Preparing for a Substitute
As a teacher or staff member, you are doing a million things every day! It can be hard to remember all the pieces and nuances that go into running successful school activities. When substitutes step in, they are as eager as you for the day to go well. One of the best supports is having a solid lesson plan and detailed notes so that substitutes feel confident leading students through the day's learning.
Tips for Successful Sub Plans
The tips below can help you and the substitute be in the best position possible—even with those unexpected, emergency situations that might come up.
Create a Uniform Template . . . and Reuse!
Your school may have a sub plan template that you are required to use, but if not, you can create one and fill in permanent information for the school year. Every time you need to write sub plans, you can open your saved template and simply add in the new lesson's details. If your school does not have a uniform template, this is a great project to work on with your grade-level or content area team during professional development meetings. The more consistent you can keep the formatting of sub plans across your grade or school, the easier it is for subs to become familiar with them as they return each time.
Having a template also helps you when those unplanned situations arise by having basic information already written in the plan. With a template, you can even prepare some extra sub plans in case you have an emergency that keeps you from being able to put a plan together. In these cases, you can let your building secretary, administrator, or team member know where you have those emergency plans stored away.
Avoid or Explain Jargon
When you are immersed in the school setting, it is easy to forget how many acronyms and education-specific terms are used! Write your substitute plans so that those who are not as experienced are able to understand who and what you are discussing. Assume that even common and long-standing terms might not be familiar to a substitute.
For example, a substitute might be confused by this instruction: "There is an additional handout that you can give to the ELL students for support."
It is better to take the time to fully explain, "There is an additional handout that you can give to the English Language Learner students for support; those students are Pablo, Elianova, and Amir."
Note Any Changes to the School Schedule
If there are any special events or circumstances that will change the school schedule, be sure to make that clear in your notes. This might include things such as
- guest speakers
- picture day times
- scheduled emergency drills
- early release times
- adjusted lunch or recess times
- anything else that will impact/interrupt the day's regular schedule
Note Students with Behavior, Medical, and Special Education Needs
Give substitutes a head's up about students that have any special needs or plans in place. Note students who have behavior plans or who require extra attention to follow school expectations. It is also helpful to note students who may need additional support based on a special education IEP plan, including any strategies that are in place for intervention.
If any students have significant medical needs or special medical equipment, such as allergies, seizures, epi pens, glucose monitors, etc., let the substitute know what to monitor and what the school protocol is for a medical emergency.
Note Anyone Coming and Going throughout the Day
Make sure to note if there are regularly scheduled times where support staff are coming into the classroom or students are being pulled from the classroom. For example, a student might be excused at 10:00 AM daily to work with the school's speech therapist, or a middle school student might have a regular meeting with the school counselor on a given day. Without these notes, substitutes may hold students, unsure if they are truly scheduled to be released from class.
Let substitutes know the everyday routines that are used in your classroom. This is where it can be especially helpful to have a template that you reuse throughout the year so that you don't have to re-write this information each time you put together sub plans.
Some routines to share might include
- how students enter and leave the classroom
- how students get materials and clean up
- how students ask permission (bathroom, sharpen pencil, etc.)
- how students turn in work
- how you get student attention after an activity
Give Time Frames or Estimates
As a teacher or staff member, you are experienced and savvy with time management! You come to know your students and know how long different tasks should take. Substitutes often do not have that same familiarity, so they may be not realize it when they give too much or too little time for assignments.
It is helpful to give time frames, or at least estimates, of how long each part of the day's plans will take. For example:
9:00 AM - 9:20 AM
Dismiss students one table at a time to come sit on their assigned square on the carpet at the front of the room. Read aloud the book The Sneetches by Dr. Seuss. Allow students to raise their hands and comment on the book during the reading. Allow more or less comments depending on the time.
9:20 AM - 9:30 AM
Dismiss students to return to their seats one row on the carpet at a time. Pass out the assignment based on The Sneetches and do the first two items together as a class. Invite students to raise their hands and share ideas; help them formulate complete sentences in their responses (see attached answer key for ideas).
9:30 AM- 9:55 AM
Students must stay in their seats, but they may work with others to finish the assignment. Students should use the coloring materials in their desk cubbies to complete the items that require drawing and coloring.
Students clean up their materials; dismiss students one table at a time to turn in their work to the basket on my desk. They may line up at the door after turning in their work, and you will walk them outside for their morning recess at 10:00.
Share Where to Find Materials
It might seem obvious where all the materials are located, especially if they are sitting out somewhere in the classroom, but it doesn't hurt to point out exactly where substitutes can find the materials that they or students will be using. If substitutes need to use anything that is not sitting out, it becomes essential so that they are not digging through drawers and cabinets trying to locate things.
For example, "Students will use colored pencils to complete the color-by-math sheet. The colored pencils are located in a bin on the top shelf of the bookcase at the back of the room."
It is important to also share the location of any materials needed for emergencies/drills, general medical supplies such as bandaids, and any special medical supplies for students with potential severe conditions.
Have an Extension Prepared for Early Finishers
One of the most difficult situations for a substitute is having students finish their work early with nothing to do afterward. Unsurprisingly, this is a time when misbehavior might increase and distractions might prevent others from completing their work. Having an extension activity prepared for those early finishers will help them stay engaged with school and take pressure off the substitute to come up with something or try to manage students with down time.
Having a specific extension activity printed out will be more successful than a general activity; for example, consider the difference between these two situations:
- "If any students finish early, they may draw on blank paper." (general, seems optional)
- "If any students finish early, give them the vocabulary word search to complete." (specific, is another task left by the teacher)
The second situation keeps students engaged in classwork and allows the substitute to manage behaviors more smoothly.
Be Specific about Work Expectations
Can students move seats during work time? Can they work with partners or in groups? Are they expected to finish the entire paper, packet, or project? Are they allowed to use classroom technology (calculators, laptops, etc.)?
Even if you are able to manage a more casual classroom environment, it can be helpful for substitutes to have some guidelines or boundaries in place. It is helpful when substitutes can tell students, "Your teacher wrote that you . . ." This helps reinforce to students that the noise, movement, and work expectations are not just the whim of the substitute but that they are facilitating your directions.
Share How to Get Support
Substitutes appreciate knowing how they can get support during the day. Whether it's simply needing a run to the restroom, or technology issues, or discipline support and so on, let the substitute know about any helpful nearby teachers or who they can reach out to for questions.
One thing that is often overlooked on sub plans is how the substitute dials the office from the classroom phone or what channel to use on a walkie-talkie for outside activities. This little piece of information can make a big difference for keeping things safe and running smoothly.