A Setup for Successful Subbing
Here's how to avoid the pitfalls of substitute teaching and make the best of a challenging situation.
If you teach an ongoing group fitness class, inevitably you’ll need a sub. Odds are also strong that you’ll be a substitute at times throughout your teaching career. Whether you are subbing out or subbing in, you want the experience to be the best one possible—for your class, the other instructor and yourself.
Everyone’s heard the horror stories about subbing:
- returning to your regular group and being bombarded
- coming back after an extended subbing-out schedule to have management tell you the sub is taking over the class—you are out, and this supposed “temporary” person is in
- entering to teach as the sub and facing a hostile room
- seeing members walk out as they see you, the sub, walk in
Such scenarios show why it’s imperative to set the scene for subbing success. Fortunately, it’s easy to turn subbing into a win-win situation with a few thoughtful actions and announcements. What are some tips for ensuring a positive subbing experience? Take these actions whether you are seeking a sub or filling in for the regular teacher:
Leave Your Ego in Your Gym Bag
Subbing out. Subs are not your competitors, so put them in the best light possible. I have witnessed teachers tell their class, “Don’t worry. I’ll be back next week, so you have to put up with this sub only for an hour.” Another jaw-dropper I overheard: “I know you all don’t like the sub I lined up, but it was my only choice.”
Subbing is not about making sure your participants love you best or ensuring that a colleague can never match you. It’s about creating a positive workout experience for your members, no matter who is leading the class. If you teach well, your class will be happy to have you back even if you send them the world’s most popular, amazing, superstar sub. Isn’t that what everybody wants? If the sub outshines you, use it as motivation to improve. On the flip side, if your sub underperforms, it’s your responsibility to better choose, prepare or support your next sub.
Subbing in. A talented former colleague subbed in for another teacher and got flooded with requests to take the class permanently. His response? “I’d love to take over this class long term. Maybe if you let management know you want me for this slot, they will make a change.” How often do you suppose the regular teacher asked him to sub again after that?
Your job as a sub is to teach well and support the usual teacher. Undermining a colleague makes members feel awkward and disloyal—and it reflects poorly on you. You are not there to prove you deserve to teach that class more than the person who asked you to cover it. Use the opportunity to be a team player and to showcase your skills. If appropriate and genuine, compliment the regular teacher or cite an example of how you and that teacher operate together behind the scenes.
Manage Class Expectations
Subbing out. Let your participants know how you expect them to treat the sub. This is not only the most helpful action you can take, but it’s also the most underused opportunity. No way around it—the degree to which participants accept a sub is the regular instructor’s responsibility.
You must be proactive. Don’t line up a sub, then neglect to mention it to your participants or gloss over it by simply saying, “You will have a sub next week.” Set detailed expectations—positively and with enthusiasm.
Share Information Beforehand
Subbing out. At a minimum, let your sub know enough about your class to prepare for their fitness level, group personality and class format. Does the group prefer rapid changes and a lot of variety or high repetition and gradual progressions? Are the demographics skewed in a way the class description does not reveal? If your yoga class is not billed for any specific age group but has an average age of 65, let your sub know. If your group loves Top 10 hits but dislikes oldies, share this information.
Let’s say your class is Strength and Stretch, and you consistently devote no more than 20% of the time to stretching. Let the sub know—but as a point of reference, not as a dictate. Your sub may go with a 50/50 format, but at least the sub knows to prepare the group for something different.
Subbing in. Ask the regular teacher about content, structure, traditions or anything else that is not apparent from the written class description. For instance, one of my most rewarding and well-received sub-ins happened in a class format I don’t teach—Pilates Fusion.
In this case, I subbed for a teacher who had an emergency. I walked in cold to sub for a popular teacher, encountering a group I had never met, and about to present a format no one expected. No better recipe for walkouts and resentment, right? My preclass announcement had to reset and reframe the situation, and I had to get buy-in from participants that we were in this together.
After introducing myself, I reassured the class that their regular teacher had been called away for an emergency but was okay and would return the next week. Then I told them that while I did not teach Pilates, I planned to reach similar goals and benefits via a different mode that I was skilled in.
With confidence and a lot of energy, I laid out a challenge: “Try my exercises, some of which I guarantee will be new to you. Let me know after class whether you were still able to strengthen your core, progress your goals and feel you spent your time well despite today’s changes. While I may be new to you, you can rely on my long experience to do my best in (your regular teacher’s) absence. Is that a deal?”
Before we even started, I got buy-in and a thumbs-up. No one left. The feedback was fantastic and centered on my teaching. They didn’t compare me with their usual teacher or mode of exercise.
Be Yourself: Teach Authentically
Subbing in. The biggest mistake I see subs make is trying to emulate the usual teacher or trying too hard to be someone they are not. While your mode and format will usually be consistent, your personality is what sets you apart. Go into the class clear on who you are and what makes you unique.
In the Pilates Fusion subbing example above, I flat-out told the group that I had a big personality, cracked corny jokes and sometimes sang along with my playlist. If they expected me to be like their usual teacher, who is calm, soothing and modulated, I busted that myth right away. I can’t say it enough: Successful subbing is all about setting or resetting members’ expectations. You are almost always better off facing potential issues directly rather than dancing around them.
Say No If You Have Little or No Chance to Succeed
Subbing in. Finally, it’s okay to say no to subbing for a teacher whose class is known to be difficult or unwelcoming. Just because you are available or able to sub a class does not mean you are obligated.
Over the decades, I have worked with many instructors who did not prepare their participants for subs. Most of these teachers were simply passive and neglectful about managing their regulars’ expectations. A few teachers actively created an environment where a sub could not succeed. It’s one thing to welcome a challenge and quite another to be set up to fail. Simply say no in the latter case.
