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With Larry Ferlazzo

In this EdWeek blog, an experiment in knowledge-gathering, Ferlazzo will address readers’ questions on classroom management, ELL instruction, lesson planning, and other issues facing teachers. Send your questions to lferlazzo@epe.org. Read more from this blog.

Teaching Opinion

Response: Use ‘Compassion’ When Planning for a Substitute Teacher

By Larry Ferlazzo — April 07, 2018 20 min read
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The new “question-of-the-week” is:

What is the best advice you can offer to a sub, and to the teacher for how he/she can prepare for the sub?

Substitute teachers are essential to our schools. Yet, it’s not unusual for students or for regular teachers to take them very seriously. I have to admit that I consider it a success if I come back after an absence and the room isn’t torn apart and no referrals were made for students to go to the office.

This post will explore the best advice we can offer to a sub, and the best advice to teachers for how they can prepare for one. Should we have higher hopes than I presently do?

Today, Roxanna Elden, Rachael George, Rachel Trowbridge, Kevin Parr, Amy Sandvold, William J. Tolley share their thoughts. I’ve also included comments from readers. You can listen to a 10-minute conversation I had with Roxanna and Rachael on my BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here. By the way, you can also now listen to the show on Google Play and Stitcher, in addition to iTunes.

If I have a class that I have concerns about in terms of behavior with a sub, I make copies of an “Attitude & Behavior With A Substitute Teacher” rubric. It has simple guidelines for what kind of behavior is required to get an A, B, C or F. You can download it here.

I review it with the class at the beginning of the year. The sub passes it out at the end of class. Students write their name on it and grade themselves. Then, the sub goes around collecting it and writing in his/her grade for the student.

It’s worked out quite well.

If I know in advance that I will be out, I’ll also review the plan with two-or-three students who are viewed as leaders by their classmates, and tell the sub that this “team” will help other students with the assignment.

Response From Roxanna Elden

Roxanna Elden is the author of See Me After Class: Advice for Teachers by Teachers. She also speaks at events around the country, providing training and support for teachers and sharing a teacher’s eye view on a variety of education issues.

If no one has told you how to plan for a substitute, the day after your first absence can be an unpleasant wake-up call. Here are three tips to keep in mind.

1. No one will teach your students, your way, in your absence.

Most subs won’t teach a lesson for you even if you leave a fabulous, clearly written plan, so don’t use up a great lesson on a day you won’t be there to teach it.

2. Let the kids know what you expect from them when you’re out.

Make threats. Make promises. Plan a quiz for the day you return. In other words, do what you can to encourage good work and behavior in advance. If possible, ask the teacher next door to check in. When you return, have some plan to deal with students who gave the substitute problems.

3. Substitutes won’t always be as responsible as you want them to be. It’s still up to you to do the right thing. For the sake of everyone involved, do not leave anyone in your room with no clue who your students are or what to do with them. The ideal sub plan involves quiet work kids can do without much help. It uses materials that are easy to find or laid out in advance, and backup work in case kids finish early. If you want this stranger to keep your class calm, cool, and collected, give him or her the tools to do so.

Here isa handy list of what to put into your substitute folder.

Response From Rachael George

Rachael George is a member of the ASCD Emerging Leaders Class of 2015 and currently serves as the principal of Sandy Grade School in the Oregon Trail School District. Prior to serving as an elementary principal, George was a middle school principal of an “outstanding” and two-time “Level 5: Model School” as recognized by the State of Oregon. George specializes in curriculum development and instructional improvement as well as working with at-risk students and closing the achievement gap. Connect with George on Twitter @runnin26:

It’s all about lesson plans and backup plans. As a teacher preparing for a sub, please know that you can never have too much detail. My personal philosophy that I share with teachers as they are crafting their first set of sub plans for the year is that when in doubt, write it down. In fact, pretend that the substitute hasn’t ever been to your school, classroom, or taught your subject area. The level of detail should include the flow of the day, as well as the instruction that needs to occur.

I also encourage folks to plan back up activities and learning opportunities. Things happen, as many of us know. and plans have to change. If you leave back up plans, or alternative activities, it helps the substitute make adjustments when needed.

