15 Activities Every Substitute Teacher Needs in Their Toolkit
contributed by Jacquelyn Carbo
In an ideal world, when you take a substitute teacher assignment, the classroom teacher provides a set of lesson plans and activities that guide you and the students throughout the day.
However, classrooms and schedules can be unpredictable. Even when a clear plan is available, sometimes lessons run short and you’ll need to keep students engaged on the fly. When those times arise – and they most certainly will – it’s good to have some low resource activities in your back pocket.
Here are 15 classroom activities for substitue teachers every educator needs in their toolkit, organized by grade level. And, if you’re a long-term sub, there are also a few activities that you can revisit throughout the duration of your assignment. These activities don’t require much explanation or advanced planning yet still create an enriching learning environment for students.
Activities For Elementary School Substitute Teachers
Tell a story about a picture.
1. Grab a photograph from a book in the classroom or project one from the internet. Ask your students to describe the picture in as much detail as possible and encourage them to hypothesize what is going on in the photo. Once you’ve discussed the picture as a class, give your students time to write or draw their own story about the picture and leave time for sharing their stories at the end of class.
2. Read a story out loud.
Never underestimate the power of the tried and true read aloud. No matter what their age, most elementary students will be captivated by a story. Engage your students by having them help choose a book or two from the teacher’s collection and, if they aren’t too wiggly, invite them to leave their desks, circle around, and get lost in a good story.
3. Create a card for someone special.
Elementary classrooms are typically full of craft supplies and markers and colored paper can go a long way in keeping students entertained. Encourage students to make a card for someone special in their lives. This activity incorporates drawing, coloring, and writing and is a fun way for students to exercise creativity.
4. Play ‘would you rather.’
‘Would you rather’ is a lighthearted game that can help you get to know your students. It’s great to play if you have a little time to spare before lunch or recess. Ask simple questions like “would you rather be a giant mouse or a miniature elephant’ and enjoy the collective laughter at the answers.
Activities For Middle School Substitute Teachers
5. Write a short story based on a favorite song.
Instruct students to think of one of their favorite songs and write a short story based on the lyrics. They can write about the storyline, images, or themes of the song. Leave time for students to read their stories aloud, if they wish.
6. Play 20 questions.
Select one student to be the ‘answerer’ who knows the answer – a person, place, or thing that the other students have 20 opportunities to guess. Students practice their reason and logic skills to narrow down their line of questioning and figure out the answer.
7. Hold an open question session.
After a complex lesson, sometimes students benefit from an open forum where they can ask any lingering questions. Before jumping in and answering, open each student’s question to the class and guide and refine their answers as needed.
8. Write a poem about an upcoming event or holiday.
Women’s History Month? Warm hot chocolate during a winter celebration? Writing about the holidays or other special events is a great opportunity to engage students in descriptive writing. Encourage students to share their poem as a heartfelt gift for their family members.
Quick Activity: Play the count to ten team-building game or the telephone game (form a circle and start out telling a student a word or phrase and pass the word or phrase around the circle by whispering it in the ear of the student beside them).
Activities For High School Substitute Teachers
9. Have students write letters to their future selves.
Pick an age — a decade or so in the future — and ask students to write to them as they would a friend or mentor. They can ask questions, imagine what their life is like, and share their dreams for the future. Students will get excited about the personal nature of the assignment.
10. Practice mindfulness.
Lead your students in a mindfulness activity, which can be as simple as breathing exercises. Or take students around the room on a “Safari” and ask them to be present to sights and sounds. You can also use an app like Calm or Headspace to guide them in a longer meditation session.
See also Meditation Apps For Children
11. Create crossword puzzles using current learning material.
Are there any vocabulary words or key terms in your students’ current lesson? Hand out graph paper and have students create a crossword puzzle to help their classmates study. Put students in pairs and have them trade puzzles.
12. Have the students pair up and quiz each other.
Some textbooks include review questions at the end of chapters or the teacher may have included some with the lesson plan. If that’s the case, you have a built-in activity: pair students up and quiz each other using the provided questions or ones that they’ve come up with on their own. This is a great activity for early-finishers, and can be treated as part of the overall lesson.
13. Hold mini-yoga stretching sessions.
Long-term subs can benefit from creating short moments of repetition that happen every day. This activity works best as part of a routine: maybe the first thing you do after lunch or after the bell to help students transition between activities.. See these 10 Commandments of Teaching Kids Yoga for ideas on how to keep it fun and productive.
14. Start a daily journaling practice.
Ask your students to take out their journals and write a short passage about the day. It can include any good news or challenges they face. The goal is simple — get them thinking about and practicing how to put those thoughts on paper. Make this a routine to get the most out of it.
15. Share a personal story with the students.
Let your students choose: do they want to hear about how you worked at a tech start-up for a couple of years or what happened when you got lost in Costa Rica? Students will enjoy getting to know you, and they’ll learn a little about the world outside the classroom, too!
Jacquelyn Carbo is a former teacher and a Substitute Success Associate at Swing Education; featured image courtsey bradflickinger CC licensing