A Packet for Substitute Teachers




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Robert Jackson

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Bag of tricks

Substitute teachers, take a packet of materials with you to school for those times when a student (or the class!) needs something extra to do. If anyone is getting restless, it's time for the bag of tricks.

Read aloud to the class from the textbook

Read to the students from the textbook. Student readers usually cannot hold the attention of the class, so it is up to the teacher to read to the students from the textbook, asking questions as you go along and writing vocabulary words on the whiteboard. End your reading with an informal test "on the fly," open-ended or true-false, only a few questions, enough to emphasize important learnings and to fix those learnings in the students' minds. Read out the answers so that the students can grade their own papers. Collect the papers and throw them away later.

Whiteboard topics for the talkers and the bored

In your packet, include a list of assignments that can be listed by number on the whiteboard. When a student is ready for something new, and the classroom teacher did not provide more work, turn his or her mind to one of the numbered items on the whiteboard.


  1. Find the meanings of these words: emulate, arrogant, ascetic, tolerant, dogmatic.
  2. Locate the titles and names of the persons in the President's cabinet.
  3. Find the name of the head of state in Britain/France/Russia/Germany . . .
  4. In one paragraph, give information about Andre Agassis/Tiger Woods/Toni Morrison/George W. Bush/Gregor Mendel . . .
  5. About what percentage of the Earth's surface is covered by water?
  6. Which of these animals will generally live the longest: mosquito, barn owl, alligator, zebra.
  7. Is coral an animal, a plant, or neither?
  8. How long a line can an average 7-inch pencil draw (1-inch stub remaining)?
  9. Which kills more people in the United States each year, bullets from handguns or traffic crashes?
  10. Can your bones be considered part of your circulatory system?
  11. What does the appendix do?
  12. What is your body's largest organ? Second largest?
  13. How many bones are in your body?
  14. What is the largest African country in terms of area?
  15. Which European country (excluding Russia) has the largest population?
  16. Which Asian country has the largest population?
  17. Where is the tallest mountain in the world?

Give a test

First off, have the students write down a short paragraph that you dictate. Collect their papers. From this pack of tests you can tell amazing things - each student's handwriting, spelling, punctuation, capitalization, and neatness. You can identify a few particularly able students to call on for assistance.

Have a collection of tests/quizzes in your packet. Here are Internet addresses of some tests/quizzes, found by doing a search in the Internet for "test of knowledge" or "quiz":

  1. http://www.dcn.davis.ca.us/~explorit/quiz/weather/quiz_weather.html
  2. http://www.dcn.davis.ca.us/go/EXPLORIT/quiz/kids/quiz_kidsonly.html
  3. http://www.dcn.davis.ca.us/~explorit/quiz/food/quiz_food.html
  4. http://www.dcn.davis.ca.us/go/EXPLORIT/quiz/astronomy2/quiz_astronomy2.html
A math problems generator is available at

There is a large collection of home-made quizzes at
http://www.teachervision.fen.com/geography/teacher-resources/6642.html. Search for "quizzes." There is 7-day free trial, but there is a charge after that.

You are welcome to use my tests of reading comprehension, available at

Duplicate a test for the entire class, or give a test to a particular student who seems to be ready for it. (To print a test on the screen, use File-Print.)

Something Puzzling

Challenge the class with a puzzler. Here are some examples, taken from Lateral Thinking Puzzlers by Paul Sloane, New York: Sterling Publishing Company, 1991. Don't give away the answer until the end of the day!

(easy) There were two Americans waiting at the entrance to the British Museum. One of them was the father of the other one's son. How could this be so?

(moderate) A woman had two sons who were born in the same hour of the same day in the same year, but they were not twins. How could this be so?

(moderate) Mrs. Jones has two children. What are the chances that both are boys?

1. They were husband and wife.
2. They were two of a set of triplets.
3. One in four -
first born a boy: boy/boy, boy/girl
first born a girl: girl/boy, girl/girl.

Brain stretchers and mind benders can be found in books published by Critical Thinking Press and Software (800-458-4849 or ct@criticalthinking.com or http://www.criticalthinking.com) and NL Associates (Stories With Holes - NL Associates, PO Box 1199, Hightstown, NJ 08520), as well.

Prepare word search puzzles for use with one or more students. The word list can be drawn from subject matter, such as rules of punctuation or capitalization, or the words can be a wise saying. Word search puzzles can be generated from a CD (Ultimate Word Attack) or can be generated on the Internet and printed:

This site is good for a wise saying, because the words to search for are not alphabetized.
There are no "bottom up" words generated at this site. Examples:

This one, also, is good for wise sayings, because the words to search for are not alphabetized. The default includes "bottom up" and diagonal words, but the default can be changed to "simple format."