Now for the substitute: the advice falls to the other side of the coin. Please follow the lesson plans. The classroom teacher goes through so much time, effort, and energy to craft engaging and student centered activities that we want you to do them. When you disregard portions of the lesson plan or don’t teach the necessary things, it throws off the rest of the week and slows the overall student learning down. From a principal standpoint, I want learning and growing to occur for students in a positive and engaging manner regardless if we have a sub or not, in the classroom. It’s what is best for kids.

Response From Rachel Trowbridge

Rachel Trowbridge (@rachtrow) is the assistant principal at Katherine Smith School, a New Tech Network and P21 Exemplar elementary school in the Evergreen School District in San Jose, Calif. Trowbridge was part of the teaching staff who reinvented Katherine Smith, an urban neighborhood school in a high poverty area, using innovative project design to engage students. In her seventeen years in education, Trowbridge has worked tirelessly to bring her love of knowledge to those she teaches:

The classroom door opens. In walks the principal during their morning classroom walk through. There are two students sitting near the cubbies reading a book to each other. They look up and smile and then continue with their reading. Others are sitting at their desks listening to reading on iPads. Some students are working on a phonics assignment. The teacher is sitting with a small group of students at the back table editing some of their writing for their project deliverable. There is a hum in the air. Students are on task and engaged in their work. One student approaches the principal and asks if she can read him something from her book. On his way out, the principal nods to the substitute teacher.

This scenario is one in which I think we all can agree is the desired climate of a classroom when a substitute is in the room. Unfortunately, that is not often the case. At my school, we have struggled with how to effectively prepare our students and our substitutes for a positive experience. From the students we might hear, “They disrespect us.” “She yelled alot.” “I miss my teacher.” From the substitutes it could be, “They are disrespectful.” “They don’t listen.” “I wasn’t able to follow the substitute plans.” What’s common in both experiences is a feeling of a lack of respect. Webster’s Dictionary defines respect as “to hold in high regard; show honor or courtesy to.” How could we develop a system in which both students and substitutes felt like they were being respected?

We decided to change how we looked as substitute teachers from being a substitute for the teacher in the classroom to a guest in our classrooms. Our campus is the student’s home away from home. We needed to look at Guest Teachers in the same vein as as a guest visiting our house. We often have visitors from other schools or agencies come through our school. Classroom ambassadors welcome the guests and explain our projects and what we’re learning at the time. Why couldn’t we create the same environment for our Guest Teachers? Discussions during morning meetings on campus centered around what we could do that would start the day out on the right foot. Things like welcoming Guest Teachers to the classroom, showing them around the room, or asking how they were doing would set the stage for a positive day.

For teachers, we gave them a welcome letter when they checked into the office and shared our school rules, expectations, and school-wide beliefs. School and classroom norms, reflection procedure, and progressive discipline systems are included so that teachers have tools at their disposal to have a successful experience. Buddy classrooms were included in case the guest teacher had questions or needed some support and the office staff was always ready to answer any questions.

Some things to consider:

-Relationships are important. How can students and a guest teacher establish a relationship quickly? Get to know you activities or a quick share in a morning meeting like structure can build rapport and be a positive for both students and Guest Teacher.

-Give value and honor student experiences. Everyone is different.

-Be flexible in your thinking. What worked in one classroom might not work in another.

-Reflection is important. Celebrate bright spots. Create systems to address deficits.

Our students are in the classroom for a short time each day. Their learning should not be disrupted because of a bad day with a substitute. Consider the circumstances in your setting to determine what makes the most sense for creating the best case scenario for a Guest Teacher in your school. Every time. Our students depend on it.

Response From Kevin Parr

Kevin Parr is a fourth grade teacher from Wenatchee, WA and an ASCD Emerging Leader:

There Is No Substitute for Compassion

Whether you are planning for a substitute teacher or filling in for a teacher who is out for the day, compassion is key. Here are some ways teachers and substitutes can demonstrate compassion for each other and the students they serve.

Preparing for a substitute

  • Set them up for success: Although teachers feel pressured to “get through all the material” and may have least favorite topics they would rather not teach, expecting a substitute to introduce a new concept to students may leave everyone frustrated. Instead, compassionate teachers plan review or extension activities that ensure both the substitute and students are successful.

  • Plant the seeds of compassion: In order for kids to show compassion toward a substitute, they need to understand how difficult the job is. Teaching itself is difficult, but without the benefit of strong relationships with the kids in the room or knowing where students are in the learning process, a substitute’s job is even harder. Before each sub day, I remind students how difficult substitute teaching is and then students discuss how they might use that information to guide their behavior. When kids begin to understand how someone feels and they act on it; we all win.

