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My First Day as a Substitute Teacher

Karen Hellier is a freelance writer and eBay entrepreneur. She lives happily in the mountains of North Georgia with her husband and her dog.


In September 2012 I experienced my very first day as a substitute teacher. I underwent a career change that year due to a personal choice and decided that substitute teaching would fit my need for career flexibility. But I was also very nervous about this new endeavor.

I do clearly remember the utter joy my peers had in elementary school when they walked into the classroom in the morning and encountered a substitute teacher. The words, "Oh cool, a sub" still echo in my ears as I remember the glee on the boy's faces and the terror the substitute teacher endured during the day. Something about a substitute teacher not knowing the exact rules of order that the regular teacher had carefully laid down for the class enabled the students, especially males, to think this was a green light to confuse and torture the substitute teacher throughout the school day.

We very rarely had the same substitute twice. If we did, the substitute was resigned to a terrible day if she tried to enforce the rules she wanted to, and just gave us many study halls throughout the day. And with those memories running around in my head, I logged onto the Kelly Educational Services website to see if there were any substitute teaching positions available for the next day. Kelly Educational Services is an agency that hires substitute teachers and sends them out to various schools that use their services during the school year.

My First Assignment

There before me was a position for a substitute teacher for a Physical Education teacher for the next day at an elementary school. At first, I balked about substituting for a Physical Education teacher. When I was in school, my least two favorite subjects were Math and Physical Education ("gym" is what we called it then). But it was already the third week of school, and I hadn't found a chance yet to sub. And I needed to start making an income. Since the job was only for 4 hours that day, I decided to take it, to get my feet wet in the substitute teaching experience. I held my breath, clicked the accept button, and felt elation and terror run through my veins at the very same time!

After I had accepted the position, I realized I had no idea what to wear. I work out sometimes with my husband and wear shorts and a t-shirt. But somehow that didn't seem appropriate for this position. We were told by the agency that we can not wear jeans to teaching assignments. Since the job did not start till 11:00 a.m. on a Tuesday, I decided that in the morning I would go to Walmart and hope they had something I could buy inexpensively to wear.

That night, as I went to bed, I had trouble sleeping. I am not all that athletic, and I was concerned that the kids would run circles around me all day and I would flub my first day on the job. The whole night I had trouble sleeping. I had terrible dreams that evil men were after me and my three children. I woke up feeling terrified, and even more nervous about my upcoming assignment. I headed off to Walmart and fortunately found a very nice pair of running pants for $8.97! What a deal, and it was especially good because I had no idea if I would ever sub for a gym teacher again, so I may only use them this one time.

The Day Started Off on a Bad Note...

Kelly Educational Services wants all substitutes at the school where they are subbing 15 minutes early. I left in plenty of time and would be there way before my 11:00 a.m. start time. Unfortunately, and maybe it was because I had slept so poorly the night before, I took the wrong road to the school. I was sure it was on one particular route, and it turned out when I arrived at where I thought it was, I was at the middle school, not the elementary school and it was on the wrong side of town!

By the time I realized it and arrived at the correct school, I was exactly on time, but late as far as Kelly Educational Services is concerned. The school secretary told me not to worry about it as the teacher didn't have a class until noon anyway. So, she asked if I would mind helping out at the playground during recess. I didn't mind that at all and headed out to the playground. Once outside, I found a teacher who immediately helped me start "learning the ropes" of the school. Included in the ropes was the information that she and I were outside with the third grade, and this year's third grade was the most challenging group in the whole school. Apparently the year they were born had been a banner year for babies, and especially boy babies in that town. The third grade consisted of 75% of boys who were very active and only 25% of girls. They all looked pretty cute and innocent to me.

Manning Up and Doing My Assignment

When recess was over it was time for me to man-up and become a P.E. teacher for the day. I was headed back into the office, and on the way, passed the gym. Since this was to be my new domain for the day, I opened the door and peeked in. It looked harmless enough. As I was coming out the door, a small student with an aide approached me. This happened to be someone I knew as an instructional assistant from my last job at a high school. We greeted each other warmly, and she asked if I would be teaching him in his special ed gym class. I told her I didn't think I was to have anyone until noon, so we went to the office, and the secretary seemed quite confused when told this Special Ed gym class was scheduled from 11:30 - 11:50. I said it was fine with me to go to the gym and provide him with a gym class so off we went.

