How To Create Lesson Plans for Substitute Teachers

Whether an absence is planned or unexpected, a missed class can feel like a loss for teachers. Students might not receive your instruction, putting them a few days behind in your lessons. In other cases, students might miss out on fun activities you had planned because the substitute teacher didn’t know how to lead them. 

A missed day doesn’t have to be a setback for your students. You can empower your substitute teachers and create positive experiences for them. Follow these steps for effective substitute planning. 

Consider the Substitute Teacher’s Perspective

As you plan your substitute lessons, really think about the people who will fill in for you. Substitute teachers range from young educators to retired professionals. Almost all are thrown into your classroom with just a few minutes’ notice. 

“Often, you never know where you will be teaching as you fall asleep the night before a school day,” writes the team at Learn Bright Education. “You may be in front of a class of first-graders, with a small group of gifted or special needs students, or leading high schoolers in calisthenics during a physical education class.”

Working as a substitute teacher is exhausting. These educators try their best to fill your shoes and are often ignored or asked to perform tasks well outside their scope of work. 

Natt Bartell describes her experience as a substitute teacher: “I graded tests that I wasn’t around for, got pencils thrown at me, subbed for teachers who expected me to redecorate their classrooms and hang up student work during my lunch and breaks, had long-term jobs where I was never off duty, wrote curriculum for seven classes that I was in no way qualified to write curriculum for, and got talked down to once by the teacher who wrote the sub plans because I was taking my lunch at the wrong time (except I was taking my lunch at the exact right time as per the sub plans).”

You can create a positive experience for your substitute and win over the people who fill in for you, or you can create a nightmare day that leaves your replacement feeling exhausted and overwhelmed. 

Group of elementary students in tutoring lessons with teacher; substitute teachers concept

Establish Classroom Routines

Preparing your class for a substitute teacher starts on the first day of school — long before you ever need to call in sick. Strong routines are your friend. They will help your students know what to expect and prepare them to continue learning in your absence. 

“In a well-managed classroom, students know the expectations and routines so well that they can practically teach themselves,” writes teacher Melisa Ferguson at Bored Teachers. “Prep your students for any eventuality by making sure that they understand the mechanics of the classroom so well that they can continue procedures with or without direction from an adult.”

This is particularly true for younger students, where teachers work to teach habits like asking to use the bathroom or reading every day. If developed from the first day, students won’t feel inclined to stray from those habits with a substitute teacher.

Additionally, prepare your students for your absence. This alerts them to changes in their routine while also guiding them to continue with the schedule they know. 

“As a lover of routines and expectations—and a class that thrives on them—I always let my students know if I have a scheduled absence,” says Natalie DiFusco-Funk, 2016 Virginia State Teacher of the Year. “Even if I think I might be out (I’m getting sick or my child is getting sick) I give them a heads up. I reiterate our classroom guidelines and how I expect them to follow them, complete their work, and treat the substitute with the utmost respect.” 

Naturally, you can’t always plan for an absence, but discussing substitute behavior ahead of time can set expectations. While you want to empower your students to act responsibly, however, you can’t guarantee that will happen.

“Saying ‘the students know how to do this’ is perhaps the worst instruction to leave for a sub,” notes elementary teacher Rachel Friedrich. “I guarantee you, no student will admit to knowing how to do something if a sub asks.”

child coloring; substitute teachers concept

Create a Substitute Binder

Many teachers swear by the creation of a substitute binder or a bin, which essentially has all of the information a teacher needs to run the class. Keep it close at hand and clearly labeled so any other teacher or administrator can find it. 

“The more detailed information you can give a sub, the better,” writes elementary teacher Jenn Larson at The Teacher Next Door. “The great thing about a sub binder is that most of this information can be added at the beginning of the year and then you’re done. It can be used over and over throughout the whole year.”

While you may be tempted to create a thick binder with everything substitute teachers need to know (and then some), remember how much time your fill-in has to review the information. They might walk in a few minutes before class starts — or even after the start of the school day. They need to find information fast and don’t have time to review multiple sections. 

“Stick with the essentials and keep things brief,’ writes teacher Noelle Pickering at Maneuvering the Middle. “Guest teachers don’t have a lot of time to acclimate themselves before students arrive, so bullet points and essential information is key.”