  • Give kids an out: Whether it stems from an issue at home or a reaction to change, teachers know the students who may display undesirable behavior during their absence. To prevent unnecessary escalation, teachers should tell these students they will instruct the substitute to allow them to take a break if need be. Teachers need not nor should not divulge personal information about students to the substitute, but should give them the out if they need it.

Preparing to substitute

  • Build relationships early: One of the biggest differences between a regular teacher and a substitute are the relationships they have with the children in the room. That said, substitutes can and should make every effort to get to know students on a personal level as soon as possible. One suggestion for substitutes is to find out where students line up in the morning and meet the ones who are there early. Many times those are the ones who need personal contact the most and getting to know them may help make the day easier for the students and substitute.

  • Stick to the plan: Teachers spend a significant amount of time making plans for a substitute. Whether it is a pre-planned absence or they were awoken in the middle of the night by a sick child, no teacher takes an absence from the classroom lightly. Therefore, substitutes should follow the plans provided as closely as possible.

  • Think about the best part: Teachers invest a tremendous amount of time into fostering a classroom environment rooted in respect and the ultimate test of that culture is being out of the room for a day. Therefore, teachers want an honest assessment about how students behaved during their absence. After a long day, however, it can be easy to be overly negative. Substitutes can avoid this by thinking about the best part of their day first before thinking about challenges.

Although an absence from school can be stressful for teachers, substitutes and students, mutual displays of compassion can ensure success for all.

Response From Amy Sandvold

Amy Sandvold is an experienced educator in both private and public schools. She is co-author of the bestselling The Passion Driven Classroom and The Fundamentals of Literacy Coaching. She currently practices her passion as a third grade teacher at Highland Elementary for the Waterloo Community School District in Waterloo, Iowa. You can read her Teacher in Iowa blog at //amysandvold.wix.com/teacheriniowa and follow her on Twitter @TeacherinIowa:

“Expect the best, plan for the worst, and prepare to be surprised.” This is one of my favorite quotes by Denis Waitley, career and personal success expert. These are wise words for both the substitute and the teacher. Expectations, whether positive or negative are a powerful force in anticipation for the day.

Expect the Best. Expecting the best sets a positive tone. As the substitute, if you walk into the building thinking, “this is going to be a horrible day, I’ve heard about this school and these kids. I hate my life!” Compare this to entering the classroom with an open mind, thinking, “I can’t wait to meet these students! We are going to have an active day that certainly won’t be boring!” I posted this topic on Facebook, and I was delighted that my preschool-aged day care provider (when I was 3!), Elaine Johnson Jensen Anderson, commented, “Tell he or she how wonderful your kids are and to love them as you do.” She must have rubbed off on me, because expecting the best makes all the difference. Kids can sense if you want to be there or not and they will make the day match that feeling.

Plan for the worst. Whether you are the teacher or substitute, there is no substitute for preparing well! When stuff happens, at least there are detailed plans that direct what to do in any circumstance. As the teacher, know that it is worth the time it takes to write detailed plans to help your students have a great day when you have to be away from the classroom. Keep things as close to normal as possible. Avoid introducing new concepts and include reviews instead. Planning for the worst also means being ready for an emergency. I suggest that you have two sets of substitute plans: An emergency sub plan binder, as well as a template ready to go when you have time to plan. During my years as a principal, I required my teachers to have a labeled Emergency Sub Plan Binder with three days of plans. We hope that we never have to use the emergency sub plan binder, because this is for extreme emergencies. A substitute or principal can walk right in, open the binder, and all materials and instructions are ready to go for 3 consecutive days. As the substitute, if emergency procedures and office phone numbers are missing from the sub plans, ask one of the other teachers before school what they are.

Prepare to be surprised. Even though the lesson plans are super detailed, stuff happens. Prepare to be surprised as the substitute when there is a schedule change and students need to go to P.E. instead of Art. Prepare to be surprised that the students are struggling with the math lesson and they have no idea what you are teaching them. As the teacher, when you get back from an absence, don’t dwell on the fact that your students had no idea what to do during the math lesson and that your students had P.E. instead of Art. Move on. We are teaching human beings, and with that comes surprises. Carrie Taylor, Talented Development teacher for the Waterloo Community Schools in Waterloo, Iowa, suggests that the substitute have a “bag of tricks” in case you need more. For example, any logic games appropriate to the grade level can go in the bag of tricks. As the teacher, include “time fillers” that take only 5 - 15 minutes. Include content area games that students already know how to do.

