How to Prep for a Substitute Teacher So You’re Never Caught Off Guard

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sub folder
Jeanne Sager

Written by Jeanne Sager

Let’s face it, the beginning of the school year means doing a lot of prep work … let us repeat that, a LOT OF PREP WORK. But there’s one prep that often gets overlooked in the hustle and bustle of putting up bulletin boards and prepping icebreakers: preparing for a substitute teacher to come into your classroom.

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Sure, you think you’ve got plenty of time, don’t you? But if the pandemic has taught us anything it’s that you really never know when you’re going to get sick … or quarantined … and a sub is going to need to be ready to step into your classroom and fill your shoes. Emergency sub plans are a must!

We hate to add anything to your already long list, so we’ve made it easy to get ready for a substitute teacher with printable templates and suggestions of what you should leave behind for your substitute teacher.

What Should You Leave for a Substitute Teacher?

Every single day in the classroom is different, but before we can talk about specific lessons and sub plans there are some basics that you should leave for a substitute teacher. We recommend creating a sub tub — a designated container labeled for a substitute teacher — and adding these things first and foremost:

  • Your class list.
    • If there are any medical issues in the class, this should be included.
    • If any of your students have IEPs, make sure your sub knows the accommodations that should be made, as well as the names of students who leave the classroom for additional services.
    • If possible, include photos of each child that are matched to the list — this will foil those mischievous kids who like to “switch” with their classmates.
  • Class schedule.
    • Include designated days and times for specials like art and gym.
    • You’ll also need to share specific times when your class eats lunch, goes to recess, and dismisses for the day.
    • If you have a teacher’s aide or other people who come into the classroom at specific times, include that information too.
  • Classroom procedures.
    • Your sub should know things like your dismissal procedure, your lining up procedure, if you have students with classroom jobs, etc.
  • Passwords
    • Student computer logins, logins to your classroom iPads, access to the school WiFi, etc.
  • School information
    • Include a contact list for folks they may need to lean on such as your grade level team, the principal, etc.
    • You’ll also need to include procedures around lockdowns, fire drills, and the like

To make it a whole lot easier, we’ve included these in our substitute teacher planning template! Download one of the printable Substitute Teaching Folder templates to help set up a complete guide to your classroom for any substitute teacher that enters your classroom. We won’t lie, the initial setup of this folder does take a little bit of time, but the benefits of having this handy when you aren’t going to be around are huge! Set it up once, and it’s ready for any sub that enters your classroom.

Next, you’re going to need to have some ready-to-teach lessons on hand — the sorts of assignments that can be done at any time throughout the school year:

  • Try any of our pre-made substitute lesson plans.
  • Take a look at your textbooks and review any supplemental assignments that are included in the textbook. Save these for an emergency sub plan! Even if your students are well ahead, the return to old information will still be good for jogging their memories, and it gives your emergency sub something solid to do with the kids that’s instructionally sound.
  • Create digital sub plans — this way you don’t have to go into school to drop things off on your desk when you’re down with that case of strep throat. You can simply email a link into a Google doc, and your sub will be ready to go!

What else can you put in a sub tub? We love the idea of adding a few survival items:

  • A snack will be looked on kindly by a substitute who suddenly realizes there’s no time to eat during the day!
  • It wouldn’t hurt to include a kind note or similar “go get em.” These teacher affirmation cards can be a great addition.
  • Finally, we suggest some activities they can use with the kids regardless of when they show up in your classroom — games, movies, etc.

teacher survival box left for substitute with affirmation cards

We’ve also created this handy “While You Were Gone” template for substitute teachers to fill out as the day goes on so you know exactly what happened and can pick up right where they left off.

OK, but what about the actual business of teaching your students for the day (or days) that you’re out? This is where things get a little bit more complicated, but bear with us!

What Should a Sub Plan Include?

OK, you’ve already got the basics down — the stuff that you can plan ahead for from the very beginning of school. What about creating a sub plan when you have some advance warning? Here are a few tips for what you should do when you’re writing your sub plan.

  1. Don’t get too complicated. You may or may not be getting someone with teaching experience in the classroom while you’re gone, so always plan for the latter.
  2. Details, details, details! The more information you can share, the better!
  3. Include time for students to work on any ongoing projects – it’s work that needs to be done and you’ve already done the groundwork!
  4. Worksheets, worksheets, worksheets. They may seem like busy work, but the substitute teacher will thank you for anything that doesn’t require student passwords or trying to work the smartboard.
  5. Review games. These are fun for the kids and will make the substitute teacher a popular person with your class. Give any of these games a try!
  6. Seasonal activities. If Thanksgiving is coming, set aside some thankful activities. If it’s winter, grab a few snowman coloring sheets or our funky snowman. You get the picture!

What do you leave for substitutes in your classroom?

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