How to set a substitute—and your students—up for success

How to set a substitute—and your students—up for success - TLG-IMG-01282020When I was 21 and began teaching, I was rarely absent. Then, life happened. I had a baby, became a State Teacher of the Year, and found myself serving on various committees and attending professional development courses. Being absent from time to time became unavoidable.

I’ve come to truly appreciate the value of substitute teachers, especially the ones who have become regulars in my classroom. I’ve also learned how to plan so my absences do not mean an absence of learning for my students. Here’s what I do:

1. Get organized ahead of time

I love a good binder, and using one to plan for a substitute has made my life simpler.

My substitute teacher binder gets reused from year to year and updated within the first month of school. It includes tabs with the following information: explanation of classroom routines, technology information, student dismissal routines, pertinent medical information about my students, and class lists for attendance.

I’ve […] learned how to plan so my absences do not mean an absence of learning for my students.”

Having everything in one spot makes it much easier for a sub to jump right in.

2. Prep students

As a lover of routines and expectations—and a class that thrives on them—I always let my students know if I have a scheduled absence. Even if I think I might be out (I’m getting sick or my child is getting sick) I give them a heads up. I reiterate our classroom guidelines and how I expect them to follow them, complete their work, and treat the substitute with the utmost respect.

There are times when giving students a heads up is impossible, and that’s just life. Dealing with unexpected situations is something our students need practice with as well.

3. Follow routines

One of the reasons I try to rely on a few different substitutes who know and understand the flow of Room 21 is so they can easily follow our routines.

My students begin each day with a morning meeting, and there was a time when I wasn’t sure a substitute would want to have that part of the day. However, I came to learn that beginning the day without our meeting did far more harm than good. I now keep the schedule consistent while keeping in mind that I want the work to be meaningful for my students and manageable for my substitute.

4. Use a template

I have a Google Doc labeled “2019–20 Daily Schedule” that I use when writing sub plans. The template includes information at the top all subs need to know, a table with the daily schedule and typical directions, and information about other teachers who spend time in my room. This template makes it so easy to write sub plans because most of it is already done!

Teaching is a team sport, and great substitute teachers are my unsung heroes.”

I fill it in, and as I type, I highlight anything requiring materials I will need to leave for the sub. When I print it, I rely on the highlighted words to remind me to gather all the materials and lay them out for the sub. Then I put those plans in my sub binder and rest assured that everything will go smoothly.

Here’s a sample:

How to set a substitute—and your students—up for success - sample-schedule

Tweet: Five ways to set your substitute teachers up for success #edchat5. Express gratitude

All of these proactive strategies are fine and dandy, but I’m not naive. Despite the best laid plans, being a substitute is hard work, and not all days run as we would hope. My sub plans end with an expression of gratitude: thanking the kind soul for spending the day with my students. When I am lucky enough to have one of my regulars sub for me, I often reach out via text throughout the day to check in and thank them again.

Thanks to all the subs!

Because of kind, hardworking, and amazing substitute teachers, I can be absent when needed, which affects me in so many ways:

  • I am able to become a better teacher by attending professional development
  • I am able to grow as a leader when the opportunity presents
  • I am able to maintain a healthy balance in my life and take those much-needed personal days
  • I am able to be a helpful member in my family by staying home when my son is sick
  • I am able to heal when I am sick

Teaching is a team sport, and great substitute teachers are my unsung heroes.


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