At my school, the experience with substitutes looks like a downward spiral.

For the most part, teachers at my school do not trust that the person who will be their substitute teacher will control the class or engage our students in any kind of meaningful learning.  As such, many of us choose not to spend much time or energy in creating a lesson plan for the sub to follow.

In turn, many of our subs come to campus expecting that the teacher s/he is working for has not left a lesson plan.  Too often, the sub expects that the kids are going to be disengaged and playful at best or disruptive and disrespectful at worst.

Finally, many students have come to understand that days with a substitute are wasted or free days.  Students feel that if their regular teacher has even bothered to leave a lesson plan, that the work they are going to be expected to do will have little relevance to the unit they are studying.  At best, they think that this time can be used as a study hall, where they can get caught up on homework from other classes that they hadn’t bothered to do the evening before.  At worst, they think that this is going to be a time to write on the whiteboard, chat with their friends in class, and text with friends outside of class.

I know that that early in the day, students spread the word that their English or math teacher is absent today so the students who have that class later in the day can expect the free time and play to come.

When I’m out for the day, my students spread the word as well…but this word’s a little different.

Rather than inform fellow students about play time, my students text their teammates comments like, “You better be on time to Orphal’s today, he has a sub,” and “You better get your work done today cause we need the extra credit!”

How do I shift the culture of substitute days in my classrooms?  Clear expectations and a combination of carrots and sticks.

My daily class routine puts the students center-stage, making the role of the teacher–whether that’s me or a substitute–a supportive role.  In my class, all students work on teams.  I assign the teams, each one consisting of five students who sit and work together at a table.  Each team member has a number, 1-5, assigned to her/his seat on the team.

Once each week, I check my students’ progress for the week.  On that day, I roll a six-sided dice.  Whichever number I roll, that is the person on the team who’s work I will check.  If I roll a “6,” I re-roll.  I look over that students work for the prior week.  When I assess their work, they get a score out of a possible 10.  Then, the whole team earns the score of the chosen teammate.

My students learn that they have to depend on one another and they have to support one another in their daily work because their grade is rising on their work, and the work of their teammates.

However, I don’t just rely on the structure of my class to support the substitute. Another technique I use to have a successful sub day is raising the stakes. The sub day is as valuable for my kids’ grade as a whole regular week

When I have a substitute, I expect my kids to do exactly the same work that I would have assigned to them had I been in the room.  I tell my kids early and often that the work they do in my room is important and that the skills they are learning in my class are skills that are going to serve them well in college.

In addition to raising the stakes and keeping the work meaningful when I have a substitute, I use a system of sticks and carrots to further encourage excellent behavior and productivity.

On days when I am absent, this message greets my students on the whiteboard.

  1. Every person is turning work in to the sub today.  Each of you can contribute points toward the total for your team.
  2. Punctuality is important.  Students who are tardy can only earn half-credit for their team.
  3. Behavior is important.  Students who get their name on a note from the sub earn 0 points for their team.  Students who are sent to the principal earn a 0 for their whole team.
  4. Perfection is rewarded.  Perfect teams will earn double points

So, on a sub day, my students are even more dependant on one another.  Each of the five can contribute points to the teams total for the day.  If one student doesn’t do her work, the team can only earn an equivalent of a “B” for the day.  If one student is tardy, but turns in work, the team can the equivalent of an “A-” for the day.  If a student loses his temper so much that he is sent out of class, the whole team earns 0.

However, if a team is perfect: everyone is on time, everyone turns in work; and everyone is well-behaved, then the team can earn extra credit points in adition to the “A” for the day.

Can you see why my students text their teammates, telling them to be on time and work?

It’s not a perfect system.  There are days when only a few teams succeed in earning extra credit.  Sometimes a student still loses her temper and is sent out of the room.

Most days, however, it works like a charm.

So, to recap:

  • Structure the class, making students the center
  • Raise the stakes for your students when you are absent
  • Keep the work relevant and important – no busy work!
  • Use carrots and sticks to encourage good behavior

Everyday, our learning time together is precious.  Even on days when I’m absent, my students have important skills to learn and hone.



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