Arriving at the gym, I was greeted by two other aides with young children as well. They all had gym class scheduled for 11:30 - 11:50. Upon being let into the gym teacher's office, I found a whole list of lesson plans and a schedule for the day, which included a Special Ed gym class for these three from 11:00 - 11:20!!! Okay, now I was quite confused but decided just to wing it. That was my very first lesson in being a substitute teacher: quite often substitute teachers are put into situations where they just have to "wing it!" By the time our session of rolling balls through hula hoops and bouncing balls up and down was over, I had exactly ten minutes to go to the bathroom and get a drink of water.

For the next three hours, I found myself running around directing activities with a class of kindergartners, a class of first graders, a class of fifth graders, and even a class of the famous "challenging" third graders. I was not allowed to use a whistle, as per the teacher's instructions, but instead had to yell, "FREEZE" to get the children's attention. The children were to drop down to a sitting position and be silent so they could hear the next bit of instructions.

This worked well, except with my challenging third-grade boys, and some students even in the first-grade class, who became overly exuberant with yarn balls that were to be "tossed" at their fellow students below the shoulders. As you can imagine, third-grade boys when they are excited don't always remember to throw below the shoulders, or even toss the yarn balls for that matter. I frequently had to yell, "FREEZE" just to calm things down to lessen the number of teary-eyed little girls, and mild-mannered boys who came up to me with tears in their eyes after getting hit in the eye with a yarn ball, or hurt by a yarn ball that was thrown hard by someone 12 inches away!

Again I decided to just "wing it," and stop the madness! I changed the activity and had them pair up with a partner and toss yarn balls to their partners first underhanded, and then overhanded for 10 minutes each. If you think that this only exercised their arms and the rest of their bodies did not get any exercise, you needn't worry. Students of this age are not very exact with their aim, so frequently had to chase yarn balls that went over their heads or too far to the left or the right.

Thankfully, my last class of the day was the fifth graders who were to play, 'Capture The Flag." Since I have heard of the game, but never actually played it, I was grateful that they all knew how to play it very well. And very happy when two young ladies who were especially enthusiastic and well versed in the game were quite happy to lay out the rules for me and made sure I knew whenever someone broke a rule. My major activity during that last period was to yell, ' Freeze" when one of the teams captured the flag, but the rest of the students were having so much fun running around that they were oblivious to the fact that one of the teams had won a round. At the end of the class, I made sure to tell them in front of their teacher that they were the best class I had had all day and to thank them for their help with the game.

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Wrapping up the Day and My Experience

When those students left, I finally had a chance to sit down and get a drink of water. I wrote notes for the teacher about how the day had gone. And I realized that yelling, "FREEZE" all day had done a number on my vocal cords and given me a sore throat.

As I walked to the office to sign out for the day, a few students were on their way to their buses and smiled and waved at me. That felt nice to be recognized positively. After signing out for the day, I went upstairs to say hello to a college friend of mine who I had heard taught at this same school. Her room happened to be right across from the teacher of that fifth-grade class, and when she heard me greeting my old college friend, the teacher came out to announce that I "was a great P.E. teacher." That still makes me laugh as I write this because that is the very last thing I ever expected to be!

There will be many more days for me this year as a substitute teacher, but this first day will always be my most memorable. Not only did it help me to break into a career I was anxious about, but it also gave me a chance to have a fun experience with kids in an area I never felt competent in. It was truly a growing experience for me that I will never forget!

If you have ever had worked as a substitute teacher, please leave a comment below about your experience.

Here is a Short Video with Tips for Substitute Teachers:


I was a substitute teacher for 2 school years, in the 2012/2013 and 2013/2014 school years. While I enjoyed my time and liked having regular money coming in as paychecks, I found substitute teaching to be very stressful as I have issues with anxiety. I made some wonderful friends at the schools I taught at, and especially loved teaching in a school that was just pre-school and kindergarten, 50% of the children being Special Needs. And it turns out I did really well as a one on one aid with autistic children, and was often requested when staff needed vacation time. Who knew?! I certainly didn't.

