Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Substitute Lifesavers: How to Survive When You Don't Have Lesson Plans

Picture it:

Early one morning, you excitedly enter an elementary school.  You haven’t worked in the last couple of days, and you had become a little concerned about your next paycheck.  Around 6:00 am, you hopefully and groggily checked the substitute assignment system to see if there were any jobs available.  What luck!  A third grade assignment had been placed since you checked the system last night.

You arrive early, greet the secretary with a smile, sign in and head to the classroom.  “Today feels like a good day,” you think to yourself.

You enter the classroom, view a neat space and place your things down near the teacher’s desk.  You look around for the lesson plans.

Ruh roh!

You look everywhere.  On the teacher’s desk.  On the reading group table.  You even trek to the teacher’s box and see if there’s a sub folder there.  Nothing.

You look at the clock in a panic.  Ten minutes until the bell rings.  You realize, with horror, what this means:  what in the world are you going to do with thirty students for the next seven hours?

Suddenly, what appeared to be an auspicious day has quickly descended into the dark pits of your nightmares.

Chances are likely that if you sub long enough, you’ll encounter this scenario.  In some lucky districts, many subs can go for a long time without this occurrence.  In other districts, it’s much more commonplace for a substitute to be left with nothing.

The chances of this increase when you make yourself available for jobs posted at the last minute, when teachers probably didn’t realize until too late they wouldn’t be in to work that morning and, therefore, may not have left any plans.

One very large part of being a substitute is being flexible, and that includes being prepared for these situations.  Resist the urge to panic; there are ways to handle this situation with dignity and grace.  They’re called Lifesavers.

Lifesavers are particularly important to substitutes since we are dependent on whatever plans the teacher has left.  If you don’t have plans, then you’ll have to learn to think on your feet.  A teacher successfully leads a classroom by being prepared and taking control.  Revealing that you are not prepared means you are not in control of the classroom, and it will lead to a stressful day.

Students need to know their substitute teachers are in control.  They smell blood when they hear innocent questions from the sub like, “Well, what were you guys working on yesterday?”  Don’t ask.  You’re the teacher for the day, and if you have no idea what to do, you have to be good at faking it.  Even if you have lesson plans and something runs short, or a plan backfires (like going to the computer lab only to discover a scheduling error:  there’s a class already in there), you have to have something to fall back on quickly. 

I never leave students to their own devices.  You’d be surprised at how five or ten minutes of “nothing to do” can result in disaster.  The time-honored default activity in these situations (otherwise known as “read silently”) has its limitations:  students, especially the young ones, can only read silently for so long.  After about ten minutes, if you’re lucky, they will start to fidget, talk, draw on their desks, bother other students, etc.  Also, some students may not have books.  If you send them to the class library, they can create a mess on the shelves, play near the bookcase, not find a book they want to read, and so on.  In other words, I steer clear of the “silent reading” unless there are only a few minutes to fill, and the students actually want to read.

That begs the question that most substitutes have asked themselves at one time or another:  what do I do?  Well, that’s what I’ll address in this Lifesavers series.

First, however, let’s discuss a few things you can do to mitigate panic in these situations.

