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!

Substitute Survival Guide


While I’ve been active in the education profession as a writer, consultant, and trainer for the past 6 years, I haven’t actually held a classroom teaching position in that time. Recently, I decided to avoid being disconnected from the classroom by taking up a position as a substitute teacher. In the midst of all the chaos – classrooms without plans, students trying to take advantage you, or getting called for a shift 15 minutes before the school day starts – I do really love subbing. I learn more about connecting with students, lesson delivery, and classroom management in a day or two of subbing than hours logged in university education or professional development. For those of you who share in this role as a substitute teacher, whether on-call daily or in a long-term position, here’s my top five tips for surviving subbing.


  1. Don’t undervalue your role. I get asked by students, “Why aren’t you a real teacher?” I usually reply with dramatically feigned surprise, “This isn’t real?!?” Subbing is seen as the bottom of the totem pole for education careers. There’s a mindset that if a substitute is below retirement age, then obviously they have this job because they just couldn’t land a full time job. Anyone over retirement age is just filling in for nostalgia’s sake or to cure boredom. Regardless of your reasons for subbing, you have a really important job. You need to provide stability in an unstable situation. Teachers need to be out of the classroom due to illness, professional development, family needs, or even for a vacation (yes, those a real!). You need to hold down the fort. Like a soldier taking over the post, you are responsible for this group of students – even if it’s for just a few hours. You are not “only a sub.” You are the superhero swooping in to hold back the chaos of routine disruption.
  2. Build relationships. Sure, you might just be a day-to-day sub in a different classroom, building, or even district each day of the week, but it’s still critical to connect with people (children and adults) everywhere you go. Every time you walk through the halls of a school, smile and greet people. You’ll find it makes your day generally more enjoyable. If you re in an elementary building, also make an attempt to get to know all of the “specials” teachers because chances are you will see at least one of them each time you work. Build a relationship with the building secretary; this is the person whom you see first and last each day. They wield an awful lot of power and act as the glue pulling everyone else together. Finally, try to get to know the children. Try to learn their names. Let them know you care. Too many children have adults come in and out of their lives and they never feel valued. In a class period, or over the course of a day show them how important they are.
  3. Observe to learn. Look around the classroom and the building. You can learn a lot about the school culture and classroom social environment by taking a few minutes to just look around. Don’t go through cupboards or desks in a snooping, invasive sense – but even a superficial evaluation could be enough. See what teachers are doing that works. Do you like a center strategy, library arrangement, job chart, or seating plan? Jot it down, or take a photo (but do NOT photograph students or their likenesses). Write down materials you like and consider writing a note to the teacher to ask where materials were purchased. If you are familiar with the school and are a frequent visitor, you can even ask to borrow a book or resource. Learn from each room that you are a guest in.
  4. Try it all. Go through your Pinterest board, web bookmarks, favorite blogs, or dog eared book pages and give a try to behavior modifications, bell-ringer activities, popcorn reading strategies, review games, transition ideas, and time fillers. Each day, you get a new set of students to be your guinea pigs for pedagogical experimentation. Keep a log book or chart noting the strategy you tried, the age level of the children, and pros/cons of your facilitation. You’ll be surprised at how quickly you come to learn what works well for you. This trial and error process can be critical research as you reaffirm your personal philosophy of education. You will know what you believe in because you have not only tried it with success, you know that it is better than other strategies that have failed for you.
  5. Keep a bag of tricks. What’s in my bag? Multiples copies of a daily evaluation sheet that I leave for teachers. (I use this Teachers Pay Teachers freebie: I also keep stickers, a smiley face stamp and scented ink pad, pencils, erasers, and a box of crayons to share with students. The placement company I work for forbids giving food to students (it’s a liability given food sensitives, allergies, and dietary restrictions) but I know many other substitutes who keep crackers, pretzels, or small candies in their bag as well. For my own use, I also have hand sanitizer, tissues, cough drops, a granola bar, and a notebook. I also usually throw in a book to keep me occupied if I have a long lunch or planning period (those are the days to live for!).


Hopefully these tips can help my fellow substitutes embrace their role and arrive prepared to create a great day of learning for students!

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?