How to Prepare Your Classroom for a Substitute Teacher

By Andrew Hawk

How to Prepare Your Classroom for a Substitute TeacherSubstitute teachers are the unheralded heroes of public education. The good ones never get the recognition they truly deserve. Even the less-than-stellar substitute teachers deserve praise for stepping up in tight situations and doing their best. Having briefly worked as a substitute after college, I personally know the challenges that subs face every day.

The entire entity of substitute teachers can be vastly different from state to state and even from school system to school system. Some states require that substitute teachers have a college degree, while others require them to pass a competency examination. Some school systems have a vast network of substitutes, while other school systems merely have a list.

Whatever the situation, the way to prepare your students for a substitute teacher always starts with you and your planning strategies. Here are some tips that I hope will help you the next time you need a substitute.

Understand the Subs Available to You
If the substitute teachers in your network are mostly retired teachers or graduates trying to get their foot in the door, you probably will not have any problems when you need a substitute. However, if you work in a system that employs nonprofessionals as substitutes, you will need to plan accordingly. The day a nonprofessional comes to sub in your classroom may be that person’s first time being in front of a class. If you simply jot a list of work on a sticky note and leave it on your desk, there will probably be problems during the day. This can lead to the loss of precious instruction time. When preparing your sub plans, you have to take into consideration the range of experience of the possible substitutes.

Emergency Sub Plans
Some principals require teachers to leave emergency sub plans in the office. Whether your principal requires them or not, keeping these readily available is a good idea. We all think that an emergency absence will never happen to us, but the odds are that it will eventually. When something unexpected happens, you should not leave your colleagues high and dry. Since you don’t know exactly when you will be using these plans, it’s best to use general skill review strategies as the foundation of emergency sub plans.

Sub Plans
Details, details, details! These plans should be close to a minute by minute account of what is supposed to happen during the day. If your reading block is ninety minutes long, your sub plans should split this time into sections with detailed instructions. Preparing sub plans like these can be a lot of extra work. This often makes missing a day seem like a punishment. However, the extra planning time is worth it to keep your class running smoothly.

Don’t Forget to Leave a Sub Folder, Too
Inside this handy folder you should put emergency information relating to drills. This is also a good place for any student health plans, student behavior plans, seating chart(s), and a building map. Any other information that is important for a substitute to know but does not exactly fit into a sub plan would go in the folder as well.

This folder will be different depending on the teacher and the students. Special ed teachers should include which classes have students with health plans as well as the plans themselves. I would not recommend that special education teachers include IEPs in their sub folders. It is unlikely that a substitute would have time to read them. What would be more realistic is to produce a summary sheet of things from the IEPs that your sub will need to know to get through the day. This is especially true for students’ individual accommodations.

Set High Expectations for Student Behavior
I have heard of colleagues punishing their classes for misbehaving for a substitute teacher. I have also heard that some teachers offer rewards for good behavior. Both of these strategies are debatable. I prefer to set high expectations for student behavior in all settings, and then emphasize the importance of treating a substitute teacher as if he or she is a guest. If you have developed a well-functioning classroom community, this should not be hard. Students in a well-functioning classroom community take ownership of their classroom almost as if it is their home. In this way, students often want to make guests feel at home. If you know that you will be missing a day, give your class a pep talk and revisit your expectations for behavior. It is a major cliché that students misbehave for substitutes. This classic phenomenon is completely avoidable.

Don’t Forget Your Principal
Sometimes we get a rowdy group in a class. How students’ personalities will interact with a sub can be hard to predict. If you happen to find yourself with a group like this, it might be a good idea to have your principal pop in to make sure everything is going okay.

Side Note
Substitutes are entitled to know any confidential information that is required to fulfill their duties. If substitutes breech confidentiality, the blame is on the substitute, not the school. However, this does not mean that teachers should write derogatory warnings about individual students in their sub plans. Please do not write things like, “Watch out for Jimmy, he can be a handful.” This is unprofessional. If substitutes gossip about notes like this, the blame is on the teacher. Instead, write something like this: “Jimmy has been known to exhibit challenging behavior when I have a sub.”

Andrew HawkAndrew Hawk has worked in public education for fourteen years, starting as a teaching assistant in a special education classroom. He has taught first, second, and fifth grade as a classroom teacher, and for the past three years has worked as a resource room teacher, providing services for fourth and fifth graders. Working as a special education teacher has given him the opportunity to work with a variety of age groups and exceptionalities. In 2011, he earned his master’s degree in special education from Western Governor’s University. When Andrew is not preparing for school, he enjoys spending time with his wife and daughter.


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