For the first 3 years of my teaching career, I barely missed a day. This year, however, my 2-year-old, who just started daycare, cannot seem to stay healthy. This is when I first realized: as a teacher, it is hard to be gone.
Now don’t get me wrong, I enjoy a day of as much as anyone. Unlike many professions, however, I have 180 students who rely on my presence to guide their learning. I’m sure they don’t mind too much, but I sure do.
With this post, my intention is to outline some of the struggles with having a sub and some ways to prepare for it. I in no way intend to slight substitute teachers, as they make it possible for teachers to be absent. It is not easy to be gone, and I want to help teachers make the most of it.
There are 3 main issues I have run into when I have a sub:
1. You are not always guaranteed a sub that knows your content.
In a perfect world, your sub would teach the lesson that you otherwise would have taught. They would answer questions about the previous days homework, go through all of the notes and example problems, tell students animated stories to help the content come to life, and then assist students as they work through the assigned practice problems. That is when you realized that your substitute is a retired English teacher coming to your math class.
I have only seen this actually work out 2 times: once when I had a retired math teacher from the school cover my class, and the other when I covered one class for the teacher I shared a room with. I wouldn’t bank on this happening by chance.
Even when a sub does know your content, sometimes their process does not align with how students have been learning it. It can be a good thing, but it could also confuse student.
2. Things don’t always go according to plan.
Though you hope a sub would accomplish everything you ask them to and your students would work diligently, but the reality is that it doesn’t always happen. I wanted students to finish a worksheet from the day before picking up a new challenge worksheet. The sub just give students the new worksheet right away, which they did finish, before just sitting around the rest of class. By not finishing the earlier worksheet, Students missed out on two of the tougher calculator problems, and I had to spend extra time catching everyone up before the end of the trimester.
3. It takes time to put sub plans together
I can only speak for myself, but on a typical day, I do not neatly lay out every worksheet, test, and seating chart on my front table so that it is waiting for me when I get to work. Also, when you are gone, plans often change, and you need to create a new worksheet. This prep could take several hours depending on the classes you teach and what you need to change. And then needing to do this while you are sick at 10pm? No fun at all.
So what practical advice do I have to offer? There are several things we can do to prevent our absence from feeling like a wasted day.
- Provide answer keys. Every sub I have ever had said this was most helpful. I normally provide enough answer keys for each group to have one as they work. This helps to prevent kids from giving up.
- Make guided notes. If you want to teach a lesson, put a worked out example next to each problem you want students to try. This allows the kids to interact with the notes while giving them some guidance. Provide a full answer key for when they are really stuck.
- Videos. If students have access to technology, make a video of the lesson for them to watch at their own pace before or while they work on practice problems.
- Rearrange. You might need to look at your week ahead and see if there is something that you were going to later that you could do with a sub. Save that tough lesson for when you return and get kids started on the review early.
- Have students teach themselves. I first taught solving by factoring when I had a sub. Students started out with easy problems ( 5 x __ = 0) and slowly combined skills they had until they were factoring and solving quadratics. I now use this every year.
- Be as clear as possible. If you are giving a test, give specific instructions about calculator use, note use, partners, etc. This is especially true if you have different policies for different classes.
- Don’t be afraid to expect learning. Don’t give in to just watching a movie. Give students a meaningful worksheet to practice important skills. Tomorrow, I have my juniors working on a practice ACT test. It might not be ideal, but it is more productive than nothing.
- Assess when you return. Try to get a feel for what students actually accomplished while you were gone. Use the subs notes, ask students, give them a quick quiz, anything to help you figure out if the students accomplished what you hoped. If they didn’t, you have some catchup to do.
It does take some work to prepare for a sub, but one could argue that the thinking that goes into preparing for a sub can help you diversify your teaching. I know that sometimes you wake up sick and have no time to prepare, but if you have some time to get things ready, put some thought into it so your students can still get something out of the day.