Setting a Sub Up for Success: Tips from Teachers on Planning for a Substitute Teacher
No matter what grade or subject you teach, it’s inevitable: You are going to miss some school days. You could be ill or have a pre-planned absence, but whatever the reason, you need to be prepared for a substitute teacher when the need arises. Taking some time to create solid substitute teaching plans can go a long way toward reducing your stress and anxiety about leaving your class, and can help make sure things continue to run smoothly in your classroom during your absence.
“I will say it is much harder to be gone than to be sick and survive a day,” says Julie Roesch, a fourth-grade teacher in Minnesota.
But, Roesch agrees that planning ahead is essential when it comes to preparing for a substitute teacher.
We asked teachers including Roesch to give their best tips for planning for a substitute teacher. Here’s their advice:
Create Folders or a Sub Workstation
“I keep subfolders for each class period from the start of the year that I use to place possible sub-friendly activities I find both in physical form and on Google Drive,” says Erin Gittings, who teaches middle school in Maryland. She also provides a printed copy of the daily schedule and a list of students with specific behavior, social, or emotional concerns.
Says Rhoda-Jo Stress, a former elementary and middle school teacher and school administrator in Virginia, “Make sure the plans left are thoroughly written, with books identified and readily available.”
Kathy Foor, a kindergarten teacher in Indiana, keeps a bin on her desk labeled “Substitute Sanity,” and notes, “In the bin is a binder with lesson plans along with a class list, schedule, bus students, lunch students, specials, etc. Also included are the materials needed for the day—guides, student work, writing utensils needed for the teacher, etc.”
Have Detailed Substitute Teacher Lesson Plans Available
“At the beginning of the year, I create a document with the daily schedule,” says Angie Sybert, a first-grade teacher in Tennessee. “When I need to be out, all I have to do is type in the lesson plans in the correct time spot. I store it on Google Drive. That way, I can edit it from anywhere which is great if the absence is unexpected.” She also advises to keep lesson plans simple and leave specific instructions.
Roesch keeps a standard sheet that she uses as the first page of every sub plan she creates. “It has the class list, notes on students who have special needs, along with phone numbers to call in case issues arise. In this note, I have the times kids leave for special services and times kids take meds. I have the times where I have a para in the classroom, and how they are expected to help. Because I have this all listed, I don’t have to put it in my actual sub plans for a certain day.”
Tailor Your Sub Plans to the Specific Sub, If Possible
“A lot depends on the sub,” Roesch says. “If I know who it is beforehand, and if they like to teach versus prefer to show an (educational) movie, that makes a difference. If they were a former teacher or someone with a teaching degree, I have a pretty generic plan.”
Her plan may include having students read books online, complete math worksheets or watch a Bill Nye the Science Guy video that coordinates with the science curriculum. “Then we fill in the day with other things that the sub can easily implement with little direction. If there is something that MUST be done, I contact one of my colleagues to run something off or to talk specifically to the teacher. If I have a sub who is not a teacher, I generally will leave a movie for a part of the day, along with discussion questions to answer. Or, I have students go to the computer lab to play Oregon Trail.”
Send Yourself to Class, Virtually
“One idea I saw actually had a video with the teacher explaining the work to the students,” says Foor. “I thought it was great, but when you don’t feel well, one is probably not up for doing the video. But if you are off for professional reasons, it might be a handy way to keep the students sane, as well as the sub.”
You may want to have a few ready-made lessons that your students can complete with minimal teacher-led instruction, especially if you’re unfamiliar with your substitute. Thanks to technology, it’s easier than ever to make your lessons accessible no matter who is teaching.
Make Sure the Sub Has Help
“Have various students identified as student helpers,” says Stress. “Indicate a teacher who can also be of help.”
Rhyan Wong, who teaches elementary and middle school classes in Virginia, says it’s also important to let subs know which students are reliable for information and help.
“I know for sure my students will play tricks on the sub. They like to switch names and seating arrangements,” Wong says. “So I partner up all the students likely to play games on the sub with my most responsible and honest students. That way, there will be a smoother transaction during the day for the sub. I also write down that certain students cannot be responsible with other students.”
Put Yourself in the Sub’s Shoes
Give your sub lots of information, says Sybert, including things you might take for granted. “Tell the sub where your team eats lunch and the location of adult restrooms,” she says.
Be Prepared for Emergencies
“I have saved plans on my computer with the things that do not change in my daily school routine,” says Toni Nicholson, who teaches sixth grade in North Carolina. “This plan contains a schedule and a highlighted note at the top about the emergency plans and where they are located. There is also a folder containing papers that may need to be copied in an emergency sub situation including my copy number.”
Ask for Feedback
Wong says students can often provide feedback not just on the sub but also on how the day went as a whole, noting, “I usually give my students a particular job of spying on each other. That way, I can pull each student out the next day and see how the classroom went from their point of view.”
And, says Foor, asking the sub what worked or didn’t work is important as well. “At the end (of my lesson plans) I also have a place for comments from the sub, asking, ‘What would have made it easier for you?’ ” she says.
This blog was originally published on May 8, 2018. It was updated on September 29, 2022.