Sub (guest teacher) Plans – a template and a bunch of ideas

projectorMy first several years of teaching my classroom was next a notorious (his former students and colleagues still tell stories about him) social studies teacher.  Notorious because he fit every stereotype of a social studies teacher you see in the movies.  His classes seemed to watch a movie every single day….and not just movies to highlight American history.  It seemed he had a free lifetime membership to Blockbuster.  (note: I am not old enough to have taught in the projector days, but totally old enough to have been around during the blockbuster days.)  As a joke one day, my science teacher colleagues attached blinking Christmas lights above the door to his classroom with a sign that read “Now showing, ‘Die Hard 19’ “.  Another time the career counselor pulled the electricity to his room to see what he would do.  My favorite prank (though looking back these were all a bit mean) was when a principal intern put the following on his desk.sub plan ss

(side note:   for all you youngsteers reading my blog, back in the day we had to spend 5 minutes at the end of each class rewinding VHS tapes – google it if you’ve never heard of it)  We all laughed when we saw this sub plan.  The math teachers though thought, “It is so unfair.  I already showed ‘Donald Duck in Mathematics land’ and ‘Stand & Deliver’.  I have no movies left for the sub”.  (side note for the youngsteers reading, there was no youtube in those days.  those were the only 2 math movies on vhs)  I joke, but let’s be honest.  Sub plans are the worst.  The worst.   Don’t believe me.  Check twitter on Sunday evenings.sick tweet 2sick tweetgreat sub meme

Writing sub plans is work.  Dealing with the aftermath of having a sub is the worst. One thing they don’t teach you how to do in college or in any professional development meeting I’ve ever attended in my 26 years & one thing you never see sessions on at conferences is how to write sub plans and what to leave on days you are out for your students to do.  My guess is you work in a district like mine and the likelihood of you getting a math sub is equivalent to the likelihood you’ll never hear “I was never good at math” again in your life.

Over the last 25+ years of teaching I’ve figured out a few things that work and minimize the effects of me being out of class.  I still hate being absent and rarely am.  The last time I was absent I received the following note from my guest teacher:  “Sara, I’m a retired english teacher & have subbed almost everyday for the last 5 years.  I have never had classes that worked as hard as yours did today.   Thank you for your organization and work to make this happen”.  To be fair, I had really quiet and industrious students this school year without much effort.  That said, I have not returned to a even kind of bad note from a sub in 15+ years.  I have it down to somewhat of a science.  Here are a few things I do and a few resources for you.

#1.  I like to call my sub’s ‘Guest Teachers’.  I know its cheesy, but it re-frames how I view them.  A previous school I worked at required us to call them this and I’ve held on to this since then.  Rather than bemoaning the deficits of subs, I build off of their assets.

#2.  If possible, I always tell my students the day prior I will be out the next day.  I tell them what I expect them to accomplish the next day.  I tell them no phones.  period.  I tell them that Ms. Jones and Mr. Ismail will be stopping by randomly to check on them throughout the day and report back to me.  Note:  If you want to improve behavior with your students, see if your teaching peers will pop in for 30 seconds on their prep.  Just 30 seconds is enough for students to believe I know what is going on.  On the rare days I can’t tell students I’ll be gone the next day, I see if my teaching friends can stop by for 1 minute at the start of class to check in on any class I am a bit worried about.

#3.  The day prior I tell students they MUST turn in what I leave for them, even if they do not finish it.  I will be grading their work.  Note:  Don’t sleep on this tip.  It has changed behavior with my guest teachers more than anything else I’ve done.  If students can finish work outside of class and return it the next day, they often choose to not do it in class resulting in misbehavior from someone.

#4.  I always leave more work than students can possibly complete in an hour.  My goal is to keep them so busy, they can’t misbehave.  They believe me when I say I will be twice as annoyed as usual if I hear anything poorly back.  Because they believe me, they complete their work, or as much of it as they can.  On most sub days I have at most 1, maybe 2 students work missing.  Not all of it is complete, but I have a clear idea of what they accomplished.note to students

#5.   I leave a packet for my students always, that includes a note from me about what I expect for the day.  Even if my students are doing work on Desmos, I still leave a paper/packet to go with it with at least a few things they have to write down and turn into the guest teacher.  I always start this with a note from me – usually telling them where I am.  I then include a few simple expectations for the day.  expectationsThe guest teachers I’ve had almost always thank me for giving students ‘no passes’ and ‘no phones’ written down.  They love the no passes thing.  Some give passes anyways.  I don’t care.  I always give these to help the guest teachers and make me the bad guy, not  them.

