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?

  • AnneJolly

    One more idea

    Great ideas, David!  One thing I did to help my sub out and make for a productive class time even when I was out was to prepare a video of myself talking with the class that the sub would use. If this was a time when I knew I’d be gone I’d explain why I was out, what I hoped they would accomplish, and how I wanted them to go about it. Then, if I needed to cover some content (never more than 5 – 10 minutes) I would do that as well.  I talked with them informally on the video, used humor, and told them where to email their work so that I could see it that evening. (Today I’d tell them where to post it.) 

    I also had an emergency video or two for times when I was too sick to get to school. Those would be on a topic iof special interest to the students – generally the environment. (I taught science, by the way.)

    And then there was the inevitable week in the spring when I had laryngitis. I had a video for that as well, and the kids had the “real” Mrs. Jolly standing alongside a video of Mrs. Jolly talking.  They found it rather intriguing.  

    I wonder if Skyping in to a class while taking a sick day would be a possibilitiy for many schools?  Don’t know about those school firewalls . . .

    Why not do a blog post on firewalls, Dave? I’d love to know your thoughts on that . . . 

    • DaveOrphal

      Skyping in Pajamas

      Great ideas Anne

      I could see myself doing a video for a planned absence, for a conference of whatever, but I wouldn’t probably feel up to it on a sick day – and I definitely wouldn’t want to Skype in while in my PJ’s. 🙂


  • CristieWatson

    Substitute Contract

    You have so many wonderful ideas here!  I am going to share this post with my fellow 6th grade teammates, as we have been lamenting recently on how often many of us have had to be absent this spring.  (Sick children, mostly.)  One tip I’ve tried is the Substitute Contract- an idea I borrowed from Larry Ferlazzo, I believe.  This past fall I was absent for an in-house training, and when I popped down to my classroom to check on everything, I was dismayed by what I found.  Some of my students were sitting at different tables, and several were off task.  We had a discussion to review expectations, and the next time I was out for a conference, the students and I developed this contract the day prior to my absence.  I was very pleased with the results on my return.

    Of course, there are also the immeasurable benefits of simply having a qualified sub.  I try to build positive relationships with substitutes whom I respect, and leave as much helpful information as I can to make their day proceed smoothly.  Then, they are more likely to pick up my jobs or respond to requests.  I am so thankful when subs stop by later to say how much they love my classes!  

    Thanks, again, Dave!  I am definitely going to try developing Project Managers!

    • DaveOrphal


      Loved it!

  • ReneeMoore

    Dealing with Subs

    I used to love that my husband was a registered sub in our school district. He’s also a pastor and youth minister here in our small town, so the kids and their families knew both of us from settings outside school. He knew exactly what I wanted done, how, what I did and did not allow in my classroom. It was seamless.

    Now, I use our LMS to “cover” classes when I’m away. For my dual enrollment high school students, the sub just has to get them to the computers or their devices and make sure they check in. My college students think it’s greatest thing ever. Getting them and me used to using the system efficiently took time on the front end of the semester, but has paid off handsomely when I have to be out or we have a bad weather day. 

    When I was State Teacher of the Year, I had a first-year teacher assigned to my classroom who took over class when  I was away, and we’d team teach when I was in town. This was a great win-win situation and one that I tried to get the district to adopt for all its first year teachers. If more schools made team teaching the norm, we’d have a lot less of this substitute stress for teachers and students.

  • Anonymous

    This kind of set-up

    This kind of set-up definitely attests to the amount of, and value you place upon, community-building in your classroom, Dave. Although all of these things were expected the "day of" your absence, they would not have been nearly as effective without the trust-building, work ethic, and expectations you set up from day one. Great tips–I especially love how independently successful your students have realized they can be. 

  • Julie Gallatin

    Thank you

    Thank you for your ideas.  I believe setting up the classroom community is key.  I also love the idea about the contract as well.