How to Prepare for a Substitute Teacher

If you’ve ever had a doctor’s appointment to go to during the day, a sick child in need of your care, a family function you couldn’t miss, or even if you’ve become unexpectedly sick and had to drag your half-dead body into the classroom at 6:00 in the morning to make sub plans for the day, this post is for you.

Having been a sub at the start of my career and then again in the middle of my career (when we moved and I had to find a teaching job all over again), I feel for subs. I remember the anxiousness that comes from not knowing what you’ll find when you walk through the classroom door. Kind of like what Forest Gump said…Subbing is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you’re gonna get.

So, I decided to write a post to help you, as a teacher, get ready for a sub, to help subs have an easier day, and to help our student’s days go more smoothly as well. Here are a few tips to get you started:

1. Prepare an “Any-time” Set of Sub Plans Ahead of Time

Some schools require teachers to prepare three days to a week’s worth of substitute lesson plans, just in case and while this may seem like a major pain when you are putting these together, when you’re sick and really need these they can be a lifesaver.

Last year, I woke up feeling just awful but knew I didn’t have anything ready for a sub. I drove down to the school “as-is”, no make up, hair a hot mess, and in some raggedy old sweats I threw on, crying in the darkness of the morning to type out my plans.

I actually ended up in the emergency room for a few hours (nothing too serious) but looking back, if I had only planned out something ahead of time, I would have saved myself a lot of trouble. Can’t see yourself doing a full week’s worth of plans? How about three days? Or even one day is better than nothing.

2. Put Together a Sub Binder

The more detailed information you can give a sub, the better. Having a sub binder with lots of your general information can be very helpful. The great thing about a sub binder is that most of this information can be added at the beginning of the year and then you’re done. It can be used over and over throughout the whole year.

Here are some things you might want to add to your binder:

Class Information:

  • Seating chart
  • Schedule of pull-out or in-class support
  • Procedures for attendance, recess, lining up, bathroom, snack time, pencil sharpener, lunch, dismissal…
  • Classroom Rules and Behavior Plan
  • List of several reliable students
  • Serious medical issues for students that they may need to know (just in case)
  • List of any children who need extra help/understanding/ELL’s/those on a behavior plan…
  • Technology Instructions (How do you turn on the SmartBoard etc.)
  • List of any duties to cover (before school drop-off, recess, lunch. afterschool bus duty…)
  • Bonus ideas: photos of your students labeled with their names, picture directory of where important items are located…

School Information:

  • Map of the school with your class, office, cafeteria, gym, teacher’s lounge, teacher’s workroom marked (room numbers help too)
  • Phone numbers for the office and of helpful teachers
  • Emergency instructions for lockdowns, in case of fire, tornado, evacuation…


3. Create a Sub Tub

I love having a sub tub! When I know a sub is coming, I just fill it up with that day’s work and set it on my desk. It has everything the sub will need for the day in one place and it looks cute too!

You can make one easily by taking any type of basket or plastic box and adding the sub tub label. I just used letters from a bulletin board set and then covered them with clear contact paper to make them a bit more durable.

What should you put in your sub tub?

  • Lesson Plans for the Day (put these on the very top)
  • All papers/materials for the day (except any supplies that won’t fit well in here, like paint. I just make a note on the plans where to find these things…right next to the box on my desk usually!) I put the handouts in the box in order, with the first thing they’ll be doing on the top.
  • The Sub Binder

Brain Teasers for 3rd - 5th Grades

What else should go in your sub tub?

I always keep an assortment of extra time activities that the sub can pull out to use whenever it’s needed. Timing can be a tricky thing, and you never know exactly how long it will take the sub (and the class) to complete an activity, so if they end up with some time to spare, I like to offer a number of things that could be used in a pinch.

  • Brain Breaks Task Cards, Brain Teasers for Transitions
  • Games like Math Bingo, Flashcards for Around the World
  • A set of Time for Kids/Scholastic News Magazines or fun handouts like a crossword puzzle or a word search
  • Mad Libs Books (fun to do together)
  • A few picture books to read or a Chicken Soup for the Soul (great 5 – 10 minute stories with a moral for each)
  • A laminated list of writing prompts that the kids could write about in their Writer’s Notebooks
  • A file folder that is labeled “From Students” (to hold any notes that students may turn in that day)

4. Write Detailed Lesson Plans

I start out by using a template that I’ve created for my sub plans. This way, I don’t have to type as much each time. I format the sub plans, so the sub can see the major headings at a glance, and then under the headings, I write out a narrative about what exactly needs to be done for the lesson.

I always keep in mind that the more my plans are detailed, the more likely the sub will be able to understand what I’d like to see happening in the classroom for that day.

For example, since 5th grade math is one of the subjects I teach, I sometimes include some example problems with step by step explanations about what to do. Dividing fractions is not always easy to someone who hasn’t been in 5th grade for awhile. I think that these types of notes really help.

5. Get Feedback From the Sub

I make sure to leave room on my lesson plans for the sub to write a note to let me know how the day went (the good, the bad, and the ugly!).

This is really a great tool for me to use so I can praise or gently remind (scold) my kids about expected behavior for a sub, and so I can know what was and wasn’t covered.

The notes are something I do ask my subs to leave for me and some wonderful, over-achieving subs (love these!) actually have their own feedback form that they like to use.


Emergency Sub Plans for 4th and 5th grade teachers

Substitute Plans for 4th and 5th Grades


So, what’s one resource I like to use for emergency sub situations? Well…I usually create things I need for my classroom, and this is no exception. I love this set of Emergency Sub Plans for 4th and 5th grade teachers. The set includes a full day’s worth of activities (and more) with a fun animal theme.

I love these materials because they can be used at any time of the year, and are educational so your kids are “learning” even when you’re not there, and with the exception of an animal art project, they are ready to print and go. There’s an editable lesson plan schedule and even some fun animal P.E. games (indoor and outside) that your sub can try.


What’s your favorite sub tip? I love to hear what you do in your classroom.

Thanks for stopping by!

The Teacher Next Door - Creating upper elementary resources that target standards for busy teachers

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The Teacher Next Door - Creating upper elementary resources that target standards for busy teachers

Hi, I’m Jenn, CEO and owner of The Teacher Next Door!

I know that you strive to be an effective upper elementary teacher while maintaining a healthy work-life balance.

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