What to Look for in a Substitute Teacher for Elementary School

substitute teacher for elementary school ess

Every student spends a portion of their school year under the care and direction of substitute teachers. There are the short-term absences due to illness or professional development, and there are long-term leaves for maternity or reasons falling under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA).

In either case, substitute teachers have a significant influence on the continuity of learning. This influence may be particularly impactful during the elementary years when children are young and dependent, relying on their teachers for structure and security during the school day. As such, there are some characteristics especially beneficial when looking for a substitute teacher for elementary school assignments.

Characteristics to Look for in Elementary Substitute Teachers

Besides the general characteristics that substitute teachers possess, there are a few qualities that are especially beneficial in elementary school substitutes:

Making a positive introduction

The ideal elementary substitute has a firm but friendly demeanor. Elementary students can be easily intimidated or even frightened by a stern face or sharp tone of voice. Gaining their support and cooperation means engaging them in a positive and encouraging manner right from the start.

Matching students’ energy and motion

The substitutes best suited for elementary placements are energetic and comfortable in motion. They spend very little, if any, time sitting at the teacher’s desk. Having a powerful presence in the room ensures students’ safety and prevents many behavior problems.

Being aware of school policies and safety procedures

Elementary students are dependent on the adults in their lives to keep them safe. Substitute teachers must acquaint themselves with school policies and emergency procedures, as students will be depending on them for guidance.

Operating with transparency

Substitutes who tell students up front what is expected and when are more effective in securing their cooperation. For example, a “two-minute warning” is especially helpful when expecting elementary students to make a successful transition from one task or location to another.

Utilizing imagination

Substitute teachers who utilize creativity have an advantage when working with early childhood and elementary students. Appealing to a young child’s imagination can be much more effective than issuing orders or making threats. Instead of demanding that students be quiet in the hallway, for example, a creative substitute might ask them to imagine they are mice tiptoeing quietly to the lunchroom to avoid waking a sleeping cat.   

Modeling appropriate interactions

As elementary students are learning to interact with their peers, they look to the adults in their lives for examples. Substitutes who model respectful interpersonal interactions are proactive in managing and resolving conflicts between students.

Willing to make learning fun

The best substitutes for elementary school classrooms are aware of kids’ attention limitations and have a willingness to make learning fun. By utilizing read-alouds and review games that can be applied to any content, they maximize attention spans and maintain instructional momentum.

Using the element of surprise

Keeping students engaged can be a challenge. Though structure and routine are important, substitute teachers who have a few surprises up their sleeves can be very effective in keeping students on task throughout the day.

Communicating appropriately

Effective elementary substitute teachers understand the importance of communication. They ask questions of school staff when clarification is needed and report problems promptly to the administrator. They speak privately to students when an issue arises, and they always leave a note for the classroom teacher summarizing the day.

Working with Special Populations

As the youngest subset of the elementary school population, early childhood students represent some additional challenges. They spend a good part of their day learning through play and may be especially sensitive to changes in their routine. They tend to express themselves physically and emotionally, so both tears and laughter are common. Substitutes in preschool and kindergarten classes will likely be tasked with providing comfort and tying shoelaces. A willingness to get down on their level is helpful, as is plenty of patience.

Students with special needs also require some unique attention. Substitute teachers with certification or prior experience in special education are in high demand, as they have the skills necessary to work with students’ with a range of cognitive, physical, and developmental needs. Depending on their disability, students may have trouble communicating and performing tasks associated with daily living. Once again, patience is a desirable asset as is the ability to multitask. Since special education students have individual goals, substitute teachers must be both focused and flexible.

Finding the Best Substitute Teachers for the Job

The best substitute teachers for elementary school classrooms are firm, friendly, and consistent. They have the ability to reinforce routines, provide structure, and make students feel secure. These professional educators have a “withitness” that allows them to know what’s going on in every corner of the classroom.

With the energy to be on the move in and around the classroom, they maintain order and use proximity control to keep students on task. Having some understanding of child development helps elementary substitutes work within attention spans and successfully make transitions. They maintain a calm learning environment but aren’t afraid to introduce some novelty to the elementary classroom when appropriate.

Consulting an education-exclusive staffing agency can give school districts increased access to substitute teachers optimized for elementary school assignments. Through selective recruiting and targeted training, a staffing company can help you to locate and prepare substitute teachers best suited for elementary school classrooms. Knowing your students are in good hands will increase your confidence that students are secure and learning will continue despite teacher absences.

Contact ESS for help customizing your substitute teacher pool. We can help you to identify substitutes that possess all the necessary characteristics to maximize learning and minimize disruptions when covering your elementary school absences.