Thursday, August 26, 2010

How to Make Substitute Lesson Plans: A Checklist

Do everyone a favor:  if you’re a teacher and you know you’re going to be absent, make really clear and thorough lesson plans.  It will make for a less stressful day for your sub, and a more productive day for your students.  Impress your subs by how organized and thoughtful you are when you make lesson plans.

The main thing to remember is that you’re not creating these plans for yourself.  These plans are for a complete stranger who is unfamiliar with your classroom and your procedures.  Assume your substitute needs to be told everything in minute detail.  Often, they do!  It’s better to overplan than underplan.

Substitute plans can be divided into two sections:  general notes and specific plans.  It is helpful to have a labeled substitute folder or binder in which to keep both sections, and leave it in a highly visible place where a person entering the room can clearly see it.

Section 1:  General Notes-
This section usually requires the most thought.  This is the part of the lesson plan that provides a detailed description of the general classroom procedures and things the substitute should know.  This part will not change, except for a few amended notes you may add throughout the year, so you’ll only have to do it once.

For Section 1, simply think about how you would describe to a stranger how your classroom operates.  Essentially, that’s what sub plans are.  Type the description early on the in the school year, print it, and keep the general notes in your sub folder.  Have the general notes saved in a file so that you can print them again, if necessary.  Each time you have a sub, they will see the same notes in the sub folder.

The general notes are essential to a good lesson plan.  Even if you leave awesome specific plans, if you’re not clear on the classroom procedures, or leave important details out, it can still make a sub’s job difficult.

Make sure you have these things in your general notes:
  • ·      A seating chart.  Make sure you update it when you change the seating arrangements or get a new student.
  • ·      An attendance sheet.  Make sure it is up-to-date and that you include the attendance procedure.  Is the attendance due at a certain time?  Do you have a student assigned to take the attendance to the office?
  • ·      Your classroom discipline policyThis is paramount for your plans.  Always describe what a substitute should do if students present behavior problems.  Also, remember to include anything the substitute could use as leverage.  Is there an upcoming classroom party for which students earn points?  Did you warn the class that a poor report from the substitute would result in a loss of recess for the week?  How do you reward well-behaved students?  Mention that in the notes because it could prove very helpful for your substitute.
  • ·      A scheduleThis is particularly important for elementary school teachers who are in charge of getting their classes from place to place.  Be sure your sub knows important times of the day (lunch, recess, PE, switching class with another teacher, etc).  Make sure the sub knows what to do during those times.  Do they have lunch duty during their break period?  Are they supposed to leave the class with another teacher when it is time to go to music?  Be sure to include dismissal procedures as well, including what time students are to leave, whether the sub has to monitor students afterschool, etc.
  • ·      A school map.  It would be helpful if you highlighted staff restrooms, the teacher’s lounge and other important locations.  Assume your sub is new to the school.
  • ·      Emergency procedures in case of a drill (or a real emergency).  Most schools print fire and other safety drill instructions.  Leave a copy in your general notes.  The substitute should know what to do and where to go in the event of a real emergency.
  • ·      Phone numbers and room numbers of helpful staff.  If the sub needs the office, nurse, resource teacher or janitor, how can they reach them?  Leave numbers the sub can quickly call if they need help with something.  Are there other teachers or staff members who could be helpful?  List their numbers and locations.
  • ·      Office referrals, nurse passes and other important papers.  Unfortunately, your sub may need them.
  • ·      A list of who enters and leaves the classroom.  Do certain students leave during the reading lesson to go to a specialist?  Do some students switch to another class after lunch?  Does an inclusion teacher come in the morning for an hour?  Think about who enters and leaves the classroom, and give the substitute notice.  What time do students leave, and when should they be back?
  • ·      Important procedures.  This is when you will need to be the most precise and think about things from the perspective of a classroom visitor.  Think about what procedures would be important for a substitute to know.  You do not have to describe everything, but you do need to think about the important things, and be as clear as possible.  Some things to consider…

o   Think about things you’ve trained your class to do.  Do students have assigned jobs?  Do you have a specific rule about pencil sharpening, walking in the hallways, going to the restroom and getting water, etc?  Is there an activity for early finishers?  Is there a hall pass?  Do you have a signal for quiet?  What do you not allow the students to do?
o   Think about centers and workstations.  If you will have students using them, is there a specific rotation procedure the students have?  What are the rules for using the computer, using the classroom art supplies, working in groups, etc?
o   Think about your daily routines.  Do you let students lay on the floor during silent reading?  Does the class have an end-of-day procedure?  Should there be a clean-up time?  Do you lead the same morning activity at the beginning of class?  Describe these routines.
  • ·      Amended notesOver time, you may amend your general notes as things change and you learn more about your class.  These can simply be tips that would make things easier for your sub.  For instance…

