You tried to tough it out, but that bad head cold forced you to miss a couple days of school. You are finally feeling well enough to return — only to discover that while you were sick, your students were on hiatus. The substitute teacher didn’t follow your lesson plans, didn’t check the homework, and didn’t leave a report of what was accomplished during your absence. The teacher next door tells you that she had to stop in your classroom several times to see why it was so noisy. The one thing the substitute did leave for you is a list of students she says acted up all day long. The list mysteriously includes several students who, up to this point, have never been in trouble.
Your headache begins to reappear. Not only did you lose two days of instruction, but now you also have to deal with the fallout from those days before you can move forward in your curriculum.
Usually, teachers feel confident that substitutes will follow their plans and maintain discipline. Schools often develop a cadre of reliable substitutes who know school expectations, protocols, and maybe even many of the students. In some schools, a teacher can request a specific trusted substitute for an anticipated absence. Children become accustomed to the same substitute teacher and know what to expect from him or her. Consequently, things generally run as smoothly as when you’re in charge.
But sometimes, a teacher’s absence is unexpected or the regular substitute isn’t available. Special conditions like teacher trainings or flu season may further reduce the ranks of available substitutes and result in a new or inexperienced person covering your class. Cause for panic, anyone?
You can’t always control who will be spending the day with your students, but you can be proactive in increasing the chances that both your students and the substitute teacher, whomever it is, will have a pleasant and productive day. You can also increase the chances that you will not have to spend your first day back re-teaching (or teaching) the lessons you left for the substitute and investigating alleged miscreants.
Here are ten tips to help keep your classroom running smoothly in your absence.
1) Give students a heads up. A new face in the classroom calls for an introduction.
If you know you will be absent, tell your students several days beforehand and then remind them as the time approaches. You may even be able to preview materials and assignments and explain to students what they will be expected to accomplish while you are gone. Students do not need to know why you will be out, of course, but this will let them be in on the game plan and know what is expected of them.
2) Establish expectations. Invite students to prove how helpful they can be.
Since absences are often unplanned, take a moment to talk to your students about your expectations for behavior and class work in the event you are not present on any given day. A substitute teacher in one of your students’ other classes may provide an opportunity for this discussion. Set the stage for your own possible absence by telling students that you expect they will treat any substitute teacher with the same respect they show their regular teacher and that they should do their best. They may even be called upon to assist the substitute teacher in locating materials or explaining the schedule!
3) Provide clear directions. Equip her with what she’ll need, and then some.
Leave clear directions for the substitute. Prepare a folder that includes schedules, protocols, and particular student needs, as well as other pertinent information. Leave the folder in your top desk drawer so that the substitute will have no trouble finding it. You may also want to tell a colleague where to find this information.
4) Keep it simple. Save a new, complicated lesson for when you’re present.
Prepare clear and straightforward lessons, with a focus on routine activities. Planning takes time and effort, but it will pay off when you return and students have accomplished the tasks you set for them. In most cases, the less you deviate from the usual curriculum, the better the day will go for the substitute because students will be familiar with the material and the work.
5) Provide backup. If the unexpected strikes, she’ll have solutions on hand.
If you are absent unexpectedly at a critical point in instruction — you are just about to introduce a new unit, for example, or your students are presenting their final projects after weeks of study — you may find it necessary to provide alternate plans.
Teachers often keep on file in case of emergency several strong lesson plans that students will find interesting and challenging (many educational websites offer teacher-made plans to share). The plans may or may not fit neatly with the units you are currently studying, but they should further instructional goals and keep students on task. (Many teachers plan units for enrichment during their absence.) When you return, treat the work students did while you were away as important; otherwise, the message you send is that it was just busywork.
Many schools require that teachers keep emergency lesson plans on file and that the plans be kept current. Well-developed plans take time to assemble, but whether they are required or not, they benefit the students, the substitute teacher, and the regular teacher as well in times of unexpected illness or family crisis. Knowing that your class is taken care of will be one less thing to worry about.
6) Call on a co-teacher. Ask a colleague to stop by and check in on your class.
Arrange with a nearby colleague to check on one another’s classes in the event either of you is absent. The regular teacher can greet the substitute before classes begin and answer any questions the substitute might have in terms of rules, schedules, or behavioral expectations. She can also encourage the substitute teacher to check with her if any concerns arise as the day progresses. (Unlikely, if you are prepared!)
One of your colleagues may even agree to provide a place in his or her classroom for a mildly disruptive student from your class to work during a “time out.” Teachers recognize that on occasion a particular student may have difficulty adjusting to someone besides his or her regular teacher. Removing that student from the situation for 15–20 minutes (or more) may keep the child’s behavior from escalating into a real discipline problem.
7) Handle discipline carefully. Don’t let reports of bad behavior go ignored.
Students who misbehave during your absence should be dealt with individually when you return. Never impose discipline on the group (for example, the whole class loses recess) because of the behaviors of a few. Responding to a substitute teacher’s reports of misbehavior requires a delicate touch. Ignoring the reports gives the impression that students can misbehave with impunity when a particular substitute is in the classroom. This approach is sure to cause problems if the same substitute is ever called to cover your class.
On the other hand, it’s possible that some student behaviors were misinterpreted or that the substitute was unable to manage your students. A simple apology, written or oral, from the student to the substitute can often resolve the situation.
8) Thank students. Applaud them now and get good results the next time.
If all goes well, praise students when you return for their good work, effort, and behavior while you were out. It’s important that they know that you and your substitute communicate and that you appreciate the good job they did in your absence.
9) Follow up with your principal. Whether it is good or bad, give feedback.
If things did not go well despite your best plans, and you believe that your substitute was not up to par, make sure you report the problem to your principal or to whoever arranges for substitutes. Some schools ask for written feedback from the classroom teacher regarding substitutes. If your school does, a candid, professional response is in order. Students deserve to have competent instruction in a safe, productive environment.
10) Give credit where it is due. Hard work deserves recognition.
Finally, recognize that the substitute’s job is not easy. He or she may be called at 6 a.m. and expected to arrive ready to teach an unfamiliar curriculum to an equally unfamiliar group of students, some of whom may be challenging. Good preparation will not guarantee that all will go well, but it will increase the chances of a good day for your students, your substitute, and, ultimately, for you when you return.