Professional Practice

8 Sub Stories You Won’t Believe

Finding a great substitute for your art room is like striking gold. They can follow plans, engage students, and keep your classroom running smoothly. Those subs get the first call because you can rest easy when your kids are in their care.

But, we’ve all experienced some substitutes who… maybe aren’t the best.

I once had a student who made some interesting pottery. Really impressive work! Soon after she had completed a set of four vases, I had a sub in my room. He asked who had made the pieces, and said he really liked them. Normal enough. But then things got weird.

The sub started measuring them with a tape measure that he apparently always carries around. He was asking a lot of questions, like, “How porous are the interiors?” and, “Can these be sealed with a wax ring?” and, “How many ounces of powder can fit inside them?”

Finally, after bothering this student all day, he said, “I’ve got these four dead dachshunds that I just cremated. The ashes are just laying around the house in Ziplock bags, and I don’t know what to do with them. Your vases are perfect, and I’m going to buy them from you.”

He offered her $13.32–for four vases–which was all of the money he had on him that day. She obviously declined. And I obviously declined to have him come back to my art room.

But it gets worse than a handful of cremated canines (which, to be honest, is a sentence I never thought I would write). When I asked a few friends of AOE to share their sub experiences, stories got better as behaviors got worse.

Unfortunately, horror stories abound. Fortunately, some of the most entertaining are right here.

A Sticky Situation


“I had to report one sub to the principal because the guy brought in live snails that he was handing them out to kids. As a reward? As a perk? I’m not sure. Once again, in case I wasn’t clear– LIVE SNAILS. Crazy, creepy, strange, dirty. So many issues.” –Greg Moss

The Christmas Caper

“I had a sub who forewent my plans because he brought his own Christmas coloring sheets. But then he “also brought some butterflies for kids who don’t celebrate Christmas.” As if that made everything okay.” –Amanda Heyn

The Wrong Tool for the Job

“I had a sub who let my first graders use my super-huge, stored-in-the-back-room, for-adults-only paper cutter to trim their collage scraps. That was an accident waiting to happen.” –Heather Crockett

Well, That’s the Pits

“There was a sub in my building who used to wear flip-flops and a tank top every time she was there, no matter the weather. She also used to sweat profusely, and wipe her armpits with her bare hands. My kids told me this as I was holding papers she had handled after an especially egregious armpit incident the day before. Not my favorite moment as a teacher.” –Sharae Campbell

Secret Sauce

chicken wings

“I had a sub who worked nights as a bartender. He used to tell my kids all kinds of crazy stories about the bar. He also would drive there over lunch to get chicken wings, then bring them back and eat wings while kids were working during 5th hour. He didn’t get asked back after getting buffalo sauce and ranch on one of my kids’ artworks.” –David Thiede

Technical Difficulties

“I once had to have an emergency sub. She showed up in a beret, and my colleague had to go in there every hour to show her how to do everything. How to turn on a computer. How to play a PowerPoint. How to play a YouTube video. How to minimize a window. OH. MY. To top it off, she left notes on my sub plans about how disappointed she was that my 1st graders couldn’t remember the name of the artist we studied the week prior.” –Jen Borel

Crouching Teacher, Hidden Jewelry

“I was excited when I first found out I would have someone in my room with an art degree. I was not excited when I heard she literally walled off the desk with books, creating a space to work on her jewelry. The kids couldn’t see her, and she couldn’t see the kids. You can imagine what went on with high school kids unsupervised for 90 minutes at a time.” –Christian Hansen

The Moral? Take care of your best subs!

While those stories are entertaining, they can also be disheartening. For all the work you put into teaching routines, procedures, and expectations, it can all fall apart when a mediocre sub is in your room. But don’t worry; there are more good subs than poor ones. Chances are, you will find a few gems and hopefully avoid experiences like the ones listed above.

So, how do you ensure you can consistently get good subs coming back to your room?

The same people who survived the above experiences had a few pieces of advice:

  • Leave clear plans, seating charts, and information.
  • Make sure a colleague is available to answer questions and help when needed.
  • Hold your kids accountable for their behavior.
  • Find a way to circumvent the system–get your favorite sub’s number, tell your secretaries or admins about them, and find a way to get them in your room.
  • Leave small treats (candy, coffee, etc.) to let the sub know they are appreciated.

If you follow this advice, you can leave your classroom in better hands. And though you may have fewer unbelievable sub stories to tell, your kids will be better off because of it.

Do you have any unbelievable sub stories to share?

What do you do to take care of your best subs?

Magazine articles and podcasts are opinions of professional education contributors and do not necessarily represent the position of the Art of Education University (AOEU) or its academic offerings. Contributors use terms in the way they are most often talked about in the scope of their educational experiences.


Timothy Bogatz

Tim Bogatz is AOEU’s Content & PD Event Manager and a former AOEU Writer and high school art educator. He focuses on creativity development, problem-solving, and higher-order thinking skills in the art room.

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