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Managing Teacher Absences Through Collaboration

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I never imagined it would happen to me. How could it? It's teacher folklore—something they tell newbie educators to scare them into organized habits. For six years, I shrugged off what every teacher needs—an emergency sub plan.

Of course, the fates eventually chose to play my hand—on the first day of state testing. When my entire family fell ill with the Norovirus, I knew I had no choice. Standardized testing or not, I would be taking a sick day.

Panic quickly swept over me. There was so much to figure out. Where do I start? Who should I contact? What was I planning to teach that day?

Although I had no plan in place, quick-thinking collaboration with my students and colleagues led to a successful classroom experience in my unforeseen absence. Here are three ways you can use positive collaboration when the chaos of life forces itself upon you:

1. Collaborate with students using classroom roles. As a teacher, I'm always trying to find ways to develop students' independence and delegate responsibility. I believe that students need to recognize the value of their education and take responsibility for it. This is especially important when there is a substitute. How successful can your students be if they don't take ownership of what they are learning, no matter who's leading the class?

With students, it's helpful to collaborate in advance if possible. During my absence, I ended up assigning classroom roles to students who I knew could handle them. But it's a missed opportunity if you don't discuss these roles with students early in the year and let them become active collaborators.

Offering students classroom roles will empower them with a sense of responsibility and independence. No matter what you teach, you can provide students with opportunities to take charge of their learning in your absence. Here are a few ideas:

  • Sub Directors. This role goes to students who you trust to provide guidance and assist the substitute in the successful delivery of the lesson. Sub directors know the location of the infamous substitute binder, handouts, and other frequently used materials. Copies of emergency activities? Fear not, they know where these reside as well! Ideal sub directors are organized, responsible students who understand classroom routines very well.
  • Technology Team. Every class has at least one Steve Jobs in the making. These students have a genuine love for technology. Embrace their passion by providing training and guidance at the start of the year and showing them how to turn on and operate the equipment within the room.

    You could also teach your tech team how to sign into websites that your substitute might need to use during the lesson. Possible websites include online textbooks for your class, Google Apps for Education, and learning-management systems such as Edmodo, Blackboard, Haiku, and Canvas. If the substitute encounters a technology problem, no worries! The tech team has your back.

  • Design Crew. This is a great option for kinesthetic learners who want to help out. Use the design crew to prepare your room for the substitute. They can erase the whiteboard from the previous lesson and reorganize the room (pushing in chairs, clearing off tables, and picking up supplies and materials). Another option is to have these students write updates on the calendar or homework board.

2. Collaborate with staff to cover your bases.

  • Administrators. When an emergency or sick day presents itself, start by collaborating with administrators. They know the big picture of what's happening at your school. They'll facilitate the process of managing your absence, from finding a certified sub to proctor an exam to recording your absence in the substitute-management system.
  • Teammates. Next, get in touch with your teammates. They'll know what's being covered in your class and (typically) its general makeup. If a substitute needs information about student medical needs or behavior plans, they'll take care of it. If you need copies made—or perhaps an entire lesson created—they're your people.
  • Club sponsors. Schools are full of extracurricular activities. These too require last-minute arranging during an absence. Reach out to other sponsors, who can run a meeting or practice or find a sub if necessary.

3. Use technology to share information and build relationships. Technology is a great way to reach out to colleagues and students during your absence. Take advantage of the systems and procedures your district has in place. Make sure to follow required procedures—many schools use websites to record and submit requests for substitutes or have specific phone-tree guidelines. Use texts and email to contact administrators and teammates and send them any information they may need.

Recording a Lesson Overview

When Kimberly Long has to call in a substitute, she provides an overview of the day's lesson to her class via a video she records.

Another option is to use technology to guide your students and substitute. This year, my students suggested I record a video explaining my absence and use it as an opportunity to review the day's lesson. I made a video at home and then posted it on our class website. You could also post instructions on your class learning-management system, website, or Dropbox. Substitute teachers can't read minds—so what better way to make sure students have the correct information for the day than by telling them yourself?

I once heard a presenter at a conference point out that isolation—or, lack of collaborating—is a choice. There's no reason to close your classroom door and shut yourself off from everyone else. Use technology to battle teacher isolation.

Teachers are human. Emergencies and sick days happen. But by putting effort into positive collaboration today, you will find help in times of need and develop valuable professional relationships.

What strategies do you use when you need a substitute?

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