I didn't like going into fresh situations day after day, never knowing if the teacher was going to leave lesson plans for me or if I would have to wing it, and if I would have trouble with certain students, etc. I will cherish my substitute teaching years but don't think I will be doing it in the future.

Substitute Teaching Poll

© 2012 Karen Hellier


Felisa Daskeo from Manila, Philippines on April 13, 2018:

Great job there. I'm glad your first day of teaching came out a success.

Karen Hellier (author) from Georgia on October 06, 2012:


Thanks. I was SO worried about it before I actually did the job, but have found the key is that once you enter a school for the day, flexibility is the key to being a good substitute teacher.

Shining Irish Eyes from Upstate, New York on October 05, 2012:

So glad to know how well you adapted to the ever-changing schedule and day. Good for you.

Karen Hellier (author) from Georgia on October 01, 2012:


I think it would be so cool to be taught by someone who dressed like an islander. That in itself would keep things lively. And yes, each day I sub I understand the importance of being able to be flexible and "winging it" more and more! Thanks for reading and for your comment.

Karen Hellier (author) from Georgia on October 01, 2012:

Dear Rochelle,

I will definitely be checking out your hubs about subbing. I like your analogy about the spare tire. You are very right.

Karen Hellier (author) from Georgia on October 01, 2012:

Comfort B,

You are braver than I am. I wouldn't want to sub in a middle school definitely, and not so much in a high school either. As I continue taking subbing jobs, I am finding my niches, and I find some days are better than others, but it does feel good to impact kids lives. Thanks for reading and commenting. So happy you enjoy your work.

Hawaiian Odysseus from Southeast Washington state on October 01, 2012:

I was a young adult taking chemistry and English at a wonderful community college in Tacoma, WA. One day, the Chem prof asked me to teach the class; he apparently had some conflicting business to attend to. So, complete in white lab coat, Hawaiian shirt, white pants, and white shoes (what can I say? I love dressing like an islander! : ) ), I taught organic chemistry to young people about five years younger than me.

What got me through the experience was this very concept you brought up in your article--"winging it." (Hey, I'm still doing it today in my eBay business and my Hubbing. Ha-ha!) Empathizing with the young college students, remembering all too well how science classes can be so boring, I kept their attention and interest by using humor mixed with relevant contemporary anecdotes. Even chemistry can be fun when people are encouraged to answer the question, "What's the point?"

Now, all that paled in comparison to your first day. Young children are challenging enough when they belong to you, but a group of them? In a new environment? On your very first day as a substitute teacher? Oh, my! Karen, all I can say is that you did very well! And I wish you well in your future opportunities as a minuteman teacher!

Rochelle Frank from California Gold Country on September 30, 2012:

Yes, it's true that subs are often ignored, but a district needs them to keep things running smoothly-- just like you need a spare tire occasionally, and you want one that works!

I have written a few hubs about my subbing experiences. I was lucky to have a great mentor and the experience of being a classroom aide, where I could observe subs.

Comfort Babatola from Bonaire, GA, USA on September 30, 2012:

I'm also a regular sub at an alternative middle/high school. My first day was very memorable in a bad way. Never thought I'll go back. Now I'm there most every day. It feels more like a calling as I get the opportunity to positively impact those hurting kids.

It can be very chaotic sometimes. Definitely nothing compared to when I used to teach as an adjunct in a technical school. But at the end of the day, when get home in one piece, it's like I can't wait to be back there.

You aced your first, hopefully you'll get to be a regular at a specific school. Voted up and beautiful.

Karen Hellier (author) from Georgia on September 30, 2012:


I certainly hope I am a sub that teachers request. I am the kind of person that likes to be in control and know what's going to happen next, which was why I was so anxious about subbing. But I have figured out once I have been at a certain school once, and know where the bathroom is, the cafeteria, where to sign in and out, I can wing the rest of it if I need to. I have to make this career work for me, so the stakes are pretty high. I am counting on the income from subbing and online writing for income over the next 10 years, if I want time with my husband, so I have to make this work. I agree with you that it is an adventure! Thanks for the comment and the share!

