Preparing for the Inevitable: 10 things you should always have available for a substitute

I wrote in a previous post (Substitute Survival Guide) about my recent return to the classroom as a substitute teacher and I offered some advice for my colleagues who teach on an ad hoc basis. This post offers the flip side – what you can do as a classroom teacher to make life easy on your sub and your students.

There’s no one who can run your classroom as well as you. From the carefully organized bookshelf to the exact location of your favorite stapler upon your desk, everything has a place and purpose. You have the flow of the day calculated down to the minute, making sure everything is accomplished with enough time to fully explain the homework and wrap up the lesson. Even the climate and ambience of the classroom has been carefully cultivated. Perhaps it’s this personal attachment and investment with our classrooms that makes it so hard for teachers to allow someone to step in and take over – whether it’s for an afternoon dentist appointment or a 6-week parental leave. I hated calling off sick when I was a classroom teacher. Even more than the unplanned absences that come about from illness or emergencies, I would stress over writing down each detail for a upcoming day off for PD or an appointment. Sometimes, it feels like more work to prep for a sub than to just go to work!

Whether you leave your sub a well-detailed novel about what should happen in the course of a day, or you scribble, “Students should continue yesterday’s assignment – they know what to do” on a post-it (I’ve encountered a number of variations of both!), here’s a quick list of 10 things you can prepare ahead of time and have accessible for when a substitute comes to your classroom:

  1. Class rosters: Are all of these students supposed to be here? Who is missing?
  2. Schedule: When does that bell ring? What subject should you be teaching at that time? Most importantly, when is lunch!?!
  3. Homeroom Responsibilities: In addition to taking attendance, do you need to do anything else like collect lunch money or monitor the dress code?
  4. Supervisory Responsibilities: Do you have lunch, recess, hallway, or dismissal duty? If so, what does that entail?
  5. Lesson Plans: What are you supposed to be covering today?
  6. Emergency Procedures: What do you take with you for a fire drill? Where do you go?
  7. Behavioral Procedures: How do you handle misbehavior? Is there a system in place that you should follow?
  8. IEP / Special Education Information: Don’t violate FERPA, but who needs accommodations?
  9. Go-To People: What teacher nearby can help, or who do you approach in the office if you need help? Which students can you trust to give help?
  10. Support Staff: Is there anyone who pushes into the classroom for help? What is their role?

If you feel overwhelmed with the idea of creating a substitute resource file from scratch, there are a ton of planners, binder templates, and documents that you can download from the Internet to help you plan these items in an organized fashion. Here’s one that I created and offer for free download. Whatever you choose to use, make sure that this information is accessible – it’s really frustrating to wing it through the day, only to find the sub-binder on a shelf in the back of the room or the lesson plans on the floor under the desk where they were knocked off by the janitorial staff!

Once you have all of this work taken care of, don’t forget to take some vitamin C, eat a balanced diet, and exercise regularly so that you can use less sick days and just let that newly created sub-binder collect some dust!


Back to School Basics: Don’t Recreate the Wheel

I can’t tell you how many times I recreated the wheel as a teacher. I’d spend hours developing a worksheet, or labor over making sure I had all of the information for a form and then a colleague would say, “Oh I could have sent you one that I use!” or I see a teacher-friend on social media post a link to an online resource that was exactly what I needed. It’s frustrating to be sure. So, before you take your precious time to create a resource that already exists… check with the teacher next door, ask your friends, or look online. Make a pledge to yourself that this is the year you become more efficient and make use of your amazing colleagues who have blazed the trails before you.

If you school doesn’t already provide you with tracking forms, lessson plan templates, or conference planners, I’m sharing with you here some amazing, FREE options that are available online. The best part – these are forms that you can type directly into.

