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10 Essentials Every Substitute Teacher Needs In Their Sub Bag (Freebie Included)

substitute bag must haves

Nobody can argue that being a substitute teacher is a tough job; you are presented daily with a brand new class, an unfamiliar environment, and different coworkers at each school. I’ve learned a thing or two through my experience as a substitute teacher about what is necessary to keep with me in my sub bag in order to have a smooth day.

Below I’ve listed the sub bag essentials so you too can have a stress-free day the next time you take a job as a guest teacher.

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I have a cute blush pink colored clipboard with me at all times that I keep the sub notes, class list, and seating chart clipped to. It helps me make sure the day is staying on track according to plan, and helps me to quickly glance at a student’s name if I’ve forgotten it. I also keep notes by student’s names on the seating chart of who is doing an awesome job and who has needed a few extra reminders. This helps remind me at the end of the day what I should share with the teacher in the note I leave to let him/her know how the day went.

similar options: (click to view on Amazon)

Class Roster

As mentioned above, keeping a class roster not only helps a substitute teacher keep track of their students’ names, but also serves as a place to write down notes about the students’ behavior. It’s always good to leave a detailed note for the normal teacher at the end of the day describing how the day went, and naming students who did an awesome job, as well as students who needed extra reminders throughout the day. This doubles as a classroom management strategy because I’ve found when students know their behavior is being recorded for their regular teacher, they are likely to behavior better.

Blank Paper For Notes

If there is not enough room on the class roster for notes about students’ behavior or any other important information you may want to record, blank paper is a must. I’m constantly recording notes for the teacher throughout the day so I always keep at least one blank piece of paper on my clipboard or a notebook that I can easily tear paper out of at the end of the day.

similar options: (click to view on Amazon)

Other Posts You Might Like:

-10 Trendy and Comfortable Items You Must Have in your Teacher Wardrobe 

-Must-Know Strategies for Classroom Management

Water, Chapstick, Hand Lotion

After teaching all day your throat will be as dry as the Sahara Desert. Keeping a water bottle with you throughout the day will help prevent having a dry scratchy throat when speaking constantly. In addition, classrooms tend to have very dry air, and I’m always washing my hands to prevent spreading germs. To ward off crusty crab lips and dry cracking hands, chapstick and hand lotion will be quite helpful.

similar options: (click to view on Amazon)

Water Bottle: I have a hydroflask and find that they are ABSOLUTELY worth the price. Your water will stay cold throughout the entire day and these water bottles are extremely durable. I also find that having a top that you can quickly drink out of without having to screw off the top is a lifesaver when taking a quick drink between sentences.

Chapstick: (not sponsored by Burt’s Bees, just my personal favorite)

Hand Lotion:

Extra Worksheets/Activity Ideas

There is nothing quite like the heart dropping feeling you get when you realize there are no substitute teacher plans left for the day. It’s happened to me several times and it will most likely happen at some point or another to you. It’s ALWAYS smart to be prepared regardless.

I keep a substitute teacher binder in my sub bag that is packed with worksheets for grades K-5, as well as 20 or so activity ideas that can be adapted to any grade level. An example would be a graphic organizer that you can use for any grade level to compare and contrast elements of the story.

I recommend having at least 2 math and 2 literacy worksheets for each grade you plan to sub for. Teachers Pay Teachers has many downloadable worksheets, some for free and some for a small fee. Most of mine I use in my binder are either free downloads or handouts I’ve saved from my education program.

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“While You Were Out” Note for the Teacher” 

I’ve mentioned above leaving a “While You Were Out” note for the teacher to read when they return. This is important because a teacher wants to know how the day went, how their students behaved, and how much material you were able to cover. It’s also a great way to show you care about the classroom you subbed in and provides an opportunity to leave your name and contact information if you’d like to sub for that classroom again. I’ll leave a free download below for my “While You Were Out” note I’ve created for your personal use. 🙂

FREEBIE: Download My “While You Were Out” Template


I’m a huge snacker in general. And I’m always a hungry hippo throughout the day when teaching. If you don’t want to be a HANGRY teacher then be sure to keep some simple quick snacks in your bag for a bit of energy to keep you going until lunch or the end of the day. Some examples I always keep on hand are an apple (the comments I’ve heard students make about “teachers and their apples” crack me up), a protein/energy bar, carrot sticks, almonds (or your favorite kind of nut), and dark chocolate for an afternoon pick me up. 🙂

Throat Drops

Have you ever talked 24/7? When you’re a teacher it can feel that way. You finish teaching the whole group lesson only to move on to teaching 4 rotations of a small group and then transition into a whole group lesson again. Talking nonstop can leave a throat very dry and uncomfortable. A throat drop is a quick and easy fix for that without guzzling a gallon of water only to not be able to use the restroom for the next 3 hours.

similar options: (click to view on Amazon)

Tickets & Prize Box 

My tickets and prize box have made my day SO MUCH EASIER on many occasions when teaching in elementary classrooms. Having any sort of incentive (stay away from food) helps reinforce good behavior throughout the day. I bought a bunch of tickets for a dollar from Dollar Tree and any time I see a student making a good choice, I give them a ticket and keep one that I write their name on. At the end of the day, any student who has earned three or more tickets goes into a drawing for a trip to the prize box. I choose two tickets for two kiddos to win a prize from the prize box.