So, how are you supposed to be as detailed as possible while keeping it brief? Divide your binder into different sections where the substitute can quickly find the information they need. Then convey the information succinctly and make it scannable — no one has time to read extensive paragraphs on bathroom policies. 

Former teacher Lauren Shirk at A Teachable Teacher, has a substitute binder template you can use for your classroom. It includes notes from you, classroom rules, positive and negative behavior instructions and homework expectations for specific days.

Create Plans for Someone Starting From Scratch

One of the challenges when creating lesson plans for substitute teachers is knowing how much they can handle. Can they lead your students through group projects or break-out sessions? The key to success often lies in how you present the lesson plan, not the actual material taught. 

“When communicating with substitute teachers, it’s important to be very explicit,” writes the team at Start Here, Go Places. “You can’t assume they’ll take the same approach to something as you would, so provide clear and detailed instructions to set things up to go the way you envision—and help level the playing field between superior subs and ones who might not be as effective.”

While an experienced instructor might understand your notes or lesson goals, a new teacher might have a hard time with your vision. As a result, a lesson that should be fun and engaging might fall flat.

“When you’re done writing your plans, read them back and imagine that you know nothing about your class,” writes former teacher Alicia Betz. “Would you be able to walk in that door and quickly understand and execute the plans?”

You can also build some time into the class period to give the substitute teacher more time to review the material. This also gives them an opportunity to ask another teacher for advice on what your lesson plan entails. 

“A substitute only has a short amount of time to look over lessons before the day begins,” says Kelsey Sorenson, a former substitute teacher. “A good idea is to have one of the first lessons of the day include some silent reading time for the students so the substitute has some time to look over the lessons for the rest of the day.”

You can also start a lesson with a video to give your fill-in more time.

smiling teacher in empty classroom; substitute teachers concept

Build Layers Into Your Lesson Plans

Another way to improve your lesson plans for substitute teaching success is to build multiple layers into the activities. This allows your substitute to teach at least the bare minimum before expanding on what the students know with more advanced tasks. 

In her article at MentalFloss, Suzanne Raga looked into the different experiences of substitute teachers. Some reported handing out worksheets by the thousands or simply used videos through the day. Others were able to build a rapport with teachers and use their educational backgrounds to their advantage. One teacher said he was able to pick up where the teacher left off and continue the lessons because he had experience in science and math. Just because you are away doesn’t mean the day has to be filled with busy-work.

“The problem with some emergency sub plans is that they are often generic time-fillers that are basically just worksheet after worksheet for students to complete,” says former teacher Rebecca Davies at Differentiated Teaching. “When it comes to plans, try to include as many layers of planning as possible. From long-term plans, medium-term plans, and if you can predict your absence, slip your weekly plans in there too.”

Additionally, you can build padding into your substitute lesson plans in case your fill-in finishes early or doesn’t feel confident executing your activities. This gives them backup options that don’t rely on videos or worksheets.

“Occasionally, students finish assignments early or a special subject prep period is canceled leaving a substitute with additional time to fill,” writes Phil Engle, senior vice president of operations at K-12 education management solutions provider ESS. “Having an easy-to-implement activity can be very useful. Some possibilities include a class set of educational magazines, a short read-aloud with discussion questions, or a deck of age-appropriate quiz cards.”

While you want your lesson plans to build around the idea that you will have a dedicated substitute teacher, that might not be the case. Consider creating options in the event that your students are placed in another classroom or divided up through your department. 

The current substitute fill rate nationwide is only about 85 percent of those requested, according to the team at K-12 behavior management solutions provider PowerSchool. Instead, schools combine classes, have teachers fill in during their own planning periods, or have other qualified employees provide coverage. As a result, substitute teachers only fill in for about 50 percent of short-term absences.  

It’s impossible to plan for every absence and few substitute teachers can easily teach every grade and every subject. Keep this in mind when you build your absence plans. By layering your instruction, you can make sure the basics are covered while leaving room for advanced options. You can also build time into the day to help your fill-ins acclimate to the class. These small steps can create better experiences for your students and the substitute teachers themselves. 

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