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How to plan for a sub in less than ten minutes

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We have all been there! Frantically typing up lesson plans at 4 am because one of our children woke up sick in the middle of the night, and now we need a sub. If I had a dime for all the hours I have spent planning for a substitute teacher, I wouldn’t need to teach anymore. The truth is that planning for a sub is often more work than actually going to work. But what if I told you that you can write plans for a sub in less than ten minutes? It will require a little bit of effort up front, but once you are done, you will be all set for the entire year. Sounds too good to be true? Well, it’s not! In this post, I will share with you how to plan for a sub in just about ten minutes! 

If you are a dual-language or Spanish teacher and would like to skip some of these steps, I have sub plans already created for you. They are simple to use, editable, and include pages for a sub binder, so you can be prepared for any emergency. You can click here to view my sub plans in Spanish.

How to plan for a sub at the beginning of the year

Set yourself up for success by creating a sub binder 

Having a sub binder is one of the critical pieces for being able to plan for a sub in just a few minutes. Yes, it will take you a little bit of time at first! But once you do it, you will never have to do it again. 

Your sub binder does not need to be fancy! I have seen some sub binders with hundreds of pages in them. The truth is, no substitute teacher is going to sit and read through all those pages. Keep it concise! Think about your day and the things someone else would need to know in order to be in your place. What are some of the things you have to do every day that your sub will also need to do? What is the most important information your substitute teacher needs to know that they don’t already know? 

In my sub binder, I have: 

  • Cover page – This lets the sub know they should look into this binder for information for the day. This is especially helpful for unplanned absences; 
  • About the school page – On this page, I include helpful information about our building. I include our phone number, address, name of our principal and secretary, and the name and classroom number of someone in the building who can help them if they need it. 
  • About the class page – On this page, I have the names of students who I trust to help the substitute teacher throughout the day. I also include information about where to find basic supplies they may need. Additionally, I have a section for additional information. This is where I include information about specific students that the sub would need to know about. For example, in my classroom this year, I have students who are pulled for tutoring. I write their schedules in this section, so the sub will know to send them out for tutoring on those specific days. 
  • Resource and bell schedules – On these pages, I write down where we go for resource (specials) every day. I also have our bell schedule. I have a page for our regular schedule, one for early dismissal schedule, and one for late start days. 
  • Classroom list – The next page on my sub binder is a classroom list. I also have a section for additional information at the bottom of this page. This is where I include information about students who may join our class for only portions of the day. For example, this year, I have a student who joins our class for specials, lunch, and recess. I include that information here, so the sub is aware when they go to recess after lunch. 
  • Transportation list – This page is especially important if you teach students in the lower grades. I teach fifth grade, so my students know what to do at the end of the day. However, I still like to include this page just in case there is an emergency. 
  • Classroom procedures – On these pages, I describe in detail the main procedures of our classroom. I want to make sure things run smoothly when I am not there. In my binder, I have a section for arrival, dismissal, lunch, recess, resource, attendance, behavior management, and transitions. 
  • Emergency procedures – I like to add pages describing in detail what to do for each emergency procedure. You never know what could happen when you are not there.

How to write lesson plans for a sub

Whenever I write my lesson plans for a sub, I want to keep things simple and easy. Oftentimes, I don’t know who the substitute will be. So I want to make sure my plans are clear and can be followed by anyone. 

All you need is a story…

The easiest way to plan for substitute teacher is to begin with a story. Then, plan all activities for the day based on that story. I often choose a picture book that my substitute teacher can read to the class at the very beginning of the day. 

Once the sub has read the story to the class, the students can complete a series of activities that are based on the book. The activities are “open-ended,” so any book will work with them. 