Expect the best, plan for the worst, and prepare to be surprised. If you keep this mantra going in your mind whether you are the substitute or the teacher, your students will have the best day possible!

References: www.waitley.com

Response From William J. Tolley

Bill Tolley, a New York Times Teacher Who Makes a Difference, and a graduate of Teachers College, Columbia University is currently a teacher and learner at the International School of Estonia. His professional interests include historical imagination & social aesthetics, future-building and redefining learning space/time. Connect with him @wjtolley:

We best prepare our classes for substitute teachers when we train our students to be responsible individuals. Our preparation for the sub need not be distinct from our general enculturation of our classes, nor our daily management of the classroom, nor the trust that we place in our students every day.

The Roman philosopher and educator Marcus Fabius Quintilianus advised that a teacher should: “Let his discourse continually turn on what is good and honorable; the more he admonishes, the less he will have to punish.” Quintilian’s recommendation is as sound today as it was in the First Century--and perhaps more relevant as he didn’t have to compete with iPhones and Snapchat.

Modeling and routine and--I would argue--trust, are the approaches a teacher must embrace to make sure that her students are ready to be “set loose” on a substitute. When you establish norms of respect and emphasize individual and group accountability on a daily basis, those behaviors will carry over during your absence.

In my classroom, the modeling and routine take the form of three consistent and formative instructional strategies and philosophies that nurture positive behavior in students:

  1. Gradual release of responsibility: By gradually turning accountability for learning over to your students through modeling and guided practice, students develop autonomy that carries over in your absence.

  2. Peer to peer instruction and student leadership: My students hear the phrase “Talk to the person on your left or right about...” so often in my classes, I have seen many of them adopt the routine when running their own club meetings. Why? Because it works. Not only does it remove the “sage on the stage” effect in the classroom and involve every student in the learning at once, it makes students accountable to each other; a situation that creates a genuine social incentive for participating responsibly.

  3. Blended learning: If you establish a blended learning routine then:

    • Students are regularly engaging with traditional and tech-based tools and pre-planned modules of work at differentiated paces both at home and, more importantly, in the classroom. Sometimes they work individually, sometimes in small groups.
    • You are regularly engaging your students in small groups and individually, to assess their knowledge and to coach them where they need additional instruction and guided practice.

In this scenario, your absence for a day will be nowhere as near dramatic as in a direct instruction classroom. There are often days where one-third to one-half of my students do not get facetime with me because I am working intensely with their peers as part of a small group or individual rotation. So, on the rare day that I am not there, it’s really just like every other day, but for everyone. Furthermore, the behavioral norms that we agree upon for “normal” days, tend to organically carry over in my absence.

That being said, you should still email a reminder when you are going to be out--and copy your superior or a colleague or two to make sure the students get the message one way or another. Here is an example from one of my absences last year that could easily be reworked into a form-letter:

Hello all,

Sadly, I will be out today. Your sub and Mr. S have your work, but as on any day I am absent, I will be leaving you -- with designated student facilitators -- in charge. Please see below:


IB History 2B: Alex and Emily

IB History 2D: Michael and Petra

Global Politics 2: Ivana and Sam

  1. Facilitators, read the following directions to the class.

    1. Take 10 mins to organize yourselves, then have the relevant teams conduct their final presentations.
    2. After each presentation, each team should lead a deliberation based on the discussion questions they developed. You know what to do.
    3. Finally: Film approximately five minutes of each presentation and five minutes of each post-presentation discussion.
    4. Have the videos uploaded to Youtube, and share the links with me, by 8AM Tuesday, 1 November. They may be uploaded as separate videos or one longer video. Make sure the technology is working today--no technological excuses will be entertained.
    5. If you have time left over after the presentations and conversations:

      1. History: continue on with your Vietnam reading.
      2. GloPo: work on your outlines for the required essay for Module 4.

Use this time to wisely get ahead!



Train them properly, put a little faith in them, and in most cases, your students will do just fine without you for a day or two, and the presence of the sub will become a matter of legal formality.

Responses From Readers


My best advice is to never give instructions until everyone is listening.

Thanks to Roxanna, Rachael, Rachel, Kevin, Amy and William, and to readers, for their contributions!

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