o   Are two students not allowed to be near each other, or stand next to each other in line?
o   Is there something to be avoided that could make a particular student anxious?  This is especially important in the case of special needs students.  Some laws prohibit describing specific things about special needs students, but a general note about how “Joey should not be called on to read aloud” or “Allow Joey to hold the stuffed animal if he gets distracted” should not be a problem.
o   Who typically presents a behavior problem?  On what should the substitute keep a sharp eye?
o   Who is helpful or dependable?
  • ·      Feedback form, or a place to leave notes.  Encourage the sub to leave you a detailed list of what happened.  If you are looking for specific details, your best bet is to leave a pre-made form for them to fill out.

Part 2:  Specific Plans-
This is the section that changes each time you need a sub because these are the specific plans for the day.  This will take much less time to do if you have already made Section 1 and keep a copy of it available.

The specific lesson depends on whatever you want the class to do, but keep two things in mind:  your plans should be clear and thorough.  In general, overplanning is better than not planning enough.  You do not want your substitute to be forced to supplement your plans, or waste instructional time for your students.

A few things to consider…

  • ·      Overplan.  This is one of the most important parts of a lesson.  Overplan activities.  If the class does not finish everything, that’s much better than them having time wasted with nothing to do.   Activities often take less time to complete than they would if you were the one leading the lesson.  Can you add an extension to the reading activity?  Can you add a journal entry to the science assignment?  If you already have a procedure for what early finishers do, describe it for the sub.  Just add that students can work on these things if they have extra time.  You can also have extra work and worksheets in case the class finishes all their assignments early.  Do you have a place where you keep hands-on extension activities?  Is there a review game the class particularly likes?  Is there a project with an upcoming due date the students can work on?  Consider these when thinking of extra activities. Try not to suggest “silent reading,” if it can be helped, unless you know your class enjoys silent reading.
  • ·      Is there something for students to do right when they enter?  Allow the substitute to start off on the right foot.  Even if you don’t normally use warm-up activities, provide one for the sub.  Students should be seated and focused when the day begins, and a quick assignment helps accomplish that.  The class’ behavior for the entire day can hinge on the first few moments.
  • ·      Avoid phrases like “the class knows how to do it/the students know where it is/they know what to do/just ask [insert student name or other staff member not in the classroom] how to do this.”  Remember, clarity is key!  Do not assume the students would be helpful to a substitute, or that they could clearly articulate a procedure in your absence.  It is your responsibility to instruct the sub.  If the students are capable of explaining it, you are even more capable of quickly writing it.  Besides, what if your helpful student is absent?  What if the class does not want to help the sub?  Do not put the sub at a disadvantage by having them rely on the class to decipher your instructions.
  • ·      Avoid using acronyms and shorthand in your plans.  If you tell the sub to use the SRB, how will they know what you’re talking about?  Should they know what “G2 presents project” means?  How would a substitute know that you use “G2” as shorthand for “group 2”?  Remember, sub plans are made for a stranger, not yourself.  Be clear.  Subs should not have to ask your students for help reading your plans.  Also, make sure times are accurate and clearly visible in the plans.
  • ·      If you find yourself thinking a lesson plan is too complicated, it probably is.  Unless it is absolutely necessary for it to be done that day, try to avoid potentially confusing lesson plans.  It may not be that the material is too difficult for a sub, but the sub won’t have the advantage of prior preparation.  Is it something that must be done an absolute specific way?  Is it an arts and crafts activity that requires skill?  Is it a science experiment with many steps and supplies?  Is technology involved?  Does it involve something that could make a sub uncomfortable?  If you’re absent for one or two days, stick to review lessons rather than introducing brand new concepts.
  • ·      Avoid busyworkAssigning a day filled with busywork can cause almost as many problems as not having enough work.  Students can become restless, bored and rush through their work.  If your plans include too many worksheets or textbooks assignments, consider amending some activities to include cooperative learning and other techniques.  Can they play a vocabulary game instead of copying definitions?  Can the written assignment be replaced by an oral discussion?  Can the students use hands-on manipulatives to practice their math skills?
  • ·       If cooperative learning is part of the plan, make sure it is something students have practiced.  If it is an activity you’ve never done with students, save it for another day.  Try to stick to activities they have regularly practiced.  For instance, don’t schedule workstation rotations when students haven’t practiced the various activities or rotations in a long time.  Cooperative learning can be an excellent component of a plan, but it can erupt in chaos if students don’t know exactly what to do.
  • ·      Are all materials necessary for the plans available, easily visible and in order?  This includes worksheets, handouts, materials for games and activities, and whatever else you’ve included in the lesson plan.  The sub shouldn’t have to dig around in your cabinets and drawers looking for an activity’s supplies.  The sub shouldn’t have to send a student to make more copies.  Double-check to make sure you have enough copies of papers, everything is labeled and in order, and very easy for the sub to navigate.  If you’re relying on technology, can the sub handle everything, or would it be easier to make adjustments?  Have you left instructions about the projector, DVD player, Smartboard, computers, etc?  If the sub will need the teacher’s edition of a textbook, have it stacked neatly with pages and important notes marked with sticky notes.
  • ·      Did you leave answer keys?  This is especially important in upper-grade levels.  If you have some work for the class to check, leave a key.
  • ·      Have students already finished the activityMake sure you’re not leaving an assignment that the students have already completed, or almost completed.  If you have an hour-long math lesson which tells students to finish their math packet, and 20 hands shoot up to announce that they’ve already finished it, what is the sub supposed to do for the next hour?  Double-check and make sure the assignment that needs to be completed will up take the designated amount of time.  Assume time will be left over, and have more activities scheduled, just in case.
  • ·      What could go awry? This is another important question.  It is particularly relevant when the plans rely on unpredictable things.  Always have a backup activity available in the case of these events:

