Helping teachers have a greater impact on the lives of their students every day

The Art of Creating Sub Plans

I know what you’re saying.

“Really Sam? There is an art to sub  plans?”

There is. Really.

I hated having a sub, because it took more time to prepare a sub plan than if I was going to teach. That’s probably why I was seldom out of the classroom.

I learned early  on in my teaching career that if I didn’t take extra time on my sub plans, I would return to find a long list of students who misbehaved. I would have to hand out consequences to those students, and give my “respect-the-substitute-teacher” lecture.

Now that I’m an administrator, I’m having to deal with those students who misbehaved for the sub, and I’m finding that in many instances, had the teacher spent a little more time creating a sub plan, there would be fewer behavior issues.creating a sub plan success in the classroom

So for all of you new teachers or soon-to-be teachers, I wanted to share a little about what I’ve learned about…

The Art of Creating a Sub Plan

1. Assume that the sub you’re going to get is incompetent.

I know that’s harsh, but in many cases, you don’t have a clue as to who will be taking your place while you’re at the conference or out sick. If you’re lucky, the sub will have the same love for kids that you do, which will translate into patience and sincere interest in the education of the students in your class. In most cases, however,  your sub will be someone who is only there for the paycheck, and could care less if the students learn or not. In the worst cases, you’ll have a sub who is clueless on how to deal with kids, and will spend the entire day sitting in your chair reading the paper while the kids do whatever they want. He/She will yell at them for interrupting his/her reading and then leave the names of the entire class on the “bad list.” If you assume that you will get one of these worthless substitutes, you’ll think twice about leaving a plan that includes any kind of direct instruction. There are awesome substitute teachers out there. They are the ones who took on this job to get valuable experience and to make connections with principals who may be hiring soon. They care for kids and want to see them learn. Unfortunately, they won’t be in your class the next time you have to take a day off.

2. Don’t give work that you expect to have any real grade value.

Unless you know that your sub will be able to “teach,”  you won’t know if your students actually learned what was supposed to be taught. Go ahead and tell the sub that the assignment is worth a lot of points, so they can relay that information to the students. Don’t feel bad, however, if when you get back, you decide to not grade it. Let it be extra practice for the upcoming test or an assignment whose purpose was to reinforce prior knowledge. Don’t grade sub work, or at least don’t make it worth a lot of credit.

3. Make your lessons clear enough for a kid to understand.

Again, I know it sounds like I’m sub-bashing, but many subs won’t take extra time to try and figure out your complicated lesson plans. They’ll give up and tell the kids to read their textbook for the period. When I was a sub (back over 20 years ago), I would get lesson plans that were so confusing, that I had to ask for help from another teacher to try and figure out. Make your lesson plans simple step-by-step, period-by-period instructions that are clear and detailed. My subs loved my plans, because they didn’t have to figure anything out. It was all laid out for them in a type-written document with bolded and highlighted instructions. If you have handouts, label them with those yellow stickies, and have them separated by period. Don’t EVER ask substitutes to make copies. This is BAD! Many subs get to school late, and won’t have time to make the copies, nor will they know how. (Again, my apologies to all the good subs out there.)

4. Make a list of classroom policies

Are students allowed to get up to sharpen their pencils at any time? Is there a bathroom policy? Do students have to be quiet at all times? Do students have to get permission to get out of their seat? The sub won’t know your classroom policies, and they will follow their own personal guidelines,  which may or may not be adequate for your classroom.

5. Have a seating chart.

This is a obvious one.

6. Other tips for sub days.

Showing Videos – If you’re going to show a video, make sure the students are required to do something other than just watch. I used to sit and watch the video during my prep with my remote control and write down questions in sequence that came up every 5 minutes of the movie. For example, I would play the movie, and pull a question like, “What is the last name of the man who gave the speech?” Then, I would fast forward about twenty seconds, and play the movie again, writing down another question based on what is on the screen. After about 10 minutes, I would have about 30 questions that I would print out and leave for the sub to pass out before starting the movie. The questions have to be easily found with right answers. Don’t ask questions where there might be different interpretations like, “What is the significance of the man on the horse?” Your objective is to keep the students watching the movie and waiting for the answer to the next question to appear. When kids are not engaged in the movie, they’ll get distracted, and then become a distraction.

