Secrets for Secondary School Teachers: How to Succeed in Your First Year (2004)

Chapter 15. Using a Substitute

“Are you a sub?”

“What are we going to do today?”

“Do we have to sit in our seats?”

“Are we going to have the test tomorrow?”

“Where is our teacher?”

“When is our teacher going to be back?”

Just so you know, any time I (Cary) walk into class and see a substitute sitting by your desk, I rub my hands together and think to myself, “It’s time to play.” Having a sub means we’re probably not going to be doing any work. Unless you include picture identification cards, students are going to trade names and seats. They will try to bend any rule they can. It’s open season.

Try to avoid having the sub teach anything because they usually have no idea what they are talking about. Just give an assignment for the kids to work on and turn in at the end of the period. Other than that, just hope that things don’t get too far out of control.


There will come a time when you will need to be absent from school. You may be sick, have a doctor’s appointment, attend a professional development program or an IEP conference, or take a personal day for one reason or another. In any event, when you are not going to be in class, arrangements will have to be made for a substitute. The secret is to be prepared.

The procedures for arranging a substitute vary from one district to another. In one place, you may contact the substitute yourself; in another, you will contact a secretary who makes the call; in yet a third, you may telephone information to a Touch-Tone system. Usually, you will have the opportunity to state a preference for a particular person to be your sub.


In most districts, there will be substitutes who are well acquainted with the staff, policies, and students of the school. They will be known by the students. As a new teacher, it would be beneficial to make a point to meet these people. One opportunity to do this is in the morning, in the secretary or office manager’s office, when substitutes check in. You can find out a little about their backgrounds and their experience. Another chance to talk to substitutes will be when you see them in your hallway or in the classroom next door. You may also come into contact with them at breaks or lunchtimes. Make it a point to welcome them; you know what it feels like to be a newcomer.

Other teachers may make recommendations for you. There may be times when you have to call on someone you don’t know. Whether or not you have met the substitute ahead of time, there are several things you can do to facilitate a smooth transition.


In preparation for an absence, whether it is anticipated or not, it is helpful to gather information together for the substitute. A suggested format can be found at the end of this chapter. In one school district in South Carolina, the high school required that information for substitutes be kept in a folder in the teacher’s mailbox at all times. Whether you are provided with a folder or make up your own, the following points will be beneficial for anyone who takes over your classroom.

First, the substitute will need to know the correct spelling of your name, your room number(s), and the bell schedule. If your school has standard assembly or short-day schedules, a copy of these should be included, too. Although the substitute may receive a copy of the school map on arrival, it would be nice to include a map of the school with your room(s) clearly indicated, along with the nearest fire alarm, exit, bathroom, principal’s or dean’s office, and teachers’ lounge.

For each period, provide general information about your classes: course title, course description, textbook(s). The substitute will need rosters of your students. You will need to update this list periodically to include additions and deletions. Likewise, try to maintain up-to-date seating charts in this file. If you have access to a digital camera, you can print out pictures of your students to help the substitute learn their names.

Many teachers will leave a list of names of students who can advise a substitute on class procedures. It is a good idea to leave several names for each period in case the first student on the list is also absent that day. Specific information on the lesson plan can follow. If you know in advance that you will be absent, you can also include a list of students who are scheduled to be absent that day due to field trips or participation in other school activities.

You may decide to prepare an all-purpose lesson that can be used at any time during the year. This will relieve any anxiety that you may feel when it becomes apparent that you will not be able to attend school as planned. Place the substitute’s lesson plan in an obvious place, such as on your desk, in the top drawer of your desk, or on the file cabinet or book shelf close to your desk. Write a reference to the plan’s location in your substitute folder as well. It would be a good idea to let your neighbor teachers and your department chair know where the substitute’s lesson plan will be, as well, because these are the people the substitute will turn to for help if he or she cannot find it. Once this plan is used, you will need to create another one.

Class procedures should be carefully described. You may have special activities that are performed each day, such as a current events discussion, a geography question, a thought for the day, or the writing of a journal entry. Perhaps you follow a special dismissal policy. Anything you would like to see continued in your absence will have to be specified for the substitute.

Substitutes will also need information related to specific students. In this category, you will need to list students with special medical problems and the courses of action to follow. Disabilities would be noted. You would acknowledge students who need to leave early or are permitted to arrive late. Any student who is an aide would also be listed.

Special duties you have will need to be highlighted. For example, if you are responsible for hall duty at a particular place and time, this would be indicated. Let the substitute know if you have a university practicum teacher or a student teacher. The substitute will be the responsible teacher in these situations, not the practicum or student teacher (his or her responsibilities are usually limited to the times when the classroom teacher of record is present). Their roles need to be clarified for all parties involved.

Leave any necessary supplies in a conspicuous place or note where they can be found. If audiovisual equipment is needed, reference this as well as where and how to obtain the equipment. Because students will use as an excuse the fact that they don’t have pencil or paper to do an assignment, it will make the substitute’s life easier if you leave a small reserve supply. Also, to make sure the students use the class time as intended, develop an assignment that is due at the end of the period. This does not have to be a formal project or writing assignment; it can be a brainstorming of ideas, a three-sentence summary, a picture—whatever you decide. If possible, develop something that is reasonably fun so that students will not create unnecessary discipline problems.

The substitute will need access to your school forms: The attendance will have to be reported. He or she may need to write a pass for a student. On occasion, he or she will have to write a discipline referral. Also, it is a good idea to leave paper on which the substitute can report on the students’ behavior, as well as how and to what extent your plan was followed. In some schools, the substitute will need to submit this information to the office on a specific form.

Students will want to know why you are absent and how long you will be away. If you are comfortable providing this information to the substitute and letting him or her disclose it, you will prevent a barrage of questions and help reduce the anxiety level of the classroom while you are away. Furthermore, if your absence will constitute a change in their schedule, such as a new test date, presentation schedule, or project deadline, an announcement by the substitute would be beneficial and timely as well, so be sure to ask the substitute to convey this to the class. The more the students’ welfare is considered, the smoother the transitions of your absence and your return will be.


With respect to writing a lesson plan, keep the educational flow going as much as possible while creating a meaningful experience for the students. Structure activities that are consistent with the unit of study. Write objectives that the substitute can communicate to the students so that they will know what the expectations are for the period. The students should be informed as to what will be required of them and what they need to do to stay on task. This communication will provide for the best use of time for students as well as the substitute. Consider creating a plan that will involve the substitute as a resource person for the students. If you know the substitute has an area of expertise or an interesting life story that relates to your content area, you might request that he or she share this with the class. For example, a retired policeman might have a wealth of knowledge on laws and examples of how they are applied that would be applicable to a civics class. Discuss the topic and story ahead of time with the substitute to ensure the content is appropriate for the age level of your students and relates to your lesson.

Encourage the substitute to introduce himself or herself to the class. It is important that the students get to know the alternate who is responsible for them for the day. In some ways, having a guest teacher can energize the classroom in ways that wouldn’t otherwise be possible. Much depends on the quality of the professional you select for the temporary assignment and how well you have prepared that person to do the job. The following are sample forms for providing information to the substitute (Form 15.1) and for a substitute’s report back to you (Form 15.2).

Form 15.1   Information for Substitute Teacher




Form 15.2 Substitute Teacher Report