I bought all items for the prize box at either Walmart or the Dollar Tree. Things like sparkly bracelets, stickers, toy animals, rubber snakes, beaded necklaces, rubber bracelets for boys or girls, slinkies, glow in the dark toys, bouncy balls, etc are great.

Prize Box: (click to view on Amazon)


Prizes: (click to view on Amazon)


“Bag of Tricks” AKA A List of Different Types of Disciplines/Praises/Call Backs for Different Grade Levels

Teaching a Kindergarten class is quite different from teaching a 6th grade class, yet in the school districts I teach in they are both considered Elementary. Because I student taught and completed my practicum for a year and a quarter in a Kindergarten class, that’s the type of classroom management I’m most comfortable with using in the classroom. Lots of songs and call backs are used frequently when teaching a lower elementary grade, so when I’m transitioning a class, doing a brain break, or calling the class’ attention, fun little sing-songs and games are a go-to of mine.

But when I substitute taught in 6th grade for the first time, I realized I had no idea what sort of classroom management tricks to use. I didn’t want to say “Macaroni and cheese, everybody freeze” or “1, 2, 3, eyes on me” to 12 year olds because it felt silly to me. Hence began the research of different classroom management styles to try in upper elementary classrooms. I now have a “bag of tricks” to pull from for any grade level so I’m not caught on the spot trying to bring my students’ attention back to focus.

Every teacher has their own classroom management styles so what you’d like to use in the classroom is up to you! I recommend having several different brain breaks to use when students have been working hard and need a mental break before beginning the next lesson.  Heads, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes is great for younger elementary, Heads Up 7 Up is fun for upper elementary, and Simon Says is perfect for all grade levels. Also, if you haven’t heard of GoNoodle, it will change your life as a teacher. Check it out here.

I also recommend having what I call “call backs” to use for different grade levels. For younger elementary, I use “1, 2, 3, eyes on me” or “10 on your head” where students put both hands on their head (all ten fingers) and their eyes on me, or “Macaroni and Cheese, Everybody Freeze”. For upper elementary, a simple call back to use is “If you can hear me clap once” (the class claps once) “If you can hear me clap twice” (the class claps twice) and so on until the class is focused and all students are clapping in response.

Finally, I recommend having some sort of discipline plan in mind in case the teacher doesn’t leave an explanation of what they use in their classroom. I’m going to leave this one totally up to you because all teachers have different discipline preferences or styles, but having one in mind is crucial if you want your day to run smoothly.

A tip: On your clipboard, make sure to have the office extension number written down as well as at least one nearby teacher’s extension number to their classroom in case you need to send a student to the office or need to send a student next door for disciplinary purposes.

And That’s A Wrap! Feeling A Bit More Prepared? 🙂

And that, my friends, are the essentials I keep as a substitute teacher in my sub bag at all times to keep my day stress-free and even FUN. 🙂 I hope these tips are helpful to you in your substitute teaching endeavors. An essential thing you CAN’T put in your sub bag but is just as important as all these items is CONFIDENCE.

Confidence is key! Fake it ’til you make it and don’t forget to smile, students notice. 🙂

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had students tell me that they love that I’m happy and smile so much while teaching.  Students will forget they don’t like school and will start to enjoy themselves if you make learning fun and provide a joyful environment for them.

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substitute bag must haves


  1. Nancy Campbell says

    Love your ideas!
    Keep them coming!
    I would also like to see your outfit ideas with pants, blouses, sweaters & spirit days.

    • MeredithH says

      Thank you Nancy!

      I do have a post on my work capsule wardrobe you can take a look at here 🙂

      Spirit days would be a fun post idea, thank you for the suggestion!

  2. Richard Tracey says

    Wanted to send a gift your way – thanks for all the tips – I am a 67 yr old that is just starting subing. I would love to get some better descriptions of the games you mentioned. Old men need it spelled out 🙂 Thanks
    Here is my gift to you and all you want to share it with. I did a movie of our zoo here in Asheboro NC. Here is the Link to see it. Takes about 30 min and has over 450 pics and videos of animals and plants and has names of them all. ENJOY!

  3. Shaina says

    Thank you for these! I was wondering if you had any recommendations for a stay at home mom looking to become a substitute. I am applying for the upcoming year and would love to hear some ideas and some recommendations when becoming a sub and what to look forward to! Thank you 😊

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