Play a Game, Read a Story

Relieve the solid work atmosphere once or twice with a game, such as Twenty Questions or Who Am I? Instructions for playing some games can be found at
Classroom Games.

Another suggestion: "Something I do as a substitute teacher in the last few minutes of a class period when the class is getting restless is play "Do What I Say, Not What I Do." Standing at the front of the room, I say to the students, "Do what I say, not what I do." Then I'll say, "Touch your elbow," and I touch my nose. Or I say, "Touch your ear," and I touch my shoulder. It usually gets the attention of the entire class, so I don't have all that turmoil waiting for the bell to ring. But don't start it too early or some students will want to try to lead the class in the game, and that causes disorder."

Still another suggestion: "A game that I use if we run out of work is called ABC. Students stand beside their desk. You explain that we are going from A to Z using "animals," so the first person says "anteater," the second says "baboon," and so forth. If they don't know an answer, they sit down until the next round. The next round you could change the game to use the ABC'S with food: A: "apple," B: "banana," C: "carrot," etc. Some of the letters get hard, making the students really use their thinking skills. The kids love it. I would suggest that you think over your category list so that, if the whole class can't come up with an answer, you can help them out. Always remember to laugh with them, not at them!"

Read a one or two-page story (short). Suggested collections (found by doing a search in Amazon Book Store http://www.amazon.com):

Hey! Listen to This: Stories to Read Aloud, editor: Jim Trelease - for ages 5-9.

Children's Classics to Read Aloud, editor: Edward Blishen. A collection of 20 stories and excerpts from classics of children's literature, such as the meeting of Tom and Becky in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and excerpts from the works of Lewis Carroll.

Read About It!: Great Read-Aloud Stories, Poems, and Newspaper Pieces for Preteens and Teens, editor: Jim Trelease. Forty-eight works from newspapers, magazines, and books feature works from Pete Hamill, Maya Angelou, Ray Bradbury, Roald Dahl, Gary Paulsen, and others.

Mr. Sturgeon has some good suggestions for what he calls busy work:
Mr. Sturgeon's suggestions

I'd Like to Know You Better

Tell a student, "I'd like to know you better. Please write a half page for me on this topic":

If I could do anything for one day, it would be . . .

If I won a million dollars, I would . . .

The best time I ever had was . . .

What I like most in a friend is . . .

I would like to be an educated/uneducated person because . . .

What worries me most in the world is . . .

In my spare time I like to . . .

If you give a writing assignment, the students benefit from having an outline. For example, here is an outline (from the Washington Post 6/26/2005 - Travel Section) for "My Vacation":
Title of the vacation

Who went?



How long?

Getting there was . . .

It made it all worthwhile when . . .

I gritted my teeth hardest when . . .

I can't believe I . . .

Best/worst thing about where we stayed

Favorite meal

Coolest attraction

Thing I could have done without

Thing I wish I'd brought with me

Cheapest thrill

Biggest splurge

Biggest rip-off

Biggest culture shock

Most embarrassing moment

Cultural faux-pas

Favorite souvenir

One thing I'd do differently

Lead a discussion

With a class that is in good control, a discussion can be interesting for both students and teacher. If you are unsure, leave it for another day.

The teacher should establish rules before the discussion begins:
No one interrupts another person.
Give people who haven't spoken yet a chance to speak.
Assume that what you say will be repeated. Don't say anything that would hurt another person's feelings if repeated.
Sneering, rudeness, or any other behavior that shows disapproval of ANYONE's contribution is prohibited.
The teacher is the leader. If the teacher raises his/her hand, all discussion must stop. (Choose a student leader? Not recommended.)

Some discussion questions


Read riddles until you reach one that nobody knows the answer to, then stop. Don't reveal the answer until the end of the day.


Here is another idea, suggested by a substitute teacher. "I have learned never to go into a classroom without taking some sort of game with me. I like word games best because they keep students working at their desks. I will put a word on the board in the morning, and they can come up with a list of smaller words formed from the original word. For example, if I put EDUCATION on the board, they can come up with note, cute, caution, dance, etc. A letter can be used in a word only as often as it is found in the original word. I give extra points for a word that uses all of the letters in the original word. For example, EDUCATION can be reformed as CAUTIONED. I will usually let the students work on the word game in their free time during the day, and then we check the results before dismissal."

