Substitute Struggles?

Preparing for a substitute teacher to teach in your place is rarely easy.  Occasionally, you may have the “super sub,” the one who can teach anyone and anything with very little direction or preparation.  Or better yet, maybe they’re a retired teacher who is familiar with your curriculum and just needs to know where to start.  Unfortunately, all too often substitutes needs a lot more guidance and instructions to be able to keep your classroom running (and learning) in your absence.

Teacher preparation courses are supposed to prepare graduates to go out into the world as successful educators (though I think many would agree that programs need updating).  Teachers in training spend hours planning and preparing for what their classroom will look like when they get that first job.  However, I would imagine that not too many of them think about what it might look like if their first job is teaching in someone else’s classroom.

I don’t have any statistics, but I would be willing to be bet that a fair number of recent grads spend some time substitute teaching before they land that first job.  Many will do regular day to day subbing, but others will land longer jobs of a few weeks or more covering maternity or medical leaves.  This introduces the seemingly endless conundrum: what is the regular teacher’s responsibility and what is the substitute teacher’s responsibility?

Some say that before leaving, the regular teacher should have at least two weeks of lesson plans done.  Others say that substitute teachers should have some lesson plans done for the regular teacher before he or she returns.  I don’t know if there are any hard and fast rules, but it seems like some things should just be basic expectations.

I know when I was on leave after having my son a few years ago, it was the end of the school year and my substitute left nothing for me.  My room was clean, but there were no lesson plans.  If anyone had asked me what my students had learned in the past seven weeks, I would have had no idea.  Similarly, a good friend of mine just returned from leave after the birth of her second child.  She returned to a room that was messy and completely rearranged, no lesson plans for the eleven weeks she was gone, and no idea where to begin when she arrived back at school.  Surely, this can’t be the best way to function!

I’ve been thinking about this the past few weeks and I’ve compiled a list of protocols for both regular teachers and substitute teachers.  I’d encourage districts or individual buildings to adopt some sort of norms for their substitutes and I’d encourage teacher preparation programs to consider spending some time preparing their students for the situation as well.  I’d also love feedback on these ideas – feel free to leave comments below!

A substitute teacher should:

  1. Make sure the room is clean and organized before leaving.  Be sure to leave the room the way you found it or leave detailed notes on why changes were made.
  2. Leave a few days of lesson plans for the classroom teacher.  If this isn’t feasible, try to give him or her a heads up of where the students are at least a few days before you leave to give the regular teacher time to plan.  Also, plan to leave every lesson plan you taught while you were in the classroom.  This can be a photocopy of your written notes or a printed page if you use an electronic planner.  The regular teacher shouldn’t have to guess what you taught.
  3. Provide detailed notes about any student incidents, updates, etc.  If anything happened while you were there, make sure the regular teacher knows about it.
  4. Leave records of any assessments given as well as student scores, parent communications, special events, or other important events the teacher may need to know about.
  5. Keep the classroom routines and procedures as intact as possible.  Remember, your position is valuable but it is temporary.  Keeping routines as the regular teacher designed helps provide continuity for students and parents.
  6. Take mental notes of things you liked and didn’t like in that teacher’s classroom.  These ideas will be invaluable when you have a regular classroom of your own.
  7. Build relationships with the other teachers and administration.  You never know when there will be another job available and it won’t serve you well to make enemies.
  8. Do your best to fix any issues that come up while the other teacher is gone.  If something breaks, do what you can to get it fixed (call the custodian, fill out a work order, etc.).  Some things may be out of your control, but again, help out where you can.
  9. Have other teachers or even the principal come observe you while teaching.  Consider this free coaching and advice that will help you improve your practice.
  10. Consider sending a thank you note both to the regular teacher and the parents of your students (at least at the elementary level) for giving you the opportunity to work in their classroom and with their children.  As teachers, we are in the “people business.”  Leave a positive impression whenever you can.
  11. Dress appropriately for your profession, the building you are in, and the age of the students you are teaching.  Look around at the other teachers in the building.  Are jeans acceptable during the week or only on Fridays?  Are you wearing the same outfit to school that you would wear on a Friday night out at the club (the answer here should be no, by the way).  Believe me when I say that other teachers and principals will talk about you if your outfits are questionable and it will affect your chances of getting rehired.
  12. Ask questions of your teammates and colleagues but don’t be a burden.  Most teachers are genuinely happy to help, but they shouldn’t feel like they are babysitting you.  Ask for help if you need it, but then be resourceful.  Hop on sites like Pinterest or Teachers Pay Teachers and get your own ideas when you can.

Now, in case you think I’m letting the regular teacher off the hook, here are a few “shoulds” for the regular teacher as well:

  1. Be clear about your expectations.  If there is anything you need them to do in your absence, let them know up front.  Don’t assume they know.
  2. Make sure the room is clean and organized before leaving.  Make sure you leave detailed instructions on how to find materials or make sure you have a colleague who can be tapped to help in case instructions aren’t clear.
  3. Provide details about classroom routines and procedures you’d like the substitute to follow.  This will make things easier for them and help ensure some continuity for your students.
  4. Make sure the substitute knows about any specific student needs in terms of behavior, health issues, parent concerns, etc.  For example, if a student can’t have any contact with a parent, make sure you note that so your substitute doesn’t goof and send the kid home with that parent.
  5. Make sure they know about any and all emergency procedures.  With all of the specialized drills these days, don’t assume they will know what to do.
  6. Leave at least a few days of lesson plans for your substitute as well as curriculum maps or guides to show what should be covered while you are out.
  7. Provide general information about the building (how to make copies, how to request a substitute, when meetings are, etc.).
  8. Contact them ahead of time if you plan to be in the building, particularly if you plan to see your students.  Some substitutes might feel threatened if you just show up unannounced and “steal the show” with the students.  It also could potentially hurt their credibility with students.
  9. Cut the sub some slack.  They aren’t you and never will be.  If you return from leave and the kids are safe and the room isn’t burned down, consider it a win.

Again, I’d love to know what you think!  Am I way off base?  Missing something important?  Let me know in the comments!

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