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Substitute Teacher Preparation: A Survival Guide for Your Classroom

Preparing your class for a substitute

Let's face it: as much as you'd love to model perfect attendance for your students, there will be times when you have to miss a day or two of school. But it can be scary for a new teacher to need a substitute and have no plans in place—trust me, I know. I have walked on both sides of this line, and I know that the key to success is substitute teacher preparation. Here are a few tips to follow to make this transition less stressful for you and your temporary replacement.

Provide the Basics (and More)

I always put together a cheerful and informative binder (what I like to call a teacher's bible) and place it in a secure, easy-to-find area of my desk for any substitute who enters my class. Your substitute binder should be constructed and organized at the beginning of the school year. Absences are often short notice—you never know when an illness will strike or a family emergency will arise—leaving no time to fumble through preparing administrative papers and lessons for the next morning. So it's best to be prepared!


Your binder should include important papers from your school's administration on what to do during an emergency, such as a fire drill or a lockdown. Include a map of the school, the fire drill route from your classroom, and the names of your neighboring teachers and room numbers for help. When I was a sub, I appreciated having a buddy teacher to call on for helpful information and tips, and at times, it was imperative for my success. Another useful addition to your substitute folder is a seating chart that includes small photographs of your students. Putting names to faces ahead of time can help the substitute develop a positive rapport with your class.

Along with emergency school information, think about your students. Does anyone in your class have a chronic illness, such as diabetes, epilepsy, or even food allergies? Do you have specific instructions on what to do for this child in the event of a crisis? What about a child who has disabilities? Make sure this important information is documented in your substitute binder. I used to place colored adhesive dots next to each child's name on an attendance sheet. Each color corresponded to a different health or special need, and I always provided a brief note for each dot.

Make sure you also include bus schedules and dismissal assignments for each child (who gets on the bus and who goes to the carpool lane). Is the substitute required to help during dismissal or in the lunchroom? State this information early and with easy instructions.

Don't Forget the Lessons!

If your absence is planned, there is usually time to set up specific lesson plans and prepare handout sheets to keep the day running smoothly. But this is less likely in the case of an emergency. In that case, you should come up with a day's worth of "Lifesaver Lessons." These can review concepts or be seasonal additions. Include work sheets, games, art project samples, and more for the substitute teacher to use throughout the day. You could even keep a few paperback books in this binder for substitutes to read to the class.

Unsure of how to generate these quick lessons? Throughout the year, if I see or think of a useful idea, I write it down on a file card and put it in a recipe box I keep on my desk. Each divider should be a subject or a time of the day when a quick lesson might be needed. Soon enough, you'll have a growing collection of ideas, and you (or your substitute) will never be without a project or game to fill a five-minute gap.

Make sure you also supply your substitute with plenty of incentive stickers. These little rewards are perfect for encouraging youngsters to be on their best behavior and follow this new teacher's lead. Suggest that the substitute holds a contest to see which student can accumulate the most stickers throughout the day.

At the end of your binder, leave a questionnaire for feedback. Ask a few questions that may be helpful for you in the future: Did you find everything you needed today? Which youngsters were most helpful? Were there any behavioral problems today? What questions did you encounter from the class?

You can't always predict when you'll need to take a day off from work, but preparing ahead of time will leave you with at least one fewer worry. Having a substitute binder on hand for any time of the year will keep your class running smoothly, and you can tend to your health or emergency knowing that things are taken care of.

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