When teachers look ahead to the 2020-21 school year, one word springs to mind: shortages. District funds. Qualified teachers. Sanitation supplies. Space for social distancing. Technology access. And – not surprisingly -substitute teachers. While subs were in short supply before, the COVID-19 pandemic will make it even more difficult to find substitutes willing and able to fill in during a school year that promises to bring more teacher absences than schools are prepared to handle. It is, therefore, more important than ever for teachers to establish a positive rapport with substitute teachers so that they will want to return to the classroom. Make sure your substitute teachers have the best experience possible with these tips for creating great substitute plans.  

1. Start with your own teaching.

The preparations for a successful substitute experience begin long before the teacher’s absence, with his or her teaching strategies. In a well-managed classroom, students know the expectations and routines so well that they can practically teach themselves. Prep your students for any eventuality by making sure that they understand the mechanics of the classroom so well that they can continue procedures with or without direction from an adult.

2. Discuss your absence with your students.

Although not all teacher absences are planned, all teachers can plan on being absent at some point throughout the year. Have an open discussion with your students early and often about what your expectations are for times when a substitute teacher is in the room and set clear consequences for what will happen if students do not meet those expectations.

3. Recruit student helpers.

Just because you’re not at work does not mean that your students get the day off from their classroom jobs. Identify your most helpful students and communicate with the substitute teacher who these students are and what support they can give.

4. Assume nothing.

With a smaller pool of substitute teachers to choose from, there is a chance that your sub will not be familiar with your school. Ensure that your substitute teacher can navigate the building successfully by providing even the most basic information that you have taken for granted in your familiarity with the school. Include the daily schedule, names, and rooms of people the substitute might need to interact with during the day in your sub plans. Include locations of important areas such as the lounge and bathroom, and any school-wide policies or initiatives that make your building unique.

5. Spare no detail.

Even if your substitute teachers have experience in your building, no one can expect them to remember the specifics of every classroom they have worked in. Give your sub an outline of your classroom management plan and daily procedures. Be specific about his or her role in the classroom: how much instruction you expect them to provide, how they should address problems that arise, and how much time they should give students to complete their work.

6. Put your plans in the students’ hands.

With so many technology tools at students’ fingertips, some of the best sub plans do not have to reach the substitute teacher’s eyes. Familiarize your students with your classroom’s learning management system so you can implement digital student plans that take some of the onus of the lesson plan off your substitute.  

7. Always have a Plan B.

Despite a teacher’s most meticulous planning, anything could go wrong in a K-12 classroom. Give your substitute teacher extra peace of mind with a backup assignment, something else students can work on if the school’s WiFi goes down, the technology doesn’t work, or students breeze through their assignments faster than predicted.

8. Give easy access.

Everything that your substitute teacher needs for the day should be arranged neatly and in plain sight: lesson plans, student copies, seating charts, lesson materials. Your substitute teacher should not have to search for anything she or he needs to function in your classroom.

9. Make feedback simple.

After spending a day (or more) with your students, your substitute teacher is probably going to have a lot to report back to you. Help your sub provide useful feedback by leaving him or her a report sheet with prompts that will best help you assess your substitute’s and students’ success while you were gone.     

Related: Hello Single-point Rubrics, Goodbye Frustration For Students AND Teachers!

10. Show your appreciation.

If teaching can sometimes be a thankless job, substitute teaching is even less so. Find ways to let your sub know how grateful you are that he or she was willing to fill in for you in your time of need. If your sub is a regular in the building, take time to stop them in the hallway with a kind word of gratitude. If your substitute teacher is someone new, leave a handwritten note of appreciation separate from the day’s lesson plans. If you can afford it, leave a snack or small treat for the sub to enjoy during the day. Do whatever little things you can to show your substitute teacher the value of their efforts.

11. Be ready for emergencies.

There is a common misconception that substitute plans must take hours of diligent planning that go beyond a teacher’s effort during a normal school day. But 2020 and COVID-19 have shown teachers that anything can and will happen and that the worst is still yet to come. Even teachers with the best attendance records need to be prepared with emergency sub plans that can be ready at a moment’s notice. Unique and elaborate sub plans are great for planned absences, but the best emergency substitute plans: 

  • Contain work that students can complete without necessary background knowledge
  • Are adaptable, often taking the form of a generalized worksheet or questionnaire that can be used with a cache of content-related but not curriculum-essential films and texts, so that the teacher does not have to continuously replace used emergency plans
  • Are in a clearly-marked and meticulously-organized emergency folder or sub tub that substitute teachers can find with ease
  • Have been communicated with other teachers or office staff so that they can assist the substitute teacher with any questions he or she may have.

There is no substitute for a good teacher. But there is also no substitute for a good substitute teacher. Keep your substitute teachers coming back by showing them that you take care of and appreciate them through your exceptional substitute plans.