Eight tips for substitute math teachers — from someone who is one

An unprompted piece of artwork from one of my students while I was his substitute math teacher (good likeness to me, but off task, has a typo and I definitely wasn’t teaching the class for ‘the pay’).

So, you’re a substitute high school teacher and have just been handed your day sheet. There’s a load of math classes on there. You scout around staff room desks for lesson plans — some are sketchy on details. Oh, I didn’t mention you’re not trained as a math high school teacher yet? That’s me to a tee — but I seek out and often get math classes to cover.

You never know what topic of math you’ll be teaching. And just when you think, yeah, I did math x years ago, you remember that it’s not that simple. You not only need to understand it, but have that helicopter view to simply articulate the underpinning concepts in several ways so it connects with your learners. Math is concepts and processes and then some. It’s elegan. And so linear. If you’ve forgotten chunks of math along the way, you’ll know about it when you’re at the helm of a high school math class.

Want to know how to put your best foot forward and go in looking and feeling like a winner?

Loads of adults have math anxiety and chances are you might subconsciously feel you left your ‘math brain’ in grade school. The pressure is off. You’re not being asked to be the “best-ever” math teacher — just the best substitute teacher you can be. Think in mathematical concepts, not just processes.

Look at your math class. Eight out of ten of your students will have math anxiety even before they enter university or college. In fact, even teachers have math anxiety, research shows, and don’t be surprised that this rubs off on their students. Remind them that no-one was born with a ‘math’ brain nor sport or music brain. It’s a learned skill, so they better start cracking. TeachHub hands you 12 ways to reduce math anxiety in your learners such as starting small and easy, mixing it up, using a calculator (early on) and games. Oh, and remind your students to also ‘take a deep breath’.

There is so much good will out there when it comes to teaching mathematics. With your day plan in hand, and hopefully some lesson plans, too, use any spare time you have before class to revise the unit of work. Here are some to quick ways to do that (and they can help transition the kids back into the topic, too):

  • The Khan Academy — a repository of videos and info covering K-12 by grade or topic, but make sure it’s relevant for where you’re teaching as I’ve heard they’re more geared to the US state of California.
  • TES teaching resources — such as lesson plans, worksheets — many free though others have a price.
  • Teachers Pay Teachers — a marketplace where teachers sell (or give away) lesson plans and worksheets. A hefty three million resources are available.

When I have a brain freeze in math classes and the couple of useful books I keep in my backpack don’t work, there is another easy option. (Those books, by the way, are The Math Handbook for Students with Math Difficulties, Dyscalculia, Dyslexia or ADHD, by Helmy Faber [2017], Universal Publishers, USA, and The Pocket Basics for English and Math, by Lynn Magee, [2002], Nintendo, USA).

That easy option? Ask your brains trust of students who know the answer. No volunteers available? Just start writing the math problem on the whiteboard to eke out the next step. Have a go — if you’re doing something wrong, there will probably be a student who’d love to tell you that. Hearing crickets? Leave it up there for students to ponder. Meanwhile, Google it discreetly then return to it.

Ensure all the lesson plans you receive come with answers including how to work the problems out. Some teachers even have an ‘absent work folder’ in their ‘home’ classroom and train their learners to go there to catch up with the work (but you probably won’t have the answers in there).

Plan B, is the textbook with the answers. Don’t assume the lesson plans will come with these. It pays to check.

So, if you’re working on your feet and have a student stuck mid-problem who asks you for help and you, too, are stuck, give these a go:

  • Do a ‘shout out’ for a student volunteer in the class to help them with it
  • Suggest they write out the question on the whiteboard in pairs/a group of three students and recruit a student volunteer who’s already worked through the problem successfully
  • Pull out your ‘Photomath’ app on your smartphone to photograph the problem and see if it has a solution (and the steps) for you. It even works if you photograph a handwritten version of the math problem. (Here are 10 more apps that are nifty to have in your back pocket in math class). The free site Symbolab or the paid WolframAlpha may also help.
  • Still stuck? Tell your students to skip that question until their regular teacher returns (I hate this one — I don’t find it works, just annoys the student).
  • Or as happens in one senior high school where I taught recently — get the student to email/text their teacher with the problem and request. Yes, there are actually teachers out there who encourage that. Gives you an insight into the passion for math.

You may not actually get to meet in person the teacher you’re replacing. And they won’t want to be bothered by email. I’ve found the head teacher can often let you know which students shouldn’t sit together and issues with particular others.

However, if they are around, ask them for some background about the learners, how they react to substitute teachers, any learning difficulties or special needs, even the class-seating plan. Having an option of where to send disruptive students (after multiple warnings, of course), is handy — usually a math teacher’s classroom nearby or to the head math teacher.

The best I’ve received was a detailed report of each student’s relevant learning and wellbeing needs. It was helpful to know how they learned best, what triggered off-task behavior and what adaptations I’d have to make to bridge any learning gap they had.