Mental arithmetic

Try mental arithmetic. Make sure that students have pencil and paper, and then dictate mental arithmetic problems:
Three plus twelve minus six = ?
Two hundred plus three hundred minus fifty = ?
Five thousand plus two hundred plus seventy minus seven = ?
(Problems have to be adjusted for age/grade level.)

After every three or four problems, read out the answers. 9 did anybody get that right? etc.


"I've just signed on to be a substitute teacher for our ISD. I've applied to accept positions for K-3 and special ed groups. What kind of advice can you offer a rookie?"

Some ideas

Want to avoid a riot?

"What can I do with middle school students who won't even do the assignment the teacher left? I can't even get half the class to pipe down even to issue the instructions. Some of the classes say they want to do something fun. I'd love to do that, but how can I if I can't even hold the whole class's attention for more than one minute?"

1. It's essential to know the names of the students in the class. Pass out paper and have students write their own names large. Ideally, name should be attached to front of each student's desk with masking tape. Alternative suggestion: holding a seating chart, walk around to each student, ask each student his or her name, and write each name on the seating chart. Don't worry about wasting time. Just take as much time as you need to.

Here is another suggestion that was offered by a teacher: "I always arrive early so I can get a feel of the layout of the room, scan lesson plans, etc. If the names of students are not attached to desktops, I draw a quick sketch of layout of desks. Then, when students answer to the roll call, I jot their names on my layout. I have found this to be very helpful. The kids love to be remembered so quickly."

This is how another teacher gets students to behave when she doesn't know their names: "One simple thing I do is pay close attention to how they are behaving when they come into the room. If any students start jumping up and down yelling OOOOH WE GOT A SUB!, you take a good look at those students, and, when you call the roll, put a checkmark by their names on your list. This way, when they cut up later on, you can call out their name. This kind of freaks them out. It usually works."

Take a pad of paper (or a piece of paper on a clipboard) and write some headings on it, such as:

Doesn't pay attention
Talks too much to neighbor
Leave it on your desk in full view. Any time that something untoward happens, go to the paper and write down the name(s) of the student(s) under the appropriate heading. Let the students wait for you while you do this. At the end of the day, leave the paper for the classroom teacher.

Smart students are always raising their hands. Don't take hands. When asking a question, name the student first and then ask the question. If name isn't visible, adopt a name from clothing: "Blue Shirt," "White Blouse," etc.

Here is how one teacher handles the question of whom to call on. "When I go into a classroom for the first time I always carry popsicle sticks with me. When I am looking over the attendance before the students arrive, I write their names on the sticks, and then when I have to call on someone to do something I can just pick a stick out of a cup and call a name. It gets their attention much quicker." Popsicle sticks are available from Wal-Mart and from craft stores.

Another teacher had this suggestion: "Have something for the kids to do as soon as they enter the classroom. Have it written on the whitebard/chalkboard, so that all you have to do is say, "Once you have everything put away, look at the white board for what to do." If kids still ask you what to do, either point at the board or tell them to ask someone else. During this time I look at a seating chart I have made of the classroom. Often teachers have the students' names on their desks, so I simply go around before class starts and write them down. Then I take roll by seeing who is in their seats, avoiding saying strange names.

"I also make sure hardly ever to sit at my desk, even when kids are working quietly. I want them to know I am there and paying attention, always walking around. Sometimes simply walking by kids will keep them focused.

"My favorite trick for getting their attention is this: if the kids won't quiet down, I start counting. Then I explain that for every second I count, that is how long they will have to wait extra before recess/p.e., etc. I write this number on the board so they can see it and add to it when I have to wait for them. Sometimes I will also subtract when they are behaving well. I then have the kids get ready to go, but they have to sit in their seats for that extra time. Thirty seconds can seem forever for a kid!"

Another teacher wrote, "One thing I do in early elementary grades is first thing in the morning write RECESS on the board. Then, each time I have to tell them to be quiet or calm down, I erase a letter. Most classes only lose 1 or 2."

Still another teacher wrote: "I find that, in a well functioning junior or senior high, knowing the students' names and the general functional level of the class, along with excellent knowledge of the subject, eliminates control problems. In the very low functioning schools I have not gotten perfect control, but I sometimes do as well as the regular teachers. There are inner city schools that are in control. In these you find a principal with a clear understanding of right and wrong, who still knows that children are children and that adults do not need to rap with them to maintain order. Schools that major in rapport building are out of control. Those that major in law and order are in control and also have better rapport between students and teachers than the aforementioned because the rapport is based on respect where respect is due. In the inner city elementary schools a sub can sometimes gain very good control by using a lot of gimmicks such as chorus reading, having them draw, playing silent ball, bribing with extra recess, using slates and asking math problems, etc."

