How to Make Sub Days Work for Your Students

by Justin Birckbichler

I remember my days as a student. The second I saw a substitute teacher, I knew the day was going to be either a waste of time or a free-for-all. I also remember my brief tenure as a sub right after graduation. Some teachers would leave me detailed plans, with directions and where to find things, while others would write “teach math” as their only protocols.

Teachers plant the seeds of knowledge that last a lifetime

With student-led systems in place and some notes (or videos!) on how your classroom functions, your substitute teacher will be able to keep your class on the right track. (GradyReese/iStock)

When I began teaching, I vowed to look at days out of the classroom through the lens of me as a student and me as a substitute. We only have 180 days to teach these students and a day lost can never be made up.

First off, we have some structures in place year-round that make sub days a lot easier. I don’t ever keep lesson plans secret from my students. I have my lesson plans on planbook.com and they are embedded on my classroom webpage. Part of our student-led morning meetings involves sharing the plans for the day with the whole class. Each student knows how to access the plans for the day, so there is a backup plan if something goes wrong with the sub copy.

Before a sub arrives, I always make sure to prepare a detailed version for them  (think college teacher prep class detailed.) I want to make sure that any potential of things going wrong in the normal course of the day will be made easier with a short explanation from me.

My classroom is also pretty tech-friendly, so my students are used to tuning into short instructional videos. In the lesson plans for the sub, I like to include links to Google Drive videos of me giving directions for each activity of the day. The videos are made right in the classroom so I can “point” to where things are and help the students feel like I’m still there. Reminders about expectations are included and I usually sign off with the first part of our classroom motto. Hopefully they finish it!

I leave a printed copy of the plans for the substitute teacher, and share a Google Drive copy to the student who is my “Teacher Assistant” for the month. That way, when that student gets into school in the morning, he can log into Google Drive on the projector computer so the videos can play. Sharing it to a student also deters me from leaving the classic “Watch out for this kid!” I want the sub to have a clean slate with my students so they don’t have tainted views on any of them.

Assigning a Teacher’s Assistant during sub days also provides a message of student autonomy. One thing that I am very passionate about is student agency and a student-led classroom. My aim is for the students to lead their learning every day, even on days when I am there. Because of this, sub days have become easier. Two students take care of attendance and lunch count, while another takes all notes and money to the office. One student reminds who is in charge of morning meeting and the newsletter for the day. A student from each math and reading group is put in charge of assisting the substitute with procedures and finding materials.

Having systems in place really helps during sub days – so make sure to review them with your class before you’re out. For example, my math block always begins with a number talk, followed by math stations. When I was out of school for a whole week, I put a student in charge of running the number talks and timing the math rotations. I provided the templates for the talks, and he ran them. I returned and was curious to see how he did, so I asked him to lead one while I observed. Following the norms we had established in the beginning of the school year, he modeled it perfectly.

Finally, and probably most importantly, I make sure the students know I am going to be out ahead of time (if I know in advance.) If I know I’ll be out next Wednesday, I will start telling them this Wednesday and reiterate my expectations for sub days. Essentially, I say that I expect them to act as if I were there. I also detail the lesson plans for the following day so they know what to expect. I always ask the substitutes to leave me a detailed note, highlighting helpful and challenging students so I can address it when I return.

Setting the stage by letting the students know what is coming, what I expect, and having systems in place to have them run the classroom helps make sub days successful and productive.

Justin Birckbichler

Justin Birckbichler is a fourth-grade teacher in Stafford, VA and a Google for Education Certified Innovator. He presents about technology integration at national events, including a 2016 keynote address about challenging teacher mindset. Connect with him at @Mr_B_Teacher and read his blog at blog.justinbirckbichler.com. He’s currently battling cancer and documenting his journey at www.aballsysenseoftumor.com.