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18 April 2023

5 easy ways to plan for a substitute teacher

Darby Bozeman

Former Middle School Teacher; current DT+ Educational Consultant

Teacher planning lesson

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When you have to take the day off (or are in dire need of a mental health day), there’s nothing worse than that gut-churning teacher dread that almost makes you want to force yourself to go anyway – what should I plan for the sub?

Your time is precious enough as it is, and staying up late to plan for a last-minute substitute teacher is never fun. Worry not! Check out five ways below to streamline your sub-planning and save yourself from a stress headache.

1. Make it group work

Sometimes when you’re out unexpectedly, it can be challenging to convert a lesson that focuses on direct instruction into a lesson that can be done without you in the driver’s seat.

Because you don’t always know who will be covering your class, it’s helpful to have a plan that will allow students to facilitate their own learning. That said, group work can be put together quickly and efficiently – and it can span the length of an entire class period.

Group of students working together

For example, show Unlocking Collaboration: Group Discussions (five minutes in length) and give students a question pack–see the Retrieving Knowledge section of the Unlocked Worksheet: Collaborating in Group Discussions for ideas or just print as is. Yep, this is group work about how to do group work. It fits all the time, and students will build necessary collaborative skills that will pay dividends when you’re back in the classroom with them.

2. Give a choice board

Students are way more likely to stay engaged when you’re gone if they have creative control over their learning. When I was in the classroom, a choice board was the easiest thing to leave for a sub, because 1) it was low prep and 2) I didn’t have to worry that my students would mutiny in my absence.

The beauty of the choice board is that you can build it at any time, and then use it at any time. When you have a free planning period, spend a little bit of time coming up with 4-6 self-guided activities that you can leave with the sub. Students will have clear guidance during your time away, and they will all have a task that they can really lean into.

Not sure where to start? Check out our Choice Charts if you’re teaching acting or technical theatre–we’ve got printable worksheets for you to print out ASAP! Additionally, take a look at the Discover, Explore, Assess packs and scroll down to the ‘After Watching’ section for more inspiration.

3. Show a video

I don’t mean throwing on whatever DVD you can dig out of your filing cabinet – instead, you can use e-learning videos in your classroom to grab students’ attention and make sure content is being delivered in the way you want it to be. This puts less pressure on your sub to teach something they may not feel comfortable with – it also allows for your students to get the most out of instructional time, even while you’re away.

In the middle of a Macbeth unit? If you show a short, targeted video, you can rest assured that students will have a chance to enhance their learning and skill-building while you’re out.

Screenshot 2022-10-05 at 20.25.49Unlocking Character: Lady Macbeth

Watch Unlocking Character: Lady Macbeth and pause for the questions at 5:57; your instructions for your sub can be as simple as telling students to pause, discuss in small groups, and write down their thoughts and answers. This can easily take up half of your class period – which means half of your sub-planning can be done immediately!

4. Pause and focus on skills rather than content

If you’re leaving your class halfway through a unit, it can be overwhelming to think about how to help a sub jump right into a complex unit of study. Not everyone is going to annotate Macbeth the way you can, and you don’t want your students to miss something or get confused.

That said, you can leave a sub-plan focused on a skill that you’ve already taught that relates to your current unit. Rather than asking your sub to annotate Act 3 in your stead (and just hoping for the best), why not give students the option to practice a skill they’ve learned during the unit on a different topic?

For example, if you’ve been working through Macbeth, leave an excerpt from another play (or even another text that you’ve already taught them) and have them practice on something fresh. It won’t disrupt the flow of your current unit, and it will give your students some breathing room if you’ve focused on the same text for a while. A win-win!

5. Think ahead

Okay, hear me out; I know this post is mostly about last-minute planning. BUT, if you put the time investment in early, hopefully, you can alleviate the need for staying up late to design a choice board for your sick day!

Consider making a physical folder (that you leave on your desk) of “just-in-case” sub plans. These can be worksheets that focus on topics or skills that you teach throughout the year, so they’ll fit into whatever unit you need them to. Check out the Unlocked Worksheet: Interrogating Information Effectively. If you leave copies of the worksheet and one copy of the answer sheet for the sub–you’re golden! Throw that in your folder and feel good knowing you’ve got a simple but effective activity ready to go if you should ever need to be out unexpectedly.

Sub-planning is never going to be the best part of the job, but hopefully, these tips make it easier. Digital Theatre+ is full of ready-to-go lesson plans, activities, and high-quality video resources that are always accessible to you and your students. You deserve to enjoy your day off or overcome sickness in peace, without the added stress of sub-prep.