, then some topics you will go over involve their lesson routine, homework correcting, test grading etc.

Although you may be tempted to ask about students’ conduct during the lesson, remember that every teacher has a different level of tolerance. Therefore, the class’ chemistry is subject to change when you come into the picture. It is helpful to know beforehand whether a student is always misbehaving for example, but do not be biased against them unless you witness the situation with your own eyes.

In case the class teacher is unavailable, the department coordinator or other colleagues teaching the same level will be providing you with the pacing of the books and anything else you need to know. A good idea is to ask them whether and how much you may differentiate your pace from theirs, due to the new circumstances. Again here, you will experience empathy on their part, since, for a good reason, everyone is willing to help the substitute teacher. No school wishes to throw their teachers in deep water, but this does not mean that you can sit back and relax. On the contrary, you need to ‘do your homework’ and be fully prepared.


Taking over the class

On entering the new classroom, you will be faced with one of the most awkward moments in your teaching career: announcing to the students that you will perform the lesson. They, will in turn, react in various ways; some will show disappointment, asking endless questions about their beloved teacher while others might even jump for joy because they find their teacher to be (too) strict – which makes you (too) lenient! Do not take any such reaction personally. The more you linger at this stage, the worse it is. Go on to introduce yourself and ask the students to talk about a favourite hobby or talent of theirs as an ice-breaking activity. When it comes to assigning homework, some will complain; to this your response should be that you have agreed with the class teacher on what to do. 

Under pressure

One of the most common-felt sensations is that you are inadequate, which derives from not having had the time to build a good rapport with the new class. A substitute teacher will tend to feel they must always prove their value. They will even have high expectations, only to experience bigger disappointment especially due to certain students’ disrespect towards them since they are not their teachers. In fact, discipline was what troubled me the most in some of these classes. My advice is to treat such students like your own, following the institution’s policy. Moreover, you may feel that you are unfairly compared with the class teacher, but this is not a ‘best teacher’ competition! By no means should you become the class teacher’s replica; each one of us is unique, both in terms of personality as well as in teaching style. Try to adapt to the new situation and be assertive.

What about students’ feelings?

When substituting you may focus so much on your workload that you might overlook the students’ well-being at this point. Especially young learners who miss their class teacher terribly and worry about the teacher’s health, need to be reassured that their teacher is fine and will be returning when they are permitted to do so. In case that the substitution continues for more time than originally expected, it is always very soothing to tell them that you often talk with their teacher who sends his/her love to them.

Fortunately, children are so quick to adapt, you will be surprised with their eagerness to help you. What will make their transition from the class teacher to you smoother, is when they see that you are following some (at least) of their class teachers’ routine or when you ask questions about how to do certain tasks even if you know how.

Overall impression

I must admit that if it had not been for the support from the school, the class teachers, and the colleagues, substitution would have been twice as hard to manage! I realised soon enough it was more a matter of stress I felt wanting to live up to everyone’s expectations, rather than the situation itself. I loved the fact that I got to teach native speakers’ classes among others in primary school which I had never taught before. There were instances where children asked if they could have two English language teachers, both their class teacher and me! Some even wrote me notes saying how much they loved me.

Mission accomplished

Substitution is no plain sailing, but if you see it as a challenge, it automatically becomes an aim to accomplish. In the beginning, it creates the illusion that you need more skills than the ones you already possess, but soon, you will witness for yourself that this is a big lie. So long as you follow the school’s guidelines, the colleagues’ tips and your own lesson plans you will feel as though you were teaching a class which was yours all along.