2. Ask a lot of questions about the subject at hand (classroom work) and call on individual students by name before asking a question. Let students who don't know the answer know that they have a lot to learn - "You got that one wrong. You have a lot to learn, don't you. Now is the time for learning. You'd better take advantage of it."

Another technique is to have a series of random questions ready: Blue Shirt, what does DNA stand for? Pink Blouse, who was the fourth president of the United States? Purple Shirt, what was the year of the Declaration of Independence? Black Shirt, who is Henry Kissinger? Yellow Sweater, what is a genome? etc.

If Blue Shirt doesn't know the answer, you can see if someone else does and have a short discussion of the answer before moving on to the next question.

This technique 1) shows students up for lacking knowledge and 2) shows them that you have much to teach them. If you are successful, they will see that they will be missing out on a lot of interesting information if they don't pay attention and get down to work.

2a. Make students accountable for doing the work that you have assigned. For example, if you have assigned the reading of a passage in a textbook, before classroom discussion of the passage ask easy questions about the material in the passage. Name a student (at random) before asking a question. Don't take hands. Ask several questions. Students get the idea that you are serious about their doing the work and that they had better do the work if they don't want to be embarrassed.

Keep a record of students' accomplishment/non-accomplishment of work assigned.

3. When a class is disorderly, you want to put the students at a disadvantage. I envision this scenario: you find a paragraph to dictate, make sure students have paper and pencil, and you dictate the paragraph. Then you collect the papers. While the students watch, you slowly look through the set of papers, making occasional comments about the poor spelling, handwriting, punctuation, etc. (naming no names - just commenting on the poor quality of the product). Don't compliment anybody. Then you tell them what a lot they have to learn, etc.

A disruptive person tends to quiet down when he or she gets your undivided attention. If someone is making trouble, pull up a chair next to him or her and talk with him/her confidentially, in a soft voice, without anger. Never mind that the class wants to hear every word. Ask personal questions, such as, "How long have you been in this school? Were you born here? Do you have brothers and sisters? Do they look like you?"

It should be noted that troublemakers usually (always?) have a background of having been ignored (or worse). They are the ones who never come up with the right answer, and their envy of the "smart" kids is something awesome. They are eager to succeed - at something! - and what they can succeed at is making trouble. Make sure that these students get to answer questions, to help out with classroom chores (passing out paper, etc.), and to receive your encouragement.

In the light of school shootings, see what a poor student thinks about elitism in his school:

Why I Hate My School

Benjamin Franklin had something to say on this topic: "He that has once done you a kindness will be more ready to do you another than he whom you yourself have obliged." (His example was to borrow a book from someone who seemed to be against him. The man turned into being a friend.) Following Franklin's example, you can ask a troublemaker to do you a favor - sharpen pencils, straighten out bookshelves, straighten out a paper closet, make a list of book sets in the classroom, get something from the library, wash dirty tabletops, etc. This is what one teacher had to say on this topic: Christine's Tips.

You will find other suggestions in my responses to a few e-mail letters: Responses to e-mail letters.

Gary Hopkins, Editor-in-Chief of EducationWorld.com, would like other methods to be used to deal with disruptive students. He recommends these sites:
For more on this topic, see my essay The Teacher's Use of Scorn, Ridicule, and Contempt in the Classroom.

4. If the classroom work doesn't provide enough material for questions, cut out an article from a newspaper or a magazine on a science topic or on politics and read it aloud to the class and then ask some hard questions. You don't smile or act encouraging in any way - on the contrary, you are seriously disturbed by the students' ineptitude and ignorance.

May I suggest an encyclopedia as another source of articles for reading aloud to the class? For example, Wikipedia.com provides a table of Nobel Prize laureates. You could find the names of Nobel Prize winners that interest you, go to the article about each such person, and print it. Also of interest: The Nobel Prize Internet Archive

You might be interested in Time Magazine's 100 most influential people of the 20th century:

There are other lists with links to biographies. I use Google for searches (100 most, 100 greatest, 100 top):

Become an expert on your favorite figure in history. Buy a biography of that person. Let the students know who your favorite is and find out if they have a favorite. Tell them stories from the favorite's life. Keep a list of quotes from that person in your packet. (Benjamin Franklin? (great quotes available - Franklin quotes), Albert Einstein? (great quotes available - Einstein quotes), Eleanor Roosevelt?, Marie Curie?, George Washington?, Thomas Jefferson?, Abraham Lincoln?, Linus Pauling?, Antoine Lavoisier?, Richard Feynman?, Louis Pasteur?)

