Help! I’m a Substitute Teacher with No Lesson Plans! Part 1

Suggestions on How to Tackle the Day When the Teacher You Are Subbing for Didn’t Leave You Any Lesson Plans

If you are a substitute teacher, especially if you have been in the game for a while, there is no doubt that you have run into the horrific scenario of walking into a classroom with confusing lesson plans, missing materials, or no lesson plans at all. You may have had to fight the urge to run out of the classroom screaming because every teacher knows that failure to plan is a plan to fail. Most teachers will agree that having to teach a group of students without sufficient plans and supplies can be extremely stressful.

Personally, I have had some unique experiences that well equipped me for handling almost any situation when it comes to substitute teaching. I was a sub for half a year and then taught elementary school full time for five years. I taught kindergarten, second grade, and fourth grade. After having kids, I decided to take off to be a stay at home mom, but I went back to subbing part time. I have subbed for many different types of classrooms ranging from the most to least prepared teachers when it comes to preparing for a sub.

After reading this article you should have an idea about how to get through your day while subbing for a classroom with less than ideal plans or supplies provided. Like many challenges, most of what will determine your success is mental. If you believe you can do it, you are more likely to be successful and at the very least survive your day of subbing. Stay tuned for a second article describing specific activities to implement if you are left with no plans. 

Don't sweat it.

The first thing to remember when you are in this situation is that there are only a few reasons why the teacher you are subbing for did not leave plans. 

  • The absence was completely unexpected so the teacher is experiencing some kind of personal emergency. If so, trust me, the teacher is not going to be concerned with how the students spent the day as long as nobody got hurt. 
  • The teacher did leave plans but they were not left in a visible spot. If this is the case, the teacher probably has more of a type B personality and is not the most organized person. Most likely, the teacher will be understanding if you were not able to carry out the plans left and you did the best you could. 
  • The teacher you are subbing for is not the most diligent and didn’t care enough to leave detailed plans or plans at all. If so, you can bet the teacher is not worried about how the day is spent. As much as I hate to say it, there are teachers out there who are much more concerned with what goes on in their classroom when they take the day off than others. When I was a full time teacher I actually really disliked taking the day off because I had to spend so much time preparing for a sub to come in. I would leave very clear plans, materials, and extra options of things to do if the students finished their work early. 
I know it is easier said than done, but try your best to keep your cool and remember that it is not your fault that you were forced to teach a class unprepared. If supplies and plans were not left for you, you can only be expected to do your own thing.

Ask other teachers around you for help.

Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

Don’t forget about your most valuable resource, other teachers. Although you may feel a little awkward asking a stranger for help, oftentimes teachers are more than happy to help a sub when needed. Of course, you cannot rely completely on another teacher, but he or she can hopefully help you find plans or materials you are not seeing, give you ideas of activities to do with the students, or warn you about certain behaviors. If you are left without plans or supplies, asking a teacher is always a good option.

Look around the classroom to figure out what the students are learning about.

Coming up with activities for students without time to prepare is difficult. However, if you take a few minutes to look at what is written on the board or assignments left on desks, you might be able to figure out what the kids are working on. You can use this information as a starting point to come up with activities. For example, if they are working on double digit addition, see if you can make copies of a worksheet. If you don’t have access to a computer or copies, you can write practice problems on the board and have the students can work them out on their own paper. You can ask them to come up with their own math problems and trade with a partner to solve. These ideas are just a few examples of activities that can be organized to address content being taught in the classroom. Most likely, you won't be able to fill a whole day with activities that go along with content being covered in class, but these activities are a good starting off point.

Stick to activities that allow for some talking.

As a teacher, but especially as a sub, it is a struggle to have students remain engaged in “silent” activities. It may seem like a good idea to have them do silent reading if you are left without sub plans, but students will almost always start talking. Soon you find yourself constantly telling the kids to be quiet which can become irritating very quickly. Some silent activities sprinkled throughout the day are fine, but the day will probably be less stressful if you allow for some partner activities. You can tell students they need to begin an activity on their own and then allow them to work with a partner or group after they have shown you they are working hard on the activity. You can assign certain partners or tell them they can only work with people sitting by them to avoid the class turning into total chaos. I always prefer to do activities in which I start by teaching a short lesson. Next, I have the students work on their own, then work in pairs or groups, and lastly share with the class what they learned or worked on at the end of the activity.

Don’t let the kids know you are unprepared.

Kids smell fear. Even if you have no clue what you are planning on doing next, don’t let the students catch on to that. As long as you seem confident and in control the chances are better that the students will listen to you, especially if they are younger students. Always start the day by introducing yourself in an interesting way. You can refer to my article on starting your day as a substitute teacher the right way for more ideas on how to introduce yourself.

Although starting a day of teaching without having any plans provided can be a very high stress situation for any teacher, hopefully you can take away some knowledge and apply it to your next difficult teaching situation. Remember to take a deep breath and hold your head high when you begin to take on this challenge. If all else fails, remember that the bell will ring at the end of the day and you will be a stronger teacher by that time regardless of how smooth or bumpy your day of subbing was.


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Help! I’m a Substitute Teacher with No Lesson Plans! Part 1
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