8 Things Substitutes Should Do When They Don’t Have Lesson Plans:
  1. Always assume you won’t have lesson plans, especially if you’re working a job posted that same morning.  If you assume you will get to work without a plan, you’ll prepare for the worst.  It’s likely you’ll have some sort of lesson or activity when you get there, even if it’s just bare-bones, so you’ll only have to rely on a few things you’ve brought with you, or maybe none at all.  But don’t get too complacent!  When I get lax and leave my extras at home or forget to print some, that’s just the day I’ll need them.  Remember, you can’t really anticipate not being prepared for a job, so always expect to need your backups.
  2. Research.  You’re not a full-time teacher, but you can still do research to improve your craft.  Research includes internet searches, professional books, talking to other subs and teachers, etc.  Just by visiting this blog, you’re doing research!  I get a wealth of ideas from books and things I see in classrooms I sub for the day.  I find quick classroom activities, and I take notes in a growing list of things I can use when needed.  My idea notebooks I take to school have a ton of activity ideas in them (most of which will be posted on this blog at some point, lucky you).  Steal ideas!  You may even purchase a few handy things and take them to work everyday, like math flashcards, a few interesting books and magazines, etc.  The tough part is subbing for different grade levels and needing to choose activities that are kind of flexible.  If you only have copies of some worksheets for first-graders, it won’t be useful for the day when you’re subbing for fifth-grade.  That’s why I usually focus on activities and games that can be modified to fit several age groups.  I save time, ink and paper by doing that. 
  3. Get to work early.  If you have time to spare, you will know that you have no lesson plans and can start with your backup ideas.  I try to get to work at least fifteen minutes before the class arrives.  Those few moments are precious!  Whenever I don’t see plans when I enter a classroom, the first thing I do is ask a neighboring teacher.  Sometimes, teachers leave their plans with another teacher, or email them at the last minute.  Usually, this is the explanation as to why I don’t have plans.  Other times, the school’s staff will know where the absent teacher keeps emergency lesson plans.  At the very least, 95% of the time, other teachers will be sympathetic towards you and do all they can to help.  They may have an idea of what this class has been working on and get some last-minute plans written up for you, and give you copies of worksheets for the class.
  4. Always have a warm-up activity ready for the beginning of class.  No matter what, don’t let students enter the room and not have something to do when they first arrive.  Several jobs I’ve had went sour from the very start because there was no clear activity for the students to begin, and so they stood around, talked, and played with their friends.  Students should not be chatting and wandering around aimlessly for the first five minutes.  Once a class starts off badly, it’s hard to regroup.  Get them seated and focused on an activity, even if they’re just waiting for the morning announcements.  Sometimes, students are so used to routine that they will begin whatever their warm-up usually is without any prompting from you.  Other times, they need to be told to work on.  If you must, write a few math problems, or sentences with grammatical errors to correct, on the board for the warm-up.  While they are working, use any spare minutes to continue planning your backup lesson.  Keep them busy.
  5. Learn to extend activities.  This is a skill I acquired on the job, and I think every teacher should be able to do it because it’s so useful, even when you have good plans!  Imagine that each assignment/activity is a soaking-wet sponge.  When you have time to fill, it’s essential to squeeze that sponge enough to so that each and every drop of water is released.  It’s not just for the sake of time; often, students need to approach an assignment from many different ways to strengthen their thinking skills.
  6. Learn the schedule for the class.  Whether you have lesson plans or not, you’re still responsible for making sure they get to art class at the right time, arrive punctually for lunch, and other things like that.  This is particularly important when subbing elementary because you usually have to escort them everywhere.  Teachers often have the general schedule posted somewhere in the room, outside their door or on their desk.  If you can’t find it, ask another teacher.  Older students will know most of their schedule, but ask another teacher just to make sure, especially if the school does not use bells.
  7.  Use what’s in the classroom.  I rely on whatever is in the classroom before I use my extras so I can save what I have for later, or I may not have to use it at all.  Look around.  You may find some clues as to what the class usually does with the teacher; if you see writing notebooks, or centers, or a word wall and other things, try to implement them into your makeshift lesson.  If you see textbooks around the room (or workbooks, classroom magazines, journals, etc) flip through and see if you can string together an assignment from them.  With textbooks, I like to use the supplemental pages that are generally at the end of the chapter.  (In math books, they are usually practice tests; in science, reading and social studies books, they are typically articles that tie-in to the chapter’s theme, but are not part of the chapter’s main content.)  This is because most teachers ignore those pages, so it’s likely that the class hasn’t already done them.
  8. This last one is optional, but I don’t ever tell students when I’m assigning them work their teacher did not assign.  I don’t make them aware that I don’t have any lesson plans, or that I’m giving them something extra (although I guess it would be ok if it was something like a game).  Why?  I suppose it’s a power thing.  Older students may become defiant and ask, “Well, if Mrs. Applebaum didn’t assign it, then why should we have to do it?”  I want to avoid that conversation, so I don’t let it come up.   Whatever extra work I have, I hand it out and assign it with the same adeptness as I would from the teacher’s lesson plans, so students are none the wiser.  Occasionally, if you have a really good class, they may freely let you know that they are actually supposed to work on something specific (they have a spelling test that day, or they’re supposed to keep working on a history project, for example), and then you can adjust what you planned.

My Lifesavers series will give you a full description of each activity, including some helpful tips for executing and modifying it, as well as some potential challenges.  If you know of anymore, tell me about them and I’ll give you full credit!

People call quick classroom activities Lifesavers because it can feel like you’re drowning if you aren’t prepared.  Subbing is tough enough even when you have perfect lesson plans.  Keep a list of Lifesavers in your arsenal to help your unpredictable days run a bit smoother.  



  1. You write very sensible ideas. Congratulations!

  2. Once again more great posting. I find your tip about extending activities particularly helpful. That is a skill that would serve even a seasoned professional teacher well.

  3. Thanks! I appreciate the comments, and I'm glad to know this is a bit helpful to you.

  4. Excellent ideas. Thank you for sharing. I'm new to the subbing thing and am scrambling for help.