  • Student Tracking Forms: With daily, weekly, or class period options in addition to a completely blank form for you to customize, you can easily track everything from attendance to homework to lunch orders.
  • Lesson Plan Templates: Includes 6 format options: Snapshot Lesson Plan, Weekly Lesson Plan, Traditional Lesson Plan, Self-Contained Classroom Daily Plan, Thematic Planner, Unit Planner
  • Parent Conference Planners: Six different planning templates to help prepare for parent-teacher conferences: Traditional Parent Teacher Conference,  Referral for Student Services Conference, Portfolio Review Conference, Student-led Conference (teacher planner), Student-led Conference (student planner), and Parent Planner

Looking for something more specific? There are thousands of amazing teacher-created materials out there online – and many of them are free! Here are some excellent sources that I check when looking for resources:

P.S. While you’re browsing those resources, you may start thinking to yourself, “Hey, I have great lessons of my own!” Why not take some time to format the lessons and create your own shop on one or more of these sites. Don’t be intimidated – you don’t need hundreds of lessons (although you certainly go that route if you’re inclined).  Personally, with 21 products in shops on Syllabuy and Teachers Pay Teachers, I earned about $500 last year. That was enough to take the family on a weekend getaway – just by sharing things I had already created for my own use! So, while you’re looking to avoid recreating the wheel in your classroom and saving yourself some time – why not get your ideas out there and do the same for someone else… and make a little cash too.

Lesson Planning: The differences between teacher prep and practicality

I saw a picture on Facebook one morning and had a good laugh about it. It was one of those “e-cards” with the text:

  1. Find your plan book
  2. Hear email… check it
  3. Each chocolate
  4. Chat with coworkers
  5. Surf teaching sites
  6. Try again tomorrow

Then I started to think about the process of writing lesson plans… and wondered why this is such a stressful part of our jobs as educators. (Cue the flashback sequence) When I was in college, the lesson plan template for pre-service teachers was a three page form that needed filled out. For each lesson. As a freshman, I learned the importance of activating prior knowledge, and always taking the time to provide closure. I started college the year NCLB was passed, so we also spent a good amount of time learning about standards. As a sophmore, in came the greuling process of learning to write clear, measurable objectives that did not include the words know and understand. (Wherever you are, Dr. Stephen Ransom, I thank you for drilling that into the heads of students at Mercyhurst University because in every position I’ve held since graduation, someone has complimented my awesome objective statements.) Junior year it was all about being super creative, using manipulatives, designing project oriented lessons, and integrating technology.

When you’re only submitting lesson plans for a professor to review, or popping into a local elementary school to complete one class period it all seems fine and dandy. Sure, I can fill out three pages to complete a 40 minute lesson. Let me consult my Bloom’s Taxonomy verb chart, flip through the standards binder, and come up with a cute little demonstration or activity. As my senior term in student teaching progressed, filling out that lesson plan form was EXHAUSTING. In a Kindergarten classroom, there were 14 different “lessons” that were going on each day. When it came time for me to plan and implement on my own for the last two weeks of the placement, that came out to 84 pages of lesson plans! I rememeber sitting in my car in the parking lot, head down on the steering wheel, silenty sobbing because I was so overwhelmed and drained by everything. How on earth do teachers do this?

Being the crazy-driven-overacheiver (you can read that as “obnxious”) person that I am, I graudated after the first term of my senior year and in less than a week of finishing up being a college student, I walked into a classroom as a subsitute teacher. In a 10 minute introduction to my new job, the principal showed me the essentials: bathroom, teacher’s lounge, the classroom I was in that day. She then said, “Oh here’s your lesosn plans.” It was a single sheet of paper. One sided. For the whole day. Where were the objectives, the procedures, the activating prior knowledge activities!?!? English class’s plan wasn’t even a full sentence: Personal narrative about walking outside. WHAT?!?

It took until my third year of teaching until I was able to master the art of the block lesson plan. I could print the entire week’s plans at a glance on a single sheet of paper that I taped to my podium. My standards were listed in a separate spreadsheet file where I had all of the designations listed and I filled in the date next to the standard when it was addressed. Any long-term projects, center activity plans, or asessements were in a separate binder.

Now here’s the moral of my lovely little story: While filling out a form to structure lesson plans taught me how to break down a lesson and plan the essential elements – it was HIGHLY IMPRACTICAL when it came actually teaching in a classroom. Most teachers have less than an hour of planning per week (during school time at least, we all know you’re working long hours at home too!). What my teacher education program, and many others, still miss the mark on is teaching you how to succinctly and effeciently write your plans so that (a) you know what on earth you’re going to teach (b) a sub could figure it out (c) it still meets any requirements set by your school/ district / state.

In the comments I want to hear from you: What’s the one piece of advice you have for teachers struggling with lesson planning?