The dreaded substitute teacher.

The kids dread the sub will be mean. You dread that the kids will be mean. And the sub—well, the sub probably dreads that you'll come back and they'll be out of a job.

But no need to expect a day with Miss Viola Swamp while you're away (though chances are that's exactly what the kids could use).


Here's how to do things: have a nice healthy pile of resources for your sub to make that lucky lad or lass feel lucky to be in your classroom. Most schools have a policy about sub plans—usually that every teacher should have at least 2-3 days of them ready to go at a moment's notice. So if you don't—or even if you do (because how could another few days of emergency plans hurt?)—here's a quick primer to help you get all your ducks in a row so your classes won't suffer when you can't make it in.

Attend to Attendance

Make copies of your class lists for each period you teach and folder 'em up for your sub. More an attendance book sort of teacher? No prob. But if you're also the kind of teacher who takes those home at night for grading or planning purposes, make sure you have spare copies of all those to-die-for lists in the sub folder.

Oh, and if you did this at the beginning of the year—or even last month—check to make sure they're still up to date.

Don't Go Belly-up on Basics

Let's go through all those other standard items that should be included in your sub plans. That is, if they're not already posted elsewhere in your room.

  • Seating charts for each class. Don't use 'em? Thinking of using 'em? Care for an active debate about the pros and cons of using 'em? We've got you covered.
  • Classroom rules in whatever form you have them—particularly any regarding when and how often students can leave the room for bathroom breaks, drinks from the water fountain, how folks are supposed to treat other folks, and the like.
  • Your classroom's fire drill/evacuation route.
  • A map of the school.
  • Special instructions: got a kid with an EpiPen that might freak out if a bee (or someone eating peanuts) enters the room? Any behavior issues, special education kids, or other arrangements with students a sub should know about?
  • The names of three trustworthy students in each class period. Yes, we know, all of your students are trustworthy and wonderful people who are growing more wonderful by the day under your care. But…no. Some are more trustworthy than others, and your sub needs to know who they are. Why three names? Because if you just give one, that poor kid is going to take heat from the rest of the class for being a goody-goody, a brown-noser, a square, a traitor, and any other nasty names kids can come up with. So instead of that, let three take the heat.

A copy of your school's student handbook could also be helpful, especially if your sub is new to the school. Hey, why not play it safe and throw it in that handy file. To be fair, there's not a lot of free time in a substitute teacher's day, but there may be moments (supervising a study hall, proctoring a test or a quiz, waiting for students to finish up one of those prayed-for silent, work-alone type activities) when flipping through the handbook will be possible. And it might just help your sub get a feel for the school—and dispel any false information about school policies that mischievous students may try to pass off as legit.

And Now to the Plans: Dump Your Kids in the Middle of Nowhere

Well, not exactly. But regardless of what subject you teach, you can always give your sub the classic "stuck on a desert island" or "plane crash in the mountains" survival scenario. It's a break from the normal grind, still tests those basic skills, and will keep the kids active without putting too much pressure on poor little sub.

Here's the idea. Your students find themselves in dire straits (think Lord of the Flies), and they either have a list of items they must rank in order of importance, or a limited number of supplies from which they've got to choose a certain number to ensure their survival.

Logistics: students typically divide into groups to make their decisions and then come back together and compare ideas with the whole class to see how each smaller group did (and to find out who based the majority of their survival plan on keeping a fire burning but neglected to bring along matches).

Another variation involves having students make an individual plan first, then work in small groups to create a group plan (based on some of the ideas they came up with while working on their own), and finally to do the whole group thing so they can share, commend, and critique one another's choices.

You've probably done an activity like this at some point in your life (camp counselor orientation? teacher workshop day?), which means that you know it can serve multiple purposes:

  • It's a great team building activity.
  • It can provide a good study in interpersonal communication (whose ideas were heard? whose weren't? how were those choices made? might the group have done better if they had listened better to everyone's ideas?).
  • It can help teach—or at least get students to think about—basic survival skills.
  • Depending on how the scenario is structured, it can be used to teach math, science, social studies, or language arts concepts.

But I Teach Latin!

So in the above version, the items or supplies have to do with an actual island. But why not link 'em to whatever subject you're studying? It's not much of a stretch to incorporate art, music, or foreign language activities into the survival scenario—it just requires a little tweaking.

Besides, we're suspending disbelief for the desert island part, so bear with us. You could totally escape the Bermuda Triangle with your understanding of iambic pentameter and the spirit world from The Tempest.

Here're some more ideas:

  • If you teach foreign language, depending on your students' level you can use this activity to introduce new vocabulary words or make them try to plan their island adventure using only the language in question. Adds a whole 'nother dimension to the whole survival element.
  • Alternately, if you've got an art or music class on your hands, leave out the survival thing and shift the focus to creating cultural elements for a new civilization. This could include anything from a flag, a coat of arms, a museum, or sculptures for your artsy kids, and for the musicians, try songs—whether work songs, spiritual songs, or pop music—along with tunes for sending signals or communicating over distances, and performances and exhibits to keep up morale. Next thing you know they'll be seceding and writing their own constitutions.

Here are a few samples of this type of lesson that you can use to create your own version of this tried and true sub-plan.

Survived Long Enough? Shmoop It Up.

Shmoop's Teaching Guides (for literature, history, civics, economics, and digital literacy) have activity suggestions, discussion questions, pop culture links, and more. Just don't forget to read the "Materials Needed" section of the activity to be sure your sub will have everything on hand for the chosen Shmoop-tivity. There's nothing worse than getting everyone pumped for pottery time and then realizing you forgot the clay.

And even if you're not a Shmoopscriber, there are tons of free resources on Shmoop for students, so you can still point your sub to a particular page and have them run through the information or creatively integrate it into an activity with students.

Plus, every student learning guide from algebra to U.S. History (hmm…we really need a Zoology guide—we'll work on that) includes exercises or discussion questions that could be used as a lesson plan in a pinch.