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

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.

Response From William J. Tolley

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.

Author: williamjtolley

IB Coordinator, IBEN Workshop Leader, Examiner, and DP/MYP Teacher | Inquiry, Mastery & Culturally Responsive-Learning Advocate

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