Substitute Preparedness

Professional Dress and Conduct

Learn what schools expect from substitutes regarding professional dress and conduct
group of men and women in business casual attire

Working in School Settings

Working in K-12 school settings is exciting, fun, and extremely rewarding! At the heart of everything that happens at schools is the drive to help students learn new concepts and develop skills. Schools love substitutes who are friendly, engaging, and focused on supporting students with their learning activities. Contrary to the negative stereotypes portrayed in movies and TV, substitutes are dedicated, hard-working members of the education community. Just like regular teachers and staff, substitutes are leaders and role models in the classroom and have tremendous impact on students.

If you are new to substitute teaching, you might be wondering what the expectations are for professional dress and conduct. If you are already actively subbing, you may have noticed that different schools have different expectations, causing you to wonder what to do as you accept jobs at different campuses. This article will share guidelines to help you meet school expectations and have positive, learning-centered interactions with students.

Professional Dress

The basic expectation across schools is that substitutes dress in professional attire. This includes attire such as collared and polo shirts, blouses, sweaters, slacks, skirts, dresses, and nice shoes.

Jeans of any kind, leggings, hoodies, exercise or lounge wear, and casual sandals are not considered professional.

Remember that you will be moving around a lot in the classroom, so heels are not recommended. You will also be moving in a range of positions, such as standing, reaching, bending over, sitting, and sometimes kneeling next to students (elementary grades), so wear clothing that won't expose you when you shift around. It is also easy to get accessories caught on classroom furniture, so be careful when considering wearing a tie or jewelry.

To view examples of school appropriate outfits, visit our Examples of Professional Attire for School Settings resource page.

Any inappropriate tattoos should be covered, and many substitutes prefer to cover any visible tattoos as it is a common distraction that students like to ask/talk about.

In many schools, hats are not allowed to be worn in the classroom. Accommodations are generally made for religious coverings, such as a hijab.

One possible exception to attire standards is subbing for a physical education class, where your attire will be appropriate for exercise or athletic activities. Appropriate gym clothes include t-shirts, athletic pants, sweat pants, and shorts that extend well below the bottom. Wearing just a sports bra top or short shorts/spanx-style shorts are not appropriate.

If you take a long-term job at a school, or if you sub at certain schools frequently, you can ask for more specific guidelines from the office to fit their staff's expectations. In some cases, this may mean dressing to higher standards. Sometimes, schools may invite you to participate if they have dress-down days, such as jeans on Fridays, or if they have special spirit week dress days (pajama day, crazy hair day, etc.). You should only do this when specifically invited by the school.

Schools reserve the right to turn away substitutes that do not meet the business casual requirement; the most common reasons are that someone's attire is too revealing or way too casual.

Professional Conduct

As leaders and role models in the classroom, substitutes are expected to conduct themselves with exemplary behavior, which means speaking and treating everyone at the school with the utmost respect. Below are some guidelines that will help you be successful in any class and school setting.

Student Behavior

Student behaviors should be managed with strategies that maintain calm and respect; if student misbehavior escalates and cannot be managed, seek support from nearby staff or from the school office. It is not uncommon for students to push boundaries with behavior when their regular teacher is away; substitutes can prevent much of this by showing confidence from the start, setting expectations and being kind but firm in maintaining those expectations. It is unprofessional to yell at students or to use profanity, public shaming, or put-downs.

A few effective strategies are praising positive behaviors, giving ample reminders of instructions, allowing short breaks, circulating the room, using proximity in problem areas of the room, and moving students to different seating.

Physical Touch

To ensure your safety, and above all, the safety of students, substitutes should never engage in any physical touch with students other than a handshake, fist bump, or high five when deemed appropriate. This includes refraining from hugging (even side hugs), holding, hand-holding, sitting on your lap, pats on the shoulder, or any other form of touching. Any aggressive physical contact is not only inappropriate but can be criminal.


Besides a brief introduction of yourself to the class, you should keep conversations centered on the day's lesson and activities. It is never permissible to share any political, religious, or personal views, nor should you share personal details about your life with students.

It is also never permissible to ask students about their political, religious, or personal views. This includes questions about gender or sexual orientation. If students volunteer information, such as sharing their pronouns or orientation, they are to be treated with respect, and substitutes should not push for additional details.

Substitutes should not use profanity nor any form of verbal, physical, or implied sexual harassment; completely refrain from any conversation or activity that is or can be perceived as sexual in nature.

Do not get involved in or comment on internal school matters ("workplace politics") or gossip about any student, teacher, or staff member.

Personal Devices

Do not use your cell phone or personal device during class. Even if students have an independent task, substitutes are expected to be actively monitoring and supporting students. You may only use your device when students are not present, such as lunch or a preparation period. You may also use your device if there is a serious medical or safety emergency in the classroom.

Do not take pictures or recordings of students, and do not post on social media about students. Even posts meant to be positive or complimentary, if they mention specific students or teachers by name, can upset families in the community.


Information about students is to be kept private and confidential. This includes but is not limited to grades, medical conditions, special education accommodations, behavior plans, discipline outcomes, and family socioeconomic status (free and reduced lunch status).

Do not share student information with other students or with anyone outside of the school staff. Parents, friends, and community members (e.g., coaches, scout leaders, clergy) may in good faith ask you questions about a student’s problems or progress. You must refer all questions to school personnel.


Students can be nervous and anxious when their regular teacher is away. Be the friendly face that puts students at ease, greeting them when they enter the classroom at the start of the day or class period. Be friendly but firm in setting and keeping expectations. A confident and calm demeanor will go a long way in fostering good behavior from students. If you appear timid, stressed, or upset with any challenges that arise, students are more likely to misbehave.

Find ways to make the lesson engaging that the teacher left for the day; students will respond to your excitement and take their work more seriously if they know that you are serious about their learning.

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