Managing Sick Days

I’ve been up all through the night with stomach cramps that feeling like I’m being kicked. I’d tell you more, but, you know, TMI.

When the alarm rang at 5AM, I knew there was now way I could go in. I needed a sub.

For many teachers, preparing for and cleaning up after a substitute is a nightmare. We will just drag our weak, sniffily, infectious bodies into school rather than surrender control of our classroom to a substitute.

I’ve written about how I manage my class when I’m away several times over the years. When I was working in Oakland California, the school culture around substitute was so toxic, that I needed fairly drastic methods to ensure that my students were well behaved and productive in my absence.

This year, I’ve discovered some new tools that make managing substitute days even easier. Adding these new tools, with some of my tried-and-true practices from the past, I offer for your consideration six steps to a stress-fee sick day.

  1. Meaningful Work. This is important all the time, but extra true when I’m away. My 11th graders don’t do worksheets, answers basic comprehension questions about their reading, or take quizzes. Instead, they engage deeply with primary source documents, gather evidence from these documents, analyze it, and write papers. This week, they’re researching the 1794 Congressional race in Philadelphia.
  2. Cooperative Teams. My students sit in tables, rather than in rows. Each table consist of three to five students who collaborate on their papers. Yes, conflicts arise. Some students think that they can free-ride on the work of others. I’m okay with this, not because I’m okay with free-riders, but because I want my students to learn conflict-resolution and leadership skills.  When these issues come up, I ask my team to try two different solutions to the problem before I intervene. They have to create the solution, tell me what they are going to do, then report back after a week and let me know how the solution went. Give two chances to solve the problem; I’m rarely needed to fit it for them.
  3. Limited Control and Responsibility for their Time. At the beginning of each paper/project, I set up the calendar of due dates, and those dates don’t change just because I’m not here. Teams learn that they have some limited autonomy and control over their time. They also learn that if they waste time in class, they will have to assign themselves homework, because the deadlines don’t move.
  4. Project Managers (PMs).  Just last year, I started stealing some ideas from the stories my ex-wife would tell me about her job as a project manager in Silicon Valley. After the first couple of papers, I organize the teams so that my students will have jobs. During these semi-agile projects, “agile” being the style of management from which I stole and adapted these ideas, each team has a manager whom I meet with daily. I count on my PMs to make sure their teams are working and staying on task. The managers are responsible to decide who on their team was going the extra mile or not pulling their weight. Eventually, everyone gets a chance to lead a team and develop their skills.
  5. Google Docs and Email. My school district does a nice job of encouraging students to use their in-house Gmail accounts. As I got my sub-plans together yesterday, I email each of my project managers with the news that I was sick and what I needed each team to do that day. At the end of each period, I got a group of replies letting me know each teams progress. Because they write their papers, keep their notes, and analyze thier documents using Google tools that they share with me, I can watch them work in real time or look at thier progress whenever I have some extra time.
  6. Trust and Honesty. Most of my teams are on-track and doing well on their paper. One team is a day behind and assigned themselves homework. A second team is struggling getting one of the team members to contribute and the PM has called a team meeting for today. I spend a lot of time at the begining of the year building trusting relationships in my classroom. Days like yesterday are when that social and emotional work pay off.

Does it work perfectly? No. But it nearly does. Over the past eight years, I’ve had far, far more happy notes from substitutes than angry ones. As I sit here and write this, I can think of only two occasions when I have had to adjust our project calendar because too much time was wasted while I was out sick.

This is how I make my sub-days count.

What about you? How do you make sure that your students are productive and learning when you have to stay home?