Expect the Unexpected

Alex T. ValencicBlog, Lesson Plan Better, Manage Better


  • Substitute teachers need access to materials and detailed plans.
  • Every teacher should have emergency plans prepared.
  • Administrators can best help by being visible throughout the day.

On February 3, 2011, I experienced a substitute teacher’s worst nightmare.

I had accepted a two-day assignment at a new-to-me school. At first, things seemed to go well. I was greeted by the office staff and helped to find my classroom by some other teachers. The room was nicely organized and tastefully decorated. But then I went to the teacher’s desk expecting to find a class list, directions on how to take care of attendance, lunch counts, and a classroom management plan. And, of course, the oh-so-important lesson plans. I found none of these items. So I started to worry. I looked around the room, thinking maybe they were on the small group table. No such luck.

I started to panic.

I scoured the room, and there was nothing. Nada. Zilch. I was not prepared for this, and I had no idea what to do. The other teachers in the hall were not in their rooms, as many of them had morning supervision duties. The students were going to be entering the building any minute.

About this time, the principal walked in. He introduced himself, started to show me around, gave a few pointers, and asked if I had any questions. I said, “Um… there aren’t any sub plans!” He paused and said, “Really? Oh, she usually emails them. Wait. She would have sent them to me, and my email is down. Hold on. I’ll try to find out.” He then pointed out that there is a student teacher who would be arriving soon and an aide who would be there all morning. The panicking started to wane. The student teacher would know what was going on, right?

She came in and had no plan, just a general outline of how the day would go.

The principal came back and said that the teacher said the student teacher had the plans. As this was clearly not the case, we decided to improvise: PE first thing, then reading groups until lunch. After lunch, math, music, then more math, with science at the end of the day. We made it through the day and took some time after students left to make plans for the next day.

Whether the emergency sub plans are to be used...students and substitutes deserve to know that learning will continue when the regular teacher is absent. Click To Tweet

Expect the Unexpected

In the nearly 11 years since this happened, I have often reflected on what I experienced and what could have been done to prevent this. What are things that I could have done as a substitute to be better prepared for a new assignment? And what could the teacher have done? What else could the principal have done to ensure that teaching and learning continue when a substitute teacher is in the building?

The Substitute Teacher’s Toolkit

I arrived in that second-grade classroom with little more than a blank pad of paper and a pen. While substitute teachers can expect to have access to teachers’ supplies, it can be a good idea to put together your own emergency kit.

Some essentials may include the following:

  • sticky notes
  • pens
  • dry erase markers
  • a whistle to use in the gym or outdoors
  • a clipboard to hold important papers
  • a chime or bell to signal students in the classroom
  • a water bottle
  • ibuprofen or Tylenol
  • hand sanitizer
  • a stress ball or other fidget

Having these tools will help reduce the stress of not knowing where things in the classroom are or discovering that the dry-erase markers are dried up and the teacher’s “good” markers are locked in a cabinet.

Sub Plans

Almost as terrifying as coming into a room with no plans is coming into a room that has plans with no information. I vividly remember going into a classroom as a substitute and seeing lesson plans for a full day that said, essentially, “Morning – reading; Lunch; Afternoon – math.” While these notes probably made sense to the teacher, they were not detailed enough for the substitute.

As fellow Teach Better Blogger Michelle Kasun shared, substitute teachers appreciate the teachers that actually give detailed lessons to teach and not just busy work or vague descriptions of independent reading or math for the day.

Another Teach Better Blogger, Meghan Wells, observed that detailed answer keys to help students with classwork is beneficial. And while many of us may remember when fondness the TV carts that got wheeled into the classroom when the teacher was not there, we can do better.

Livia Chan, Teach Better’s Digital Content Coordinator, asks all teachers to provide a folder with school and classroom specific procedures, an overview of a typical day, class rosters with descriptions of students who are strong leaders and those who may need extra support. She also reminds us to include procedures for earthquakes, lockdowns, and fires. (For others, this may include hurricane, tornado, or flood drills.) These folders can take a lot of time at the start to prepare, but once they are made, they rarely need more than a few simple tweaks to update them from year to year.

While we all wish we could have time to create detailed lesson plans for substitutes, it is highly recommended to have emergency lesson plans that can be accessed by anyone at any time!

These emergency plans should not just be packets of worksheets, although worksheets can certainly be a component. They may include directions for students to access digital learning content, review material, and reminders of established routines and procedures.

Whether the emergency sub plans are to be used because you got sick and were unable to type out detailed plans or because you forgot about a meeting that pulled you out of the classroom for a period of time, students and substitutes deserve to know that learning will continue when the regular teacher is absent.

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Providing Administrative Support

In my three years as a substitute teacher, I got to meet a wide variety of building principals. The principal I wrote about at the start of this piece did not just check in on me in the morning. He came back throughout the day. Sometimes all he did was walk into the room and watch quietly for a few minutes before continuing on with his many other duties. Some principals would introduce me to the class before turning them over to me. And yes, there were some administrators who never made it out of the office in all the years I was in their building.

My advice to all administrators is to get out of the office, check in on the guest teachers in your building, and make sure that both they and students know that you are there to support but that you trust the substitute to be the teacher in the room for the day.

Substitute teaching, guest teaching, or being a teacher teaching on call is hard work.

Substitutes should have access a toolkit with classroom essentials, detailed lesson plans that include students’ names, information, instructional outcomes, and directions on where the staff restrooms are. Teachers should help their students prepare for an absence and may even involve them in writing the lesson plans. Administrators can support their guest teachers by checking in and being visible throughout the day. All of these will combine to help make sure that the substitute teachers and the students have a day that, while maybe not perfect, will at least be better.

About Alex T. Valencic

Alex Valencic is an educator, former small business owner, Boy Scout, volunteer drug prevention specialist, unrepentant bibliophile, and a geek of all things. He worked as a substitute teacher for three years before achieving his lifelong dream of teaching fourth grade, which he did for seven years in Urbana, Illinois, before accepting his current position as the Curriculum Coordinator for 21st Century Teaching and Learning in Freeport, Illinois, where he not only supports innovative educational practices in the classroom but also oversees social studies, science, and nearly all of the elective courses in the district.