If you are like me, one of the scariest scenarios imaginable is to have a day where I am not on campus. Even scarier, is to have a day where I have an unplanned absence. As a teacher with kiddos of my own at home, this has happened more than I would have liked over the years. While we can’t control the things that happen when we are not present, we can do our best to plan ahead for these days and have things go as smoothly as possible. I recently took three days to go to a training to better support my students and it was really wonderful. I gained skills and my students made it through! It was nerve wracking for me to be out, but it was positive overall. I am so glad that I put in the time it takes to make plans, so that I could attend and further hone my teaching skills.

Sasha has some great older posts with incredibly detailed planning tips for when you or your paraprofessionals are out. I suggest you check them out here. I am going to share with you the steps that I go through to try to ensure a great day for my staff and students.

Plan Ahead

I would challenge y’all to plan now for a substitute, even if you have no planned absences on the calendar. Take an afternoon and put together an “emergency sub plan” that could be pulled out whenever you or your own children fall ill or something comes up out of the blue. Even the healthiest teachers can have car trouble or a death in the family that requires you to be out unexpectedly. Not worrying about having sub plans could save your sanity in the moment. This is truly an ideal time to prepare these emergency plans as we enter the sickest season. Also, hopefully, by this point in the year, you are rolling along a bit easier in your daily routines and planning.

Decide Roles

One of the first things that I do when I am planning to have a substitute is to decide the roles that each staff member will play. In some settings, I have been able to have one of my paraprofessionals move into the role of teacher, as they have the more instructional control and rapport with my students than a substitute. I have had other years and different settings where my paraprofessionals must stay with the challenging students that they are assigned 1:1 with.

One new challenging element that I have in a secondary setting this year is that my class is no longer self contained and high need students transition to my classroom throughout the day. My paraprofessionals are also no longer “self-contained” so they transition with students, so I have to assess if any substitute can feasibly cover the students that are present for each period of the day.

Lay out the Schedule

As I lay out the schedule, I have to go period by period (we have 8 periods in the day without a designated lunch or elective period for all students). It is a symphony of transitions, coverage, and instruction on a good day with minimal behaviors and all staff present. When one or multiple staff are out, attempting to conduct a seamless symphony gets that much more challenging. I lay out the day, period by period, with an explanation of which students will be present, which paraprofessionals (if any) will be present, what the expectations are for that period, and what needs to be taught that period. This can take hours… if you know you are going to be absent.

Plan More than Necessary

A rule of thumb with planning for substitutes is to always plan more than necessary. I always plan a pretty low demand activity that requires no real “teaching”, but only reinforces what has been taught on other days in a fun way. I then plan backup activities for each period in case behaviors flare up or the activity takes a fraction of the time that I think that it will. Also, BEWARE of free time! I have known other teachers to rely on breaks or free time when they are going to be out… but for my students on the spectrum, this is a major change in routine and the unstructured time leads to way more behaviors than an activity would. I think that having lots of back-up books, tasks, and reinforcing activities eases the minds of all staff involved.

Put Supports in Place

Once you have a plan, you have to start putting supports in place for when things do not go as planned. The substitute needs to have an easy reference for who to get help from, whether that be co-teachers, department chairs, campus administration, or special education supports. There have been days when I have been out, that the team needed to make decisions for students that were beyond the purview of a substitute or paraprofessional staff. Thankfully, we have an infrastructure of supports available to us.

An absolutely integral part of my substitute planning is making sure that all staff and substitutes have access to our behavioral strategies pages and, for specific students, medicine protocols. When teachers are out, often behaviors flare and the team needs to have incredibly explicit plans laid out for when that happens, so all discretionary decision making is taken out of the situation. This helps staff, administration, and parents all feel on the same page and on plan with what the student’s team has already laid out.

Inform the Team as soon as Possible

Obviously we plan with and inform our direct team for absences, but don’t forget to include support staff, parents of your students, and the students themselves if possible for planned absences. For unplanned absences, try to inform as many people as possible as well and marvel at how your “village” within your school setting steps up to help. I have a had lunchroom staff bring lunches to us when that is helpful. I have had elective staff come and retrieve students when there is not staff available to walk them there. I truly have had principals and even my director of special education fill in sub positions when the need has arisen.

Social Stories and Videos

For several of my students that I have had for several years in a row, I am a comfort and a constant that they usually have at school. When I have been absent, some of my more “low-maintenance” students have exhibited high anxiety and non-compliant behaviors. To help to ease their discomfort, I have put a few strategies in place when I’m not in the classroom. Some of my students benefit greatly from social stories, several of which I have written myself to address specific scenarios, the biggest being staff absences. Theses social stories have been lifesavers! For a few of my students, they have a copy of this social story at home and, if I know ahead of time, their parents are able to review their social story before they come to school, so there are no surprises.

For other students, our interactions are part of their routine, so I have videoed our morning greeting or a special phrase we share on their ipads, so they can be comforted by these during the day if needed. This may seem “over the top”, but I don’t like to forget about my higher functioning students when I make my sub plans just because they are unlikely to exhibit aggressive or destructive behaviors.

Let it Go!

Once you have planned and planned (and even if you haven’t been able to plan ahead), you have to let it go. You have to be there for your children, or take can of yourself when you are ill. You have to attend trainings to better your teaching and stay current with trends in education. At times, you have to take mental health days or enjoy special trips with your people. It has taken me over a decade of teaching to get to this point, but I wish I had been able to get there sooner.

Meredith Walling

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