Making the Most of a Missed Day: What to Do When You Need a Substitute Teacher

While the teacher is out, the students are still in class ready to learn. Your absence does not automatically mean that the students have to watch a video or do busy work to fill the day. Follow these tips to ensure that students continue to be engaged and productive while you are away.

Create a collaborative project

Though you will not be in class, the students still have a very valuable resource at their disposal–each other. This is a terrific opportunity to create a project that encourages collaboration. You can use the day before your absence to explain the project and get students started, and then have them continue their work during your absence. It is important that this project result in a final product that you can evaluate when you return–this could be a group skit, a poster, a pamphlet, or a series of arguments to be used in a debate.

The gap in daily activities can be an ideal moment to synthesize the work you’ve been doing together in the last few weeks. Students can reflect on the ideas they have been studying and apply them in new ways to demonstrate understanding. It might be best not to introduce new ideas here, given that you will not be present to answer questions about material that is unfamiliar to students.

Set up the project the day before

You should ensure that students understand exactly what they need to do while you are away. The role of each student and the expectations of the final product should be clearly communicated. Ideally, these expectations should be typed out and distributed to your students as well as the substitute so that there is no ambiguity about the assignment.

Think carefully about the scope of the assignment and how best to involve every student in the activity. The project should be comprehensive enough to cover the entirety of the class period–think of this not as “busy work” but rather an opportunity for students to think broadly and deeply about themes that they have covered in class thus far. To ensure that every student participates, it might make sense to give each student in the group a particular role. You may even want students to sign off on what they have contributed to the assignment so that one student does not end up taking on all the work for the group.146

Have clear guidelines for the students

Students will be motivated to work if the final product counts for a grade and they know exactly what they need to do to succeed. Communicate to students that your absence is not a day off for them–it’s a productive day that they must use to complete their project.

A checklist might be a great way for students to know exactly what steps they need to take in order to complete their project and what rubric you will use to grade their work. Creating the list of steps for them helps to keep them on track while you are gone.147

Hold students accountable for their work

Your class time is valuable. You’ve put thought into ensuring that your day off would be beneficial to students’ learning, and you’ve created an opportunity for students to demonstrate that they can work collaboratively in your absence. When you return, you should expect that students have followed through with the expectations you set out before you left.

Inform the substitute

Give the substitute as much information as possible about how the class time will be used while you are away. Offer instructions on how to handle misbehavior, particularly since students will be working in groups and may test the boundaries of appropriate volume and conduct. Finally, ask the substitute to leave a brief report on how the class worked together. This will give you valuable information that you can use to evaluate the success of the project.

You may be surprised to find that the right planning will turn your day off into a day on for students!