There’s a reason most schools require teachers to file their emergency substitute teacher plans at the beginning of the year. When you need the plans the most, you’ll be in the worst position to write them.

“Usually, when you’re doing sub plans, you feel awful,” says Michelle Divkey, who taught for 20 years and now creates teaching materials, including a top-selling substitute teacher planning kit. “You’re either up late with a child who’s throwing up or you yourself have a fever.”

Plus, if you’ve ever subbed, you know how a good plan can transform chaos into calm—and effective learning.

“One of the worst things you can have as a sub is a lot of downtime,” says Rachel Friedrich, a fourth-grade teacher in San Antonio who spent four years subbing before she landed a full-time job.

Even if your school doesn’t require a beginning-of-the-year plan, don’t wait until the last (miserable) moment. Take these tips from expert teachers and craft top-notch sub plans now. You’ll thank yourself later—and your students and fellow teachers will benefit.

Offer Fun Yet Meaningful Activities

You want students to be busy, but you don’t want to simply load them down with worksheets. On the other hand, you don’t want your sub to be tasked with introducing new material. Instead, aim for review lessons that are both fun and meaningful.

One idea: Legos—but not just for random play! “A tub of Legos has a lot of versatility,” says Friedrich. Students at all grade levels can use them to re-create a portion of a story to show their comprehension, or build something to use as a jumping-off point for a writing activity, she says.

For example, Friedrich’s students have used Legos to summarize chapters from Gary Paulsen’s Hatchet, then shared their creations with their literature circle groups. “They could take it further and change the scene to make a prediction about what could happen in the next chapters,” she adds.

“I always tried to do some sort of art project, because often students do not get the chance to do that,” says Tanja Tlusty, a third-grade teacher and longtime former sub in Woodburn, Oregon. Projects don’t have to be super complicated. Tlusty liked to draw a little squiggle on each student’s paper, and then let the students turn the squiggles into crayon-and-colored-pencil masterpieces. If she drew a curve, for example, a student might incorporate it into a mountain landscape. If she drew a zigzag, the student might make it into a stegosaurus.

“Kids love it when subs are fun,” Tlusty says.

Friedrich also likes to use funny photos, like one of a boy reading a book to an elephant, for students to use as writing prompts. “I leave the genre open,” she says. “Most students love to write fiction.”

Emily Liscom, a first-grade teacher in Chandler, Arizona, keeps folders for each subject in a small filing bin, along with activities that she doesn’t have time for. Instant sub tub! When the folders get full, Liscom replaces the old activities with newer ones. “It’s more of a current review, so it’s purposeful,” she says.

Set Students Up for Success

To ward off the “cat’s away” mentality, try to make sure your voice is in the back of students’ minds. “If I know I’m going to be gone, I talk to my kids ahead of time,” says Tlusty. “Sometimes I leave notes on their desks saying ‘Try your best!’ or ‘Show that you’re a rock star!’ ”

Divkey is a fan of name-tag stickers. “In the younger grades, kids are getting up and down all the time,” she says, so the name tags help the substitute teacher keep track of students. Another option is to stock your sub binder with a class list that includes students’ photos. And if students have specific classroom roles (like line leader or marker distributor), make sure the sub knows about those, too.

Don’t require that subs learn and enforce a complicated behavior management system in a single day. Instead, find something simple students will respond to. When she was subbing, Friedrich handed out “Caught You Being Good” coupons, and then left notes for the teacher about who received them and why. Or she would give each student a sticky note, and then walk around stamping the notes of students who were meeting expectations. She awarded small prizes, like decorative pencils, to the top five stamp collectors. (If you do this, make sure to supply the prizes for the sub.)

Finally, even though you don’t want to bias the sub toward or against certain kids, it’s helpful to mention which students are most reliable and which ones need closer watching. “I’ll say in the plans, ‘These are students who could be extra helpful to you,’ ” says Friedrich. “On the flip side, I’ll say, ‘Keep an eye on these challenging students.’ ”

Set aside a page in your sub binder for the substitute to write behavioral notes. Maybe your “challenging” students will surprise you with a good report!

Leave an Excellent Crib Sheet

For a substitute teacher to have a good day with your students, she’ll need more than just an effective lesson. She’ll need to know your schedule, phone numbers for the main office and the school nurse, your bathroom policy, all classroom procedures, and routines for arrival, dismissal, and lunch. And that’s just for starters.

Click here to download our pre-made substitute cheat sheet!

“My best subbing experiences were the ones where the teachers left explicit instructions, not just about the lessons but about how they ran their classrooms,” says Friedrich. “The worst experiences were the ones where the teacher put in the plans, ‘The kids will know what to do.’ Even if they do know what to do, they’re not going to tell the sub that. If you don’t have the information and can’t call students on it, it leaves you pretty powerless.”

Store this information at the front of your sub binder or in a dedicated folder in your sub tub so that it’s easy to find. Put yourself in your sub’s shoes and try to think of everything you would need to know if you were walking into your classroom for the first time. Which kids have allergies? Where do students go for recess if it’s raining? What happens when there’s a fire drill? Don’t make your sub guess.


Finally, put a note expressing your appreciation in your sub binder—or, better yet, provide a small treat as a token of thanks. “Leave the sub a bottle of water or change to get a soda or a granola bar,” says Divkey. “You want to make them feel welcome and appreciated. If you’ve ever had a bad sub, you really appreciate the good ones.”

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Photo: Shutterstock/Maxim Ibragimov