Donna Hilbrandt from Upstate New York on September 30, 2012:

Being a sub is not easy! You have to go into new situations, adapt, and, as you said, 'wing it' every day. I have nearly two years of subbing experience if I tack it all together. It was often an adventure. Good luck. You certainly have the right outlook, and I bet you will be one of those subs that has teachers requesting you. :) Voted up and sharing.

Karen Hellier (author) from Georgia on September 30, 2012:


Thanks for your vote. I really enjoy the younger age group so I am ok with subbing in elementary schools, now that I have actually gotten past that first day. I think teaching college would be harder for me. Good that God gives everyone special talents so we can be of value where our talents can be most utilized. Thanks for the read and comment.

Karen Hellier (author) from Georgia on September 30, 2012:


So far I have been fortunate that the few teachers I have subbed for have been very thorough in their lesson plans they left for me. I have read a few hubs here on Hub Pages that gave me some ideas on what to bring in my substitute bag to cover if the teacher didn't leave enough. I found those hubs very helpful. Thanks for your comment and the share.

Karen Hellier (author) from Georgia on September 30, 2012:


That is interesting. Did you coach full time?

Karen Hellier (author) from Georgia on September 30, 2012:

Thanks billybuc. I was fortunate that my first experience was not a full day with one class that might have gotten out of hand, but a series of 40 minute classes so I could start fresh with each new class. Thanks for your good wishes for the rest of the year.

Karen Hellier (author) from Georgia on September 30, 2012:


Thanks for the comment. That was what I feared I getting out of control and throwing things around the room. The important thing about subbing as a career is that with this company, if you don't do a good job, the teacher of principal can ask that you not be sent back. That would not be good in terms of getting offered new jobs in the future. I have subbed a couple more times since then, and they were ok as well.

Karen Hellier (author) from Georgia on September 30, 2012:


Thanks so much for your great comment. I hope they would like to have me back because I have since subbed in a few other schools, but the attitudes of the children and teachers in that school made it my favorite so far.

Mary Craig from New York on September 30, 2012:

This was very uplifting. Substitute teachers generally get the shaft from other teachers and staff and students. Your experience sounds like such a positive one and a great way to start your sub career. It looks like there'll be no 'freezing' in your new career. You handled every class like a pro and I bet those kids would love to have you back! God bless and best of luck.

Voted up, useful, and interesting.

Danson Wachira from Nairobi, Kenya on September 30, 2012:

Hi Karen Hellier,

What an awesome story being a sub teacher. Though am used to teach young men and women in college, i somehow dread teaching small children in lower primary school, it can be tough but you obviously did great. And that is an evil dream you had of evil men coming after you and your three children! Voted up and interesting.

MazioCreate from Brisbane Queensland Australia on September 29, 2012:

Great to read you had a memorable first day as a substitute teacher Karen. When I was undertaking a similar role I found few teachers had lesson plans that covered the entire day. I used to go prepared with a box of activities that would keep students on task, I hoped. Good luck with the rest of the year. Liked and shared!

Martin Kloess from San Francisco on September 29, 2012:

Thank you for sharing your experience. I went to school to be a teacher, but there were no jobs. I saw my dreams when I became a coach (licensed).

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on September 29, 2012:

In eighteen years I never had to substitute. It sounds to me like you handled it very well. Best of luck the rest of the year.

Arline on September 29, 2012:

Good job! My first time was a 3rd grade class and I felt many of the same emotions and had a very tough time with several kids and by the end of the day the whole class went crazy throwing papers all over the room! I did not see it coming. Subsequent jobs went much better, and there always seemed to be work available.

Karen Hellier (author) from Georgia on September 29, 2012:


Thanks for the comment. I find that I am a bit nervous when I head to a new school for the first time, but once I get there and sign in, I find it easy to be flexible and wing it. I have had a couple jobs since the first one, and I think once I get used to the schools, I will be fine. I am glad to hear from you that you lasted 12 years. Most people don't last too long, and I need to do this for a long time.

Rochelle Frank from California Gold Country on September 29, 2012:

Learning to 'wing it' is one of the most important skills for a sub. It's great that you learned it early. I subbed pre-K to 6th for about 12 years and really loved doing it.

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