Would you Bribe Your Students for the Sake of a Sub?

Recently, I was lucky enough to travel with my husband on a business trip. This meant that my students would have to have a substitute teacher for consecutive days. I don’t know about your students, but sometimes my students play “sink the sub” in my absence. It happens on a rare occasion, but when it does, it’s not fun. As someone who was a substitute teacher for over a year, I know what it feels like.

So to avoid any instances of “sink the sub” in my classroom during my absence, I decided to bribe my students.  Yup, I bribed them, and I’m not ashamed of it.  I guess a better term could be rewarded.


A conversation with a colleague persuaded me to implement a reward system. Her students had constantly played sink the sub, so she decided to reward them for positive behaviors in her absence. For each day she’s gone, if her students are good, she gives them a free day. They choose what they do for that day. She raved about how good their behavior has been since she implemented the system.

I used a reward system when I taught at the elementary level, but I didn’t know if my middle school students would buy into it.

I had to try it out.

The reward system I created gives each class the opportunity to earn up to 3 stickers per day. If they earn a certain percentage of stickers in my absence, they earn a free day where they get to choose what to do.

When I returned from the trip, 4 out of the 6 classes had earned a free day, and the other 2 weren’t far behind.

The system needs some tweaking, but I can say it has made a big difference in student behavior in my absence.

How do you handle classes that play sink the sub?

Do you think implementing a reward system specifically for sub days is a good idea? Let’s chat!

Cassidy Reinken

This article was written by former AOE writer and life-long learner, Cassidy Reinken.


  • Francie

    I have tried a couple of reward systems, but with 500-600 students per week I find options too expensive and ultimately too hard to maintain. The only one I believed in rewarded every student who’d done what they were supposed to do every week with with a sticker I made. My thinking now, however, is that students need to know–by being told–that they should do what’s expected of them. And they need to be told that the intrinsic reward of knowing that they did the right thing is reward enough. Culture has moved away from acknowledging “the gut” and the good feelings that can occur there. Not that tangible rewards are okay every now and then, but day-in/day-out, I want students to be responsible and earn the rewards of learning all about art and making art.

  • Margaret Roddey O’Neal

    I also was a sub for a couple of years and I think I would consider a reward of some kind although in elementary school we only see the kids once a week, so a whole entire free day probably won’t happen. Maybe like 10 minutes of free time.

    However, I often find that elementary students are ready to get back to the regular routine of the classroom after they have had a sub and need to get back to it.

    • Time with our students is ever so precious! I make sure their “free” day always revolves around art in one way or another, and I give them options.

  • Marilyn Peters

    I teach high school and the first thing I tell my kids is that I expect a sub to be treated like a king or queen. I also tell them if a whole class acts up they can expect a seating chart the day I get back. I also let them know that if the sub leaves me a positive note about the classes behavior that there will be a reward–for high school students I usually bake cookies for them, but I am talking around a 100 kids not the 400-600 students that an elementary or middle school teacher has. The kids love it when I bake for them–there is something special to them about me taking the time to bake for them. It is also a treat because I basically do not allow food in the art room for safety sake.
    I will tell you occasionally you get the sub from you know where. I like a strict sub, but I got the sub from there last year. The first day she subbed in my room things were rocky but I was able to move past it. The second time she subbed in my class is the last time she will ever sub for me. I called central office and for the first time in 25 years I blackballed a sub. She offended my best behaved, mildest mannered students. She told a students she thought kids came to school to learn not draw all day–her first 2 classes for me were drawing 2 and AP Drawing and 2D Design. She criticized the fact that the studio art room was messy saying that I must never clean–one of my mild mannered Hispanic girls that rarely speaks to me let alone a stranger spoke up and told her It is the Art Room. She offended my Hispanic students by criticizing the fact that they spoke in Spanish to each other. She told the kids that she would hate to see my house, that it was probably as messy as the classroom. Needless to say any student that she left a note on was not written up. One good thing came out of it–she cleaned my sinks!

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  • Phyllis Mowery-Racz

    I have been in my middle school art room for the past 26 years. Day two of class I explain my sub policy. Having been a sub for the first 7 months of my teaching career I know the routine. I tell my kids my ‘Sub Story”, and I make it into a Melodrama! Starting with the phone ringing at 5:00am, the hard job of picking out what to wear so the students don’t make fun of you, Going to work some place where you don’t even know where the bathrooms are located…I play it up big, making subbing sound like the worst job ever. I ask the kids, ” When you were in kindergarten, and your teacher said, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” How many of you said, “I want to be a substitute teacher so kids can be mean to me everyday?” I tell them that middle school students have a bad reputation, and it is their job to change that. Anyone causing trouble for the sub gets detention. The class with the best behavior gets a reward, Jolly Ranchers, Otter Pops, etc. I was out for a week once for bereavement, and made root beer floats for the best class. Typically my subs leave me a note that my classes were wonderful.