Before getting a full-time teaching job, I toiled as a substitute. Being a substitute teacher is a thankless job. Seriously, it sucks. Some students either ignore or torment you, some of the teachers you encounter try to stick you with their duties, and many administrators simply do not want to hear from you.
The worst thing about being a substitute is the lesson plans left for you. Not all plans were bad. But, too often, substitute plans left for me were too short, were too complicated, or left out vital information.
Once I started working full-time, I put the nightmare of substitution behind me…until an issue popped up at my school. We had a situation where a teacher was absent for a number of days and the substitute plans did not provide enough work for the students.
Following that incident, I decided to sit down with our permanent sub and see if we could develop an outline for teachers to follow when developing their substitute plans.
The first thing we included was generic information: teacher’s name, the room number, the subject, the teaching blocks involved, the dates of absence, etc. This sounds like “duh” information, but you’d be surprised how often these kinds of things are left out of plans.
Next, we created a space for the teacher to list some of the attention-getting strategies they employ (“1-2-3 eyes on me”, or “Gimme 5”, etc.). These strategies are helpful for subs – they create a sense of continuity and students have followed them for so long that they tend to submit to them automatically.
Large spaces were left open for the teacher to put their actual plans. We included a note asking the teacher to come up with plans that are relevant and meaningful for the student. Students can smell useless/busy work a mile away and give such work the attention it deserves – ie, none. I remember working in a class where the teacher left a series of worksheets for the students. If they finished one worksheet, I was instructed to pass out the next one. It was a ceaseless treadmill of doggerell. What was the incentive to even finish one if another one was the reward? The class figured that out very soon and I had myself a rough day.
In addition to avoiding busy work, we asked the teacher to avoid work that involves large amounts of interaction between the sub and the class as a whole – taking up homework, teaching a new idea, etc. Standing in front of group of students who don’t know you or have no connection with you is a recipe for disaster. Independent work, with the sub moving around offering one-on-one assistance, tends to be the best option. Individually, students are awesome people. Collectively, as a herd, they can be annoying.
Then, we included space for the teacher to include any other information that might be important for the substitute to know, including:
- where chalk/whiteboard markers are kept
- where to put completed work
- equipment needed
- system for handing out materials
- washroom policy
- students to be aware of
- students who should not be grouped together
- discipline strategies you employ regularly
- are there special times in the schedule to be aware of (Advisory or Homebase?) If so, what should I do?
- necessary passwords
- the procedure for booking any necessary spaces (lab, gym, etc.)
Again, many of these things seem so obvious and yet are too often left out of plans.
One time I was subbing in a school and part of the instructions including having me book the lab time I needed. But, the booking procedure was online (through the school’s website) and I was not left the necessary passwords to access the booking page. By the time I got logged in, another teacher had booked the space. What was I supposed to do with a class of students, a particular activity, and no lab space? That day sucked.
The final part of the standardized planning document was a space for the substitute to leave notes and observations at the conclusion of their day. Look, the absent teacher may not care about what happened or which students were misbehaving. But, something simple like a comments box at least provides the sub with the hope that someone is listening and cares about what happened in class that day.
Being a substitute is often a rite-of-passage before getting a full-time teaching gig. It is a tough job and it is tempting to want to put the experience far behind you.. But, never forget the stress, disorientation and even abject terror that is being a sub. Help your fellow teacher out as best you can and leave effective plans.
And, even if you already create great plans, think about a tool like this for colleagues who are notoriously weak in this area. Students who have a poor experience with a substitute tend to bring that negative energy into every other class they attend that day. Help yourself, help your peers and your brother/sister sub.