Making Substitute Days Count

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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:

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.

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