Get a Teacher to Accept Misbehaving Kids – Tell your sub to send any misbehaving student to a team teacher and not to the office. As a teacher, my team and I would agree to accept any student who couldn’t behave with the sub. We would connect with the sub before the beginning of school, and let him/her know where our classes were and to send any problem students to us.

Teach a student to work the technology – You would be surprised how many substitutes don’t know how to run a Power Point presentation or find a website. Make sure  your plans have the names of responsible students who can be called upon to run the technology or to help with names.

Have more work than time allows – It’s better to have more than enough work than not enough work.

Have a Sub Plan Template on your computer – This will save time the next time you have a sub. The template should have the following:

A welcome and thank you to the sub for taking your class

A description of your classes

A list of classroom policies

The names of teachers who can help if there are any questions

A list of responsible students (At least two per period)

Your lesson plan

An emergency contact number

A seating chart


You know you’ll have to be out of the classroom for district meetings or on days when you’re not feeling well, and being able to call in a substitute teacher is one of the perks that we have as educators. Unfortunately, finding qualified subs is difficult, so we have to do everything we can to make the day run as smooth as possible. This will take time and effort on your part, but it will be worth it when you return to find a positive sub note on your desk.

Again, my apologies to all the great substitute teachers out there. I know of many. I used to request them all the time. Until you find one that you can trust with your class, however,   you need to practice the art of creating sub plans, so that you can enjoy that day off or that inservice without worrying about the disaster you are going to encounter when you return to your classroom.

I hope this was helpful. I know there is more that I or any other experienced teacher could share, but hopefully  this will make your next day off a little less stressful.

Please share, tweet, or pin this post with your friends.



Until next time,

Here’s to your Success in the Classroom!









  1. tony's Gravatar tony
    November 10, 2012    

    As the world’s greatest sub, I’m offended 😀 As a teacher, I understand.

    • Sam's Gravatar Sam
      November 10, 2012    

      Hi Tony, I think I’ve offended many of my friends and even former student-teachers who are now working as substitute teachers. For this I apologize. Unfortunately, there are so many bad subs that make all the great subs like yourself look bad. This post was definitely not directed at you or the many other awesome subs out there. Thanks for the comment.

  2. Michael Villanueva's Gravatar Michael Villanueva
    June 9, 2013    

    I also want to add something to this list and that is the emergency plan. This should include the place where the substitute meets his/her designated class in a field outside the school. The sub may not necessarily know the procedures for emergency. Each school is different in its procedure for assembly. Is it a period by period assembly or is it by homeroom? I would also add the procedure for taking attendance. When I used to work as a substitute and there is no roster, I made the students write/print their full name on a sign-in. And if the taking of attendance means having to enter them online, there’s a risk of the system crashing so on a template, there’s a note that says that if they don’t know how to enter the attendance online, just pass around a piece of paper so students can sign in and report this to the attendance office and provide the regular teacher with a copy as well (or just have the student write their name a 2nd time on another separate sheet).

    • Sam's Gravatar Sam
      June 9, 2013    

      Hi Michael. I think this is a great idea. We always have fire drills and earthquake drills, but we focus on making sure that the classroom teacher knows what to do. What happens if there is an emergency, and the regular classroom teacher is absent? Great suggestion. Thank you. Sam

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Free Resources

Teach Happier – 21 stress-reducing, joy-inspiring, burnout-avoiding strategies to help teachers love their jobs and have more success in the classroom

It’s a Blank Book!

Gratitude Journal for Teachers