Whether you're hit with a bad cold, jury duty, or an all-day workshop, at some point during the school year a substitute is going to be in charge of your class. Yes, a substitute can be a little unsettling for your students. But with a little advance planning, you can ensure that your substitute and your students have a productive, smooth-flowing day.

The first step is to prepare a substitute folder at the beginning of the year. Keep it in an easy-to-access spot on your desk. Stock the folder with essential classroom information, including:

  • Class roster

  • Attendance sheet

  • Up-to-date seating chart

  • Daily instruction schedule/school schedule

  • Names of helpful students and/or a job chart

  • Classroom rules

  • Classroom routines and procedures

  • Overview of your behavior management system

  • Passes and other official forms a substitute may need

In addition, make it standard practice to leave copies of your lesson plans for the next day on your desk before you go home "just in case" you're absent. Many principals require this of all their teachers for precisely this reason.

Here are some more ways to prepare for a substitute:

  1. If you know ahead of time you'll be absent, make arrangements with school administration to book a substitute. It is sometimes possible to develop an ongoing relationship with a substitute who frequently comes to your building; this has the advantage of providing consistency for your students when you are away.

  2. Provide all the materials your substitute will need to run the class: lesson plans, graphic organizers, teacher's guides, etc. Do not expect the sub to make photocopies, secure equipment, or gather up the necessary supplies.

  3. Tell your students you will be out — if you know ahead of time — so you can go over what they will do and what you expect in terms of their behavior and productivity. Assure them that you have done everything you can to make sure the day will go smoothly.

  4. If you are a middle-school teacher or specials teacher who moves from one classroom to the next, include details about which classes your substitute will teach and where they are held. Provide class rosters, attendance sheets, and seating charts for each class.

  5. Add to your lesson plan any specific instructions about things like collecting student work or allowing students with special needs to work in certain ways.

  6. Set up an emergency substitute folder in the event that you should ever be out unexpectedly for several days. These would be engaging activities any sub could use to keep the students working well until you return or new instructions arrive.

  7. Assume that meaningful instruction and work can happen while you are away. There is nothing wrong with asking the substitute to show a clip from a video, but that doesn't mean the whole period should be spent watching a show.

  8. Be clear in your instructions about not only what you want students to do, but also how you want them to work (for example, quietly on their own or in groups).

  9. Follow up when you return. Use the substitute's report to evaluate how things went so you can praise students for what they did well and focus on what they need to do better next time.


This article was adapted from The Teacher's Essential Guide Series: Classroom Management by Jim Burke (© 2008, published by Scholastic).