An overview of some of the math concepts that primary school (elementary in the US/Canada) need to know in the Australian state of New South Wales. Source: NSW Department of Education

Just say, and this happens, there’s no lesson plan, nor even an edict to have the students revise a chapter from their textbooks. I’ve found that having a few different worksheets and multiple copies of them is useful. I have them sorted for different stages and year levels and make sure they’re not obviously labeled thus (to the student). That allows me to hand out a simple worksheet to a student in a higher stage, but who’s having issues. The worksheets can give them a quick win they want and need early in the class. I select worksheets that don’t require correcting if possible.

Some of these I’ve sourced through hand-me-down math workbooks. I still visit the university where I did my teaching degree and they have a box of de-commissioned library books that anyone can take. Peeking in there has really boosted my home library of math books. Put it out there in your network — you never know if there’s a now-retired teacher who’d love their cache of math teaching resources to go to a good home.

In most classes, usually, a student quizzes you along the lines of “why are we doing this?”, “I’m never going to need to know this” or “what’s the point of this?” Every day adults use math to calculate about time, money, financial issues — it comes down to number or measurement, a Canadian survey found.

If the math classroom doesn’t have a collection of laminated signs with math puns or luring students to take up math-related careers, here are some stock answers for your arsenal:

  • Math is about quick wins
  • Making mistakes in math increases your brain functioning
  • All the cool kids do math
  • Math is problem-solving — and that’s life to a T.
  • Math helps you better understand the world around you.

Or as Dr Allen Mendler says on edutopia, “It’s not about the math! You’re not just in a math class! THIS IS A CLASS IN SUCCESS TRAINING!” Spot on! He advises teachers to tell their students the content may not make sense yet but … as well as using humor and connecting to life goals. Being a substitute, you’re probably not going to know those goals of your students though.

High schools and colleges that follow a ‘Positive Behavior for Learning’ (PBL) approach might have these — for the good kids, a reward ticket or for those off-task, a referral note for the head teacher to deal with.

This is the toughie. Students will sidle up to you and tell you “you’re only a casual/substitute/relief/spare teacher”. That’s probably after you’ve detected the class collectively relaxing their shoulders as they expect they’re in for a free session. When I was studying my teaching degree, I balked at the decree that, as teachers, we needed to control our students’ behavior. That’s impossible, I thought. As a substitute teacher, you kind of begin to expect off-task behavior and disruption in your classes. And you’ll hear words of comfort about it in the staff room — “oh, they’re always like that with substitute teachers”. But why? And should we accept that? Nope.

I’m still finessing my classroom management skills — and probably will be for my whole teaching profession. But the ones I’ve found work for me include:

  • Remind your students you’re a real teacher first, then a substitute teacher. If they ask ‘are you a math teacher’, your canned response could be ‘I can teach math’, ‘why is it important for you to know the answer’, or ‘moving right along now’.
  • Saying ‘I will have your attention’, then not speaking again until your charges are quiet (I love how some of the kids get impatient waiting for me to talk, that they tell their peers to ‘shush’). This might take as long as three to five minutes, but don’t give up. You’re training them as much as yourself in patience.
  • Doing the roll in a rapid-fire voice that’s just about normal speaking tone — don’t rise above the cacophony with your best foghorn voice; bring those listening ears down to you. If they don’t answer, they’re marked absent so have to explain themselves (ok, this one is a bit tough on them).
  • Getting the lowdown on the school’s behavior management philosophy. It guides you on which behaviors you turn a blind eye to, which you follow up and ensure they are consequences for the student. This is a useful form to guide your management if your school doesn’t have one.
When the head math teacher has a laminated note on her desk to ‘please leave the classroom as you found it’, it might be a good idea to photograph her classroom before the kids come in. Saves arguing with them at the end of the class about whose rubbish litters the floor.

These may sound like a no-brainer, but I’ve heard around the traps that not all substitute teachers do this: mark students’ work and give a written report about how the lesson went to the teacher they’re replacing. If the school doesn’t have a form handy that covers not only what the lesson plan is, but has space for you to write your debrief, you can find inspiration here.

It’s your judgment what you include there, as a guide let them know if you followed the lesson plan, how much of it, students’ progress, any big behaviors/disruptions or other issues. Perhaps you’ve noted that some students struggled with particular concepts — the regular teacher probably already knows that, but why not mention it as part of your report.

I’ve seen some substitute teachers just write ‘class well-behaved and worked through the worksheets’, which doesn’t really give much insight into what happened. I’m assuming if anything major/off-task happened, the students may later mention it to their regular teacher anyway, so why not give them a heads up before they waste their class time debriefing with that teacher about what happened? I carry a wad of these forms for whichever school I’m working at.

Carry a few transparent plastic document protectors, too, so when you hand back the notes, report and student worksheets, it doesn’t fly off the teacher’s desk when a door in opened.

Check out my other stories on Medium where I talk about the slow transition I’m making from substitute K-12 teaching to a permanent part-time math teacher. What are some of your favorite tips for substitute math teachers or teaching math in general?.

Education writer MTeach|GradDip Comm Mgmt |BA Journalism

Education writer MTeach|GradDip Comm Mgmt |BA Journalism