Teaching Profession CTQ Collaboratory

Making Substitute Days Count

By Dave Orphal — July 02, 2013 3 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

You’ve probably seen the cycle before. Teachers don’t trust the substitute to be able to facilitate meaningful learning—so they spend little time or energy on creating lesson plans. In turn, substitutes arrive expecting to assign busy work. They anticipate that students will be disengaged and playful at best or disruptive and disrespectful at worst.

Meanwhile, students assume that a sub-taught lesson will have little relevance or substance. Early in the day, they spread the word of an absent teacher so their peers can expect the play and free time to come.

When I’m out for the day, my students spread the word, too. But they text comments like, “You better be on time to Orphal’s today—he has a sub,” and “You better get it together today cause we need the extra credit!” Here’s what I do to break the vicious cycle:

See Also

Create a student-centered classroom structure.

It starts with my daily routine, which puts students on center stage. The teacher—whether that’s me or a substitute—plays a supporting role. In my class, all students work on teams. I create teams of five students who work together at a table, and assign each team member a number (1-5).

My weekly progress check begins when I roll, with great fanfare, a six-sided die. The number I roll determines the team member at each table whose work from the week I will assess. I assign the work a score out of a possible 10 points—and the whole team earns the score of the randomly chosen teammate.

My students learn that they have to depend on and support one another: Their grades represent their own achievements but a portion also rides on the work of their teammates. This system of mutual accountability (and resulting sense of community) makes a big difference when a substitute teacher sits at my desk.

Raise the stakes for your students when you are absent.

The work completed (and behavior demonstrated) on a single sub day is as valuable for my kids’ grades as is their performance for a whole regular week.

Keep it relevant and meaningful—no busy work!

A key element of my practice is telling (and showing) my students that the skills and concepts they learn in my classroom are important to their futures. And I stick to that commitment—no busy work when I am present or absent. When I have a substitute, I expect my kids to do exactly the same work that I would have assigned to them had I been in the room.

Develop a system of carrots and sticks.

On days when I am absent, grading works differently. Team points are not assigned according to a randomly selected member’s work, but according to the entire team’s behavior and motivation. Here are my rules:

  1. Every person turns in work in to the sub. Each student can contribute points toward the total for their team.
  2. Punctuality is important. Students who are tardy can only earn half-credit for their team.
  3. Behavior is important. Students who get their name on a note from the sub earn zero points for their team. Students who are sent to the principal earn a zero for their entire team.
  4. Perfection is rewarded. Perfect teams who turn in excellent work and behave well will earn double points on this day.

So, on sub days, my students are even more interdependent. Each of the five team members can contribute points to the team’s total for the day. But … if one student doesn’t do her work, the best her team will earn is 8/10. If one student is tardy but turns in satisfactory work, the team can earn up to 9/10. And if a student misbehaves to the point that he is sent out of class, the whole team earns 0.

However, if all team members are on time, turn in satisfactory work, and are well-behaved, then the team can earn up to 20 points for the day.

Can you see why my students text their teammates, telling them to be on time and work hard?

It’s not a perfect system. There are days when only a few teams succeed in earning extra credit. Sometimes a student still loses her temper and is sent out of the room. But usually it works like a charm—breaking the vicious cycle of substitute teaching.

And that’s critical: My students have important concepts to learn and skills to learn every day, whether or not I’m in the room.


This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
School & District Management Webinar
Deepen the Reach and Impact of Your Leadership
This webinar offers new and veteran leaders a unique opportunity to listen and interact with four of the most influential educational thinkers in North America. With their expert insights, you will learn the key elements
Content provided by Solution Tree
Science K-12 Essentials Forum Teaching Science Today: Challenges and Solutions
Join this event which will tackle handling controversy in the classroom, and making science education relevant for all students.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Student Well-Being Webinar
Stronger Together: Integrating Social and Emotional Supports in an Equity-Based MTSS
Decades of research have shown that when schools implement evidence-based social and emotional supports and programming, academic achievement increases. The impact of these supports – particularly for students of color, students from low-income communities, English
Content provided by Illuminate Education

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Teaching Profession Explainer: Why Are Chicago Schools, Teachers' Union Fighting?
The issue that caused the most chaos in the roughly 350,000-student district was when and how to revert to remote learning.
3 min read
Members of the Chicago Teachers Union and supporters stage a car caravan protest outside City Hall in the Loop, Wednesday evening, Jan. 5, 2022. Chicago school leaders canceled classes in the nation’s third-largest school district for the second straight day after failing to reach an agreement with the teachers union over remote learning and other COVID-19 safety protocols. (Ashlee Rezin /Chicago Sun-Times via AP)
Teaching Profession Some Teachers Are Running Out of Sick Days, and Administrators Are Hesitant to Help
With a shortage of substitutes and pressure to stay open, administrators are reluctant to extend paid time off for teachers with COVID.
13 min read
Professional male social distancing or self quarantining inside a coronavirus pathogen.
iStock/Getty Images Plus
Teaching Profession Opinion 18 Ways to Improve Teacher Observations
Holding pre- and post-conferences, showing more compassion and less judgment, and organizing peer observations are valuable.
19 min read
Images shows colorful speech bubbles that say "Q," "&," and "A."
Teaching Profession For Anxious Teachers, Omicron 'Feels Like Walking Into a Trap'
As COVID cases rise sharply, educators brace for another semester of staffing shortages, student absences, and potentially getting sick.
9 min read
Kindergarten teacher Mrs. Amber Updegrove interacts with her students, while she and the students are wearing masks to protect against COVID-19 at Warner Arts Magnet Elementary in Nashville, Tenn, on Friday, Aug. 20, 2021.
Kindergarten teacher Amber Updegrove interacts with her students at Warner Arts Magnet Elementary in Nashville, Tenn., in August.
John Partipilo/AP