Planning for an ELA Substitute Teacher

Teaching is the one profession where it is actually MORE work to say at home sick than it is to drag yourself into school.   Planning for a substitute teacher for day off requires some pre-planning, and if you don’t do it ahead of time, I can guarantee that you’ll find yourself miserably sick writing sub plans in the middle of the night cursing your former self.  Below are some tips to help you prepare for these unexpected absences as an English teacher, so you can take a day off without the stress.


Trying to gather up all of the important documents for a substitute last-minute can be a real headache, so it’s a good idea to create a substitute binder with all the important forms and handouts that a substitute may need. Below are a list of things you may consider including in your substitute binder. 

- Attendance sheets
- Important safety documents  (evacuation, fire etc.) 
- Daily schedule 
- Supervision schedule 
- Seating charts 
- Basic rules
- Information on students on individualized plans 
- Name of a teacher nearby they can turn to
- Your contact information (if you want them to have it)
- Name of a few trustworthy students in each class  

It’s also important to remember that your substitute teacher will probably not have a lot of time to look through this binder, so it might be a good idea to also make a one-pager with the most important information they will need to access.  I created a free template you can use to make your own.  There are two print versions and a digital, editable version that you can edit to suit your needs.


If you know you will be out, it is a good idea to continue with the content you are already covering in class. But, we all know that unexpected absences in teaching are far more frequent.  I can’t tell you how many times in my first few years of teaching that I have been shivering with a fever, downing cold medicine, tissue everywhere, attempting to pull together the easiest lesson plan I could muster.  Don’t find yourself in the situation. 

Do yourself a favor and plan at least three emergency lessons that could be used at any point. Keep those emergency lessons somewhere near your desk so you can send a quick email to say where they are if you need a day off.   It’s also a good idea to make copies for each of your classes.  I typically would leave four lesson plans, each one covering a different genre/topic (poetry, fiction, non-fiction, and writing).  I have compiled some of my favorite lessons to leave as emergency plans in middle and early high English that you can peek at by clicking the image below.


Don't be scared to leave a project or assignment with a creative element that will hook even your most reluctant students and make life easier for the substitute. One of my favorite assignments to leave was a missing teacher police report and poster for why I am out.  The assignment is about your inexplicable absence and puts the students in charge (by the principal) of investigating the reason you are not at school.  Students will create a Missing Teacher poster and an investigative police case file that has them examine evidence and witness testimonies. The responses from this assignment are often hilarious! 


There is nothing worse than taking a day off and coming back to a list of behaviour issues that the substitute had while you were out.  Whenever possible, let students know when you are going to be out and do a refresher on appropriate behaviour.  It also doesn’t hurt to remind them of the consequences as well!  When planning for a substitute, it’s in inevitable that you will have students who finish work early. It’s a good idea to have some resources available with activities for early finishers. This will keep students occupied and lead to less disruption and behavior issues.  I like to  include ELA puzzles, games, or thought-provoking discussion or debate topics. 


Leaving a form for your substitute teacher to fill out at the end of the day can be an excellent way for you to improve your substitute planning practice, know what concepts students struggled with, follow up on any issues, and celebrate students who were kind or helpful to the guest teacher.  The Classroom Sparrow created a free form that you can download here. 


If something comes up without notice and you haven't prepped ahead of time, there is nothing wrong with leaving a work day or leaving a simple plan that allows students time to work on something.  Here are a few simple work-day activities.

- Host a Wonder Day where students research and write about something they are curious about.
- Spend half of the class reading a novel and the other half writing a journal entry from the perspective of one of the characters.
- Show a short 30 minute video and have students do a written response with their thoughts.

I hope these suggestions will allow you to take a sick or emergency day off without any stress or worry.   If you are looking for a no-prep lesson to leave for a substitute teacher or more tips, the ladies of The Coffee Shop have you covered!  

TV Episode Emergency Lesson by Nouvelle ELA
8 Tips for Secondary ELA Sub Plans by Secondary Sara

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