Substitute Plans: Keeping Students Productive When You're Absent

By Justin Lim on February 15, 2010
  • Grades: 1–2, 3–5, 6–8, 9–12


It's that time of the year again. It's late Winter and the usual swell of students and teachers falling ill seems to be coming along right on schedule. For teachers, missing even just a day of class presents a huge obstacle, especially considering the pressure that we face to stick to our pacing plans. Next, is the fact that even the "best kids" tend to slacken in class when they realize that there is a substitute for the day.


Even if you're the type who rarely gets sick, there's still the matter of conferences and trainings that occasionally take us out of the classroom. Although no sub is going to be able to run your class as well as you are, here are some tips that will help your students to stay productive:

1. Have an emergency lesson plan in the class - You never know when you're going to fall sick or when an emergency might require you to request a sub. It's always best to keep a complete class lesson with materials in one of your drawers so that somebody can step in without you having to prepare anything. I personally use a lesson about study skills, because it can be used for any class or grade level. This way, a sub can use the same lesson plan and materials for all of my classes. If you would like a copy of my emergency lesson plan materials, you can download it by clicking on the link below.

Download Study Skills

2. Keep a copy of your seating chart posted near your desk - Unlike you, a sub will not be able to take roll by simply looking out into the class. Make sure that your seating chart is up to date and easy to find.

3. Give more work than your students can finish - I always intentionally leave more work than any of my classes could possible finish, because especially when there is a sub, idle time can easily become a classroom management issue. As an extra precaution, students can have silent reading books to read for early finishers.

4. Make sure that your sub knows where to go to ask for help - For 90% of the issues that might come up, a sub doesn't really have to call the front office. Whenever I'm at a training or conference, I always make sure to let the neighboring teacher, Ruby, know. I also leave instructions for the sub to contact her if there are any issues. I let my student TAs know that I'll be gone too. All of them are familiarized with our class procedures by now and they can navigate my class much better than any sub.

5. Let your kids know that you missed them when you return - I always let my students know the reason for my being out of class, because I want them to understand that they're important. When I'm out for professional development, I try to emphasize that like them, I'm a student too, and that I always want to better myself. I tell them that I miss them and that I want to be a better teacher for them.

Interestingly, teachers are the only people that I know who actually don't like to take time away from work. Hopefully though, some of these tips will help you to make sure that your kids stay productive the next time you have to be out.

Do any of you out there have universal emergency lessons that you use too? Are there any substitutes out there who have other comments to add?

Warm regards,

Justin Lim

Rosemead High School

El Monte Union High School District



Another solution to the laborious task of creating sub plans is to go to the "Teacher Saver Sub Plans" website and check out the ready-to-use, full days of substitute plans that they sell. You can purchase a day of substitute plans that are easy-to-use and based on National Common Core Standards.

Just google search: Teacher Saver Sub Plans

I love this article because I am a sub in the district. I have the qualifications to teach myself but have not found a position. Therefore, the most stressful days for me are when I feel like I am "babysitting" because the teacher doesn't leave any plans. It makes me look unaware as well and the students pick up on that quickly. It's especially difficult to sub with no lesson plan when I am fully capable of actually teaching so that they don't get behind. It makes me not want to sub for that teacher again. I know teacher's don't always know what they are going to get out of a sub but here is my advice: You can never write down too much information for a sub! I love to know the background of the class, students, and a detailed lesson plan. It helps me answer questions students ask and seem more knowledgeable and confident in my day with them. The one thing that is usually missing is a seating chart- it's nice to have that so I can write names down for positive and negative reasons instead of having to describe them to the teacher. That get's tricky and uncomfortable. (Some teachers even have pictures with the student holding their name on paper) And it makes attendence quick! (I'm horrible at pronouncing names :) I like the other advice given too! Thanks for this article!

Hi Justin, I'm of the opinion that it's much easier to be in class and teach than it is to prepare for a sub! :D I love the suggestions and am going to share them w/my English team. One thing I'm going to add is that I leave a letter for my kids, much like Ashley. However, my letter is a little like a contract. It states what is expected of them in terms of productivity and in behavior. So far (knock on wood), my kids haven't let me down! I never have problems securing a good sub for my classes. In addition, I have a basket full of mind puzzles, minute mysteries, etc. that I leave for the sub. My regular subs love these! In fact, when I have to cover another teacher's class, I always grab a few of these books to take w/me in case their plans are a little on the "short" side. Minute mysteries and puzzle books are great resources! Thanks again for a super topic!

If it is a planned absence, I always leave my students a special note on the board.

I have a "sub folder." In it I include: a letter to the sub, seating chart, class schedule, class procedures, emergency plans (fire/tornado drill), and a school map. I leave detailed instructions for centers along with weekly lesson plans. I have a list of trustworthy student helpers to ensure the day runs smoothly. I have several grade-level activities to keep students busy. I also leave books to read to the class. I have a special pages of "extra time fillers" with challenging but fun educational sheets, and a list of games that we regularly play in class, like Sparkle Spelling or Around the World.

I leave a pre-formated letter for her to write how the day went.

I substituted in Mississippi and North Carolina while I was earning my degree, and I think I may have learned more from that than I did in the college classroom! :) Good Luck, subs!

[Edit: Response]

Hi Ashley,

That's a very thorough system that you have worked out! I especially like the list of trustworthy student helpers!



Post a Comment
(Please sign in to leave a comment. Privacy Policy)
RSS Subscribe ButtonSign up to get these great teaching ideas delivered automatically.Subscribe now >