o   Going to another location, such as the library, computer lab, an assembly, etc.  There could be an unexpected scheduling conflict, and your class may not get to go.  What should they do if the hour-long assembly is cancelled at the last minute, or if there is another class in the library?
o   Having a presentation.  Is the counselor supposed to come to your class and give a self-esteem lesson?  Is a guest speaker scheduled to visit your class?  Is a group of students supposed to make a presentation?  What if these people do not show up, or schedules change?
o   Depending on technology.  If a lesson is stored using a technological program, what should happen if no one is able to get it working properly?  If students are supposed to go to the computer lab, what happens if there is a computer crash?  What if the DVD player stops working, or the CD player malfunctions?
  • ·      How can you hold students accountable if they are assigned to watch a movie?  Students often sleep or goof around when a movie is played, especially if they have a sub. Consider adding something for them to complete after viewing the movie, such as a quiz, or a worksheet that they fill-in as they watch the movie, or a written response.
  • ·      What should students turn in, take home, finish for homework, etc?  Be sure to tell the substitute exactly what students are expected to finish and turn in.  Some substitutes worry if they do not completely finish every item on the plans.  Let them know if some things can be finished later, or if it is a flexible plan.  If there is homework, state exactly what it is.

If you take these things into consideration and include them in your plans, I am willing to bet your subs will always be impressed by how well planned your instructions are!  I’ve had the pleasure of subbing for a few teachers with awesome plans, and it’s always a good reflection of their teaching habits.  It just seems to make the day run smoother!

Remember, you can’t control a lot of things that happen in your sub’s day.  A lot of the class behavior and unexpected incidents are beyond your control.

What is in your control is your sub lesson plan.  That one simple thing has the utmost importance for your sub’s workday.  Show you appreciate your sub and your class by making it a good plan!

Subs, is there anything I’m forgetting?  



  1. A lot of this stuff you talked about in this post is pure common sense, and I guess teachers overlook it because like you said they are leaving the plans as if the sub will be familiar with the school and classroom. This could be true, but often times the sub will be completely new to the school and classroom. Having a map for staff restrooms is such a great idea; much better than stumbling and fumbling to find one with the limited free time we have.

    1. As a retired teacher, and currently subbing in unfamiliar buildings, I always ask for a map and a seating chart! Two things that would really help!

  2. Exactly! It's a little different to think about things from another person's perspective, and so many common sense things are overlooked in lesson planning.

  3. I have to point out, however, that as a classroom teacher, I have left the most detailed plans possible (even SCRIPTED lessons sometimes with specific things for them to say/do)...and it doesn't get done. So just to defend the classroom teachers out there, sometimes even putting in this time doesn't help because not all subs are there to actually work. Many in our district do it because they think it is "easy work" where they are just babysitting. :/

    I've been on both sides of the coin. I subbed and have had my own classroom. I know how much easier it is when lessons are extremely detailed, but if the sub isn't going to follow the lessons, it's a lot of time wasted on the teacher's part.

  4. Hi, Sunny! I absolutely agree: if a teacher takes the time to make awesome plans, the sub's responsibility is to follow them. Speaking for myself, I always do my best to follow the teacher's plans, and I even leave a note if I feel like I didn't do something as accurately as I wanted (ie, "We went over the math lesson, but the students could probably use a little more review from you") or if we didn't get to finish something. It's definitely a collaborative process for the teacher and the sub.