If you want to go the extra distance even while refusing to sub, try what has worked for me: “Thank you for asking me to sub your group, which I know is dedicated to you and upset when you are gone. Once you have trained your people to welcome subs, I would be willing to help out. Until then, I wish you the best procuring a good match in your absence.”
This hearkens back to my principal belief that the odds of sub success ultimately depend on the regular teacher. Group exercisers around the world have enough in common that you know what to expect of them. They are neither the problem nor the solution—you are. To put it succinctly, be direct: Let people know what to expect.
Decades in the fitness industry have led me to immensely enjoy subbing for others. On the flip side, when I have to miss a class, I train even my most persnickety class members to embrace (or at least accept) the sub. In fact, the finicky members are my best source for improving my teaching, as they tell me what the sub did well in my absence.
SAMPLE SCRIPTS FOR THE “REGULAR” TEACHER
AHEAD OF TIME
Communicate openly when announcing an upcoming sub to your class:
“Next week you will have (name) as your sub, as I will need to miss class. Allow me to thank you in advance for being welcoming, friendly and open to new moves, cues and any other differences. If it weren’t for (sub’s name), you would not have a class next week, so I am glad she was willing to help out. Play nice in my absence.”
WHEN PEOPLE COMPLAIN ABOUT A SUB
Listen briefly to glean key feedback points. Don’t agree with members’ complaints or get sucked into negative comments. Redirect the conversation from what didn’t work to what would:
“Rather than complain to me, next time let the sub know directly what you want. (Sub’s name) wants to teach a class you enjoy. If something could be better, tell him. He has the skill and desire to adjust the class to what’s right for this group.”
Another option: Ask complainers to rephrase their comments as positive, constructive requests you can take to the sub. “I want to hear your input, as it’s valuable for all of us. Tell me specifically what this sub could do better or differently next time.”
AFTER THE FACT—WITH YOUR CLASS
What to say to your class when you return from subbing out:
&ldqou;It’s great to see you all after having to miss last week. I am glad you had the chance to experience new moves and cues. I’d love to hear what you liked about the sub. Should I use this instructor again?”
If you get few responses and suspect the sub was subpar, ask for more feedback in a more private setting. “After class, please give me specific requests to bring to the sub so she can meet your expectations better next time.”
Do not immediately give up on using that sub or give veto power to your participants.
When feedback is positive: Acknowledge the class and the sub. “I am so glad to hear the sub taught well for you and that you were receptive to her. I will try to get her again. A few of you commented favorably on (a move/exercise/cue/song/element) that she introduced, and I will try to incorporate that into future sessions. Also, I’ll pass along your compliments to the sub.”
AFTER THE FACT—WITH YOUR SUB
Call or email to thank your sub. Pass along positive feedback from the class. “Thank you again for helping me out last week. The group mentioned how much they appreciated your creative combinations and clear cues.”
Unless your sub asks, hold off on addressing any needed changes or negative comments. Save requests for when you next ask this teacher to step in. That’s the time to offersolutions to members’ perceived problems:
“Last time the class really enjoyed your creative choreography. And if you could repeat your combos more often before adding on, they could follow you even better.”
SCRIPTS FOR COMING IN COLD
Sometimes you’ll arrive unannounced as a last-minute or emergency sub. Unless the regular teacher or program director has authorized you to say why the regular teacher is absent, simply address the change generally.
Introduce yourself in a way that piques their interest, gives them confidence in you and establishes the group dynamic you intend to create.
“As you can see, your regular instructor could not be with you today. My name is Kymberly, and you can expect a workout today that will be X, Y and Z. For sure you will experience some new things and differences from your usual class.
“I’m going to ask three things: (1) honor what your body needs, even if it means modifying what I present; (2) let me know right away if I can make the workout better for you, whether that means changing the air, volume or an exercise; and (3) let’s have fun together.
“Raise your hand if you are game to give me, yourself and today’s workout a go.”
ADDRESSING COMMENTS AFTER CLASS
Class member: “Your class was great, much better than our usual teacher’s. Can you take over the class?”
Focus on the positive aspects related to you. Divert any discussion that undermines the regular teacher. “Thank you so much for welcoming me and for the kind words. Any positive feedback you have about my teaching, please pass along to the fitness director (write a note, leave a message).&rdquo:
Class member: “What other classes do you teach? Would you be willing to teach more classes like this one?”
The answer to these kinds of questions is easy, as they don’t include anything negative, unsupportive or divisive to the team. Reply with whatever is appropriate and accurate for you. If you want to add a class to your regular schedule, perhaps reply with: “I’m glad you liked my class and want more like it. The members’ voice is the most powerful. Management wants to offer what members want to take, so let them know what would make you happy. I look forward to seeing you in a class that gets added or next time I sub.”
A CHECKLIST FOR SUBBING OUT
HAVE A SOLID PLAN IN PLACE
When you know ahead of time that you will be gone, use this quick checklist to prepare your class participants for a sub. These steps have always worked well for me, especially with my most entrenched exercisers:
- Announce your upcoming absence at the start and end of class.
- Let the group know who will be subbing, what his or her strengths are, and why you chose this sub.
- State that you expect all class members to show up. No skipping class because a sub will be there.
- Thank them in advance for being open-minded and welcoming to the sub. This is perhaps the most important part of the checklist, because you are describing desired behavior. I’ll even say, “I’m counting on you to show the sub that this is a fun, hardworking, responsive group” (plug in any adjectives you would use to describe your class). Remind them that change is good for their bodies and brains.
- Ask them to let you know after your return what—not if—the sub did well in your absence. Reframe the experience as beneficial to everyone.