One teacher wrote, "When there are no assignments left for the substitute, I show a DVD movie that I have brought with me. I also take my 17" laptop so that, if needed, the class can watch on my laptop." There are biographies on DVD's. Doing a DVD search on Amazon for "biography" turns up more than 200. Among these are The Animated Heroes Classics, with biographies of Leonardo Da Vinci, Joan of Arc, Florence Nightingale, Louis Pasteur, Benjamin Franklin, and Ludwig von Beethoven.

English-to-go produces printable lessons based on Reuters news articles on a myriad of global news themes and stores them in a searchable, on-line library for teachers. There is a charge for membership. To see a free lesson, go to English-to-go Free Lesson.

Another teacher wrote, "To monitor me, the chairman sat in on my class one day and later told me that I must immediately learn how to discipline my students. I managed to accomplish this feat very rapidly by reading aloud compelling stories. Astonishingly, the students quieted down and began listening to every word."

5. If the class is really disorderly, ordinarily it's enough to ring a bell or turn out the lights.

My wife, Rita Jackson, suggests this technique if the class is unmanageable: sit at a student desk at the back of the classroom and wait. You might even take notes. The students wonder what you have in mind and begin to settle down.

Another teacher suggests this technique: stand in front of the class and start whispering what you want the students to do. Continue to whisper even though the class is disorderly and see if the students stop talking and start listening. Then continue in a soft, low voice.

6. Enlisting peer pressure can be effective. One teacher uses this technique: "If class behavior is poor, I ask the class, 'What grade are you in?' I write the grade number on the board. I say that their current behavior or attention is not good enough for the grade level that they are in. I erase the grade level and write in a lower grade level. I say that the grade level written on the board can be changed when their behavior warrants it. For really good behavior an even above-grade-level number can be written. If behavior is satisfactory, I erase the lower grade number and write in the current one. Afterwards, if behavior problems occur, orderly students calm down the disruptive ones, especially if I move to the 'grade spot' on the board."

Another teacher wrote, "I recently learned a new idea that worked really well for keeping the class on task and really helped to control behavior problems. At the beginning if the day, I wrote on the board, We will play a game if you are well behaved and follow directions. Then, every time the class misbehaved, I erased one word. If we still had words on the board at the end of the day, then we would play the game. If not, wed finish our work. This worked exceptionally well for a class with some real behavior problems that Id subbed in for 4 days already."

7. A step-by-step approach to handling individual discipline problems, "11 Techniques for Better Classroom Discipline," can be found at
Another, "Stages of Discipline," can be found at

Out of your element?

"With the current substitute teacher shortage I will be subbing many days out of my subject area. Any suggestions for me when I am in a trig or advanced physics class when I am totally out of my element?"

Some ideas

A student needs to sharpen his pencil, then soon half the class . . .

"Johnny has a runny nose, so I let him get a tissue, then someone else needs a tissue, and on and on. A student needs to sharpen his pencil, so others try the same trick, and on and on."

Some ideas

For further information, see my home page for classroom teachers:

Students Can Learn On Their Own

Site for first-grade teachers:

Teaching First Grade - A Good Year

Site for sixth-grade teachers:

Teaching Sixth Grade - A Good Year

Want to improve your reading comprehension? Take my quizzes:

Reading Comprehension Quizzes

Try out my home hygiene site You Should Have Told Me - Home Hygiene and Home Routines. There are a few choice suggestions in it that you might want to use every day!

Health enthusiasts might be interested in my site recommending (not generally known) daily health habits:

Health Tips: How to Prevent Hemorrhoids, Bladder Infections, and Heartburn (for a start)

Atheists might be interested in my site for atheists:

Depression, Anxiety, and Worry - What Can an Atheist (or anyone else) Do About Them?

Pestered by unwanted thoughts and feelings? Try my Web site:

Commonplace, Ordinary, Everyday Life - Choosing Good Nature

Food for thought:

Bad Habits of Mind

Diet without dieting - a new approach:

The Sherlock Holmes Diet - Losing Weight Naturally by Knowing How to Eat

Advice/Tips/Suggestions/"How To" for Principals:

Advice/Tips/Suggestions/"How To" For Principals

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