I’m a new middle school teacher, and last week I had to miss two days due to illness. When I came back, my classroom was in shambles and it appeared that the students did not do any work. What can I do, short of never missing another day, to make sure this doesn’t happen again?
—Scott, Coeur d’Alene, ID
Substitute teachers are amazing. They get a call the night before or early in the morning to take over classes for subjects in which they might not have experience or credentials. They may be unfamiliar with school procedures or a teacher’s routine. Students may have the notion unacceptable behavior is okay when the regular teacher is out . Sometimes, substitutes find no lesson plans or other materials to help them. And for this, they get a per diem that, after taxes and other deductions, can be quite modest.
“Subs” have a variety of teaching experience: some are new teachers waiting for a full-time position, others are retired teachers who want to teach occasionally or teachers in between positions trying to maintain their skills. If you know in advance when you’ll be out and who your sub will be, you can prepare class activities appropriate for his/her knowledge and skills. But sometimes, as in the case of illness, you don’t have the opportunity to create detailed plans. Having a “sub folder” can be a lifesaver for both you and the sub.
Whether your sub folder is kept in the school office or in your desk, be sure it is clearly marked and up-to-date. Provide a seating chart for each period with the students first and last names, the bell schedules, and emergency procedures (e.g., fire drill directions). Attach the syllabus for each course you teach as an overview of the content and expectations.
Include several days worth of activities that relate to the learning goals for your course. Videos are sometimes overused as sub plans, so be sure any video relates to your course goals and provide suggestions for what students should do or discuss before, during, and after watching it. Unless you know the sub is familiar with the technology in your classroom, or each class has a student designated as the tech assistant, avoid activities involving devices such as the interactive white board or electronic response systems.
Avoid busywork (such as word searches or copying notes or definitions) or directions to have the students “read silently” or “work on other homework” for the entire period. (This would be difficult for them, even when you’re in the classroom!) Activities you weren’t able to get to in a recent unit are good options to include. Some teachers collect magazine articles for students to summarize and share. If your students have access to laptops, they could work independently or in pairs on online activities or to search for information related to a course topic. (NSTA’s SciLinks has suggested websites and online resources, and there is an option to create lists of favorites students can access.)
I liked to use emergency sub time for students to review and use vocabulary (even the non-science subs felt comfortable with this). One of my favorite vocabulary activities is a “word splash.” Using a prepared word list or one the students generate (perhaps from a current event or a picture in the textbook), teams of students write sentences that include two or more of the words. Ask the sub to have the teams chose 2-3 of their “best” sentences to share with the whole class to debrief. In “word sorts,” give groups of students lists of words to categorize with a description of their thinking. In both of these activities, the sub can collect the students’ work or ask them to use their science notebooks.
Even if you are positive the sub is credentialed in science and is familiar with laboratory routines and safety precautions, I would not ask the sub to do a lab investigation with a potential for student injury or requiring chemicals, live specimens, flames, or heat sources.
Include a note in your folder with any routines that should be followed at the beginning and end of the day and during each period (e.g., attendance). Provide a way for the sub to leave a status report of what was accomplished during each class along with any issues, problems, success stories, or suggestions. If, after your preparations, the substitute does not follow your plans or allows students to behave in unacceptable or unsafe ways, you have the responsibility to share this information with your principal.
Good subs deserve respect as professional colleagues and can put your mind at ease when you’re away. For a frequent or long-term sub, a thank-you note or token of appreciation is a nice gesture. I asked some friends doing some post-retirement subbing for additional suggestions. Their ideas included a clean coffee mug to use, phone codes to access the office, the name of a nearby teacher who can assist with questions or problems, and directions from your room to the faculty lounge, main office, and restrooms.