In my emergency plans, I have the following activities: 

  • Morning work page: For my morning work page, I give my students a menu of options. They choose one to complete. All of the options are open-ended questions about a book they read recently. Anyone in my class can complete this activity independently without a problem. 
  • Reading: For reading activities, I have a set of graphic organizers that work with any fiction story. After the sub has read the “story of the day” to my students, I leave one or multiple graphic organizers for them to complete. This is a great opportunity for students to review some of the reading comprehension skills we have already learned. 
  • Grammar: For grammar, I leave activities that require students to go back to the text that was read to them at the beginning of the day, or they can use a book they are reading on their own. If I leave a picture book, then I ask my students to use their own books to complete this activity. If the story is from a website, such as CommonLit or Readworks, I make copies for everyone. Either way, students use the text to find examples of nouns, verbs, adjectives, multisyllabic words, verbs in different tenses, and different types of sentences. Depending on what we are currently learning in grammar, I choose a worksheet from my sub plans bundle that fits our needs. 
  • Vocabulary: Another great option is to leave a vocabulary activity for students to complete based on the story. In my sub plans, there are three options of activities that I can choose.
    • Option 1: Five-square activity – Students choose four words from the text that they don’t know. They use a dictionary to find the definition of the word. They also write a sentence using the word, write a synonym, and draw a picture that represents each word.
    • Option 2:  Word search – Students select ten words from the text and create a word search. When they are done, they can exchange their paper with a friend and try to complete the word search.
    • Option 3: Context clues activity – Students choose five words they don’t know and try to use context clues to identify their meaning. 
  • Math:  In my emergency sub plans, I have a plethora of math activities to choose from. Some don’t require a text at all, and some do. The activities that don’t require a story involve basic computation using a spinner. In the activities that go along with a story, students write a word problem that relates to the story. They have to write the problem, solve it, add answer choices (the correct one plus three wrong options), and draw a picture that explains how to solve the problem. 
  • Writing: For writing, a have a few choices of writing prompts that relate back to the story. For example, in one of the prompts, have to write a new ending to the story they read. I also include an editing checklist, so my students can make sure they are checking their writing before turning it in. 
  • Science: For science, I have my students think about the perfect animal for the main character in the story. I encourage my students to be creative. They must then use their knowledge of habitats, animal diet, and classification to describe the animal in detail. Then, they must use text evidence to explain why that would be the perfect animal for that character. To make sure my students are describing the animal in detail, I include a checklist with the information I want them to include in their writing. Now that all my students have Chromebooks, I allow them to use the internet if they need to find specific information about the animal they chose. 
  • Social studies – For social studies, my students must select a country that they believe the main character in the story would love to visit. They must give details about the place and explain using text evidence why they believe their character would want to go there. I allow my students to use their Chromebooks for this activity as well. 

Why these activities work…

The reason why these activities make it so easy when planning for a sub is because the only thing I have to select on my own is the text they will read as a class. Everything else is already done. I have even created a lesson plan template in which I only have to type some key information before printing it for the sub. 

These activities are also great because I can reuse them over and over again. Every time I choose a new book, the activities change organically. I know that anytime I am in a bind, I can reach for these sub plans and have everything ready to go in less than ten minutes. It is magical! 

How to assign activities when you have a sub?

Although technology is a wonderful thing, we all know it can leave us hanging sometimes. Whenever I can, I make copies of the activities for my students. However, I do have all of these activities available on Google Slides. If I am ever in a situation where I can’t make copies for my students, I just assign all the activities digitally. 

Final tips

One great strategy on how to plan for a sub is to have a set of emergency plans ready to go in a folder. Keep it somewhere in your room with your sub binder. Personally, I like to have copies of the activities already made, and a book already selected. I keep it all together and ready to go in case of a major emergency (the kind that you can’t even get to the computer to set up your sub plans from home). I have never had to use them, but it’s nice to know they are there. 

Some schools actually require teachers to have these plans ready to go, filed somewhere in the office. The activities I just described are perfect for that! 

Final thoughts!   

I hope this blog post gave you some ideas on how to plan for a sub. Don’t forget that if you want to save yourself A LOT of work, I have emergency sub plans available in Spanish. They include pages for your sub binder (in English and Spanish), lesson plan templates (in English and Spanish), and activities (Spanish only.) They are available in printable and digital form and are perfect for those times when you need to get plans for a sub done in just a few minutes. If you would like to check these out, you can click here. 

Happy teaching! 

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Hi, I'm Rebeca!

I help upper elementary dual language teachers with resources and ideas that promote bilingualism and biliteracy.  

Learn more about me and how I can help you here.

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