#6.  I then leave my students something I am certain everyone can and will be willing to engage in.  If I’m gone, I don’t want this day to be a lost day in the limited time I have with students.  What I leave depends on the culture of my students at that time of year and what I know about my guest teacher.  The last few years I’ve had a few guest teachers who I knew were not afraid of math, but most of my career and still at times today I may or may not get a sub and/or they may ignore what I leave on my desk.  I have found though that my go-to items for days I’m out are one or more of the following.

  • skill workSkill work.  I rarely if ever give time in class to complete skill work so this is a good use for time when I am away.  I either choose something we are currently working on or a skill they’ve learned in prior years they will need for something coming up in our course.  I usually just google the skill name with either ‘pdf’ or ‘doc’ attached and steal something from the web to use.  If I leave something skill based, I usually leave something else in addition for the day.  50 minutes of skills can be tortuous.
  • I love to leave ‘housekeeping’ work for students to do the day I’m absent like organizing their notes for a notebook check (highlight dates, vocab…) or checking their grades or…..Anything that I would love to give time for on other days, but never get around to.
  • Related to this one is one of my favorite.  Asking students to respond to a few reflection questions.  How are they feeling in class?  When do they feel the most successful.  What concerns do they have?  What has been the most important thing they’ve learned in class this year?  What do they love to spend time doing outside of class?…..and so on.  Anything that can help me study my students and know them better.  These are lovely to read and change how I interact with individual students and I rarely take enough time to read these.  example response.JPGNote:  If you do this with your students – include an ‘exemplar’ reflection question where they can learn about you or what you like about the class.  I promise you will get much longer and thoughtful responses from more students if you do this. Here is one example I gave prior to asking students to answer 3 questions.
  • I love, love using Desmos Activity Builder.  Occasionally I don’t leave this if I am fearful of leaving out devices, but if I have a guest teacher I trust, this is a big one for me.  I may create 1, 2 or 3 different things to do.  I tell them the day prior I will be watching what they are working on from where I will be spending my day (and they believe me).  I leave card sorts or…..anything.  What I leave is almost directly related to what I am currently teaching.  In an emergency I search for AB’s others have already built and use those.  I often have them record something on paper along with what they do online to turn into the guest teacher at the end of the hour.  If you still have not started using Desmos Activity Builder you have lost out on one of the best and easiest FREE sub plans out there.  Get on it.  Learn.  It’s easy.  If you live locally, contact me.  I’d be happy to help you get started over lunch.
  • At my previous school I was at a 1:1 device school and had students create and state testsshare something with me virtually.  Here is one thing my students did with a sub on pic-collage as they got ready for the state assessments the next week.
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    I often leave some small puzzle towards the end of whatever I give them for the day that is a bit to hard for many students.  This could be an ACT problem #50-60. act prob It could be a one of the #100problems  of summer 2017 that Brilliant.org has put out this summer.  It could be any problem that will help them become more persistent problem solvers.  If I leave this, I only leave one.  I find that students are willing to work on one problem well.  If I leave several they do a shallow job with each or some.

  • At times I’ve left a math puzzle unrelated to what I am currently doing in class.  I blogged about one of my favorite, “How grand is your total?” HERE.
  • Listed at the bottom of this post are a ton of other ideas for what to leave.  I’ve also attached 4 of my recent guest teacher plan word docs for you to see how I do this.

#7.  My ending statements to students in my packets look something like this each time….endI give students something to do if they finish early and I remind them to turn in their packet to the guest teacher, even if they do not finish early.


What I leave for my guest teacher.

Here is what I know for sure.  I will never, ever, ever be as organized as Minnesota Math blogger Greta Bergman.  Check out her Emergency Lesson Plan Bin.  I’m jealous, but this is not a reality for me.greta's sub plan binWhat is like me is to leave my sub-plans out super organized on my desk like this photo from Cathy Yenca.  sub plans desk.jpg

A pile for each course filled with binder clips and post it notes labeling things is my norm.  I have a standard 1 paper of instructions I leave on top.  I’ve shared this template with many teachers and most have told me they love it.  (It is linked below).  On it I give a note with my contact information (If I’ll be near my phone) and other teachers who can help them nearby.


I give them a table of my schedule and instructions for the day.  The table includes the bell schedule, my preps, the names of helpful students and more.   Here are a few pics from that one pager.  grid 1grid 3I can’t tell you how much this one pager has alleviated my stress when making plans.  Each time I just go in here and write over what was there before.  Often I can use similar language.

I also leave copies of seating charts for the guest teacher to use and write on.  If there are any students to worry about or something they need to know, I write the notes on there.  I leave out extra pens/pencils for the sub as well as paper, binder clips and post-it notes all on my desk.  I’ve had great co-workers that often check in before school and make sure the guest teacher is feeling OK.  I always leave way more copies of the packets than they will need for the day.  I often leave $ for the vending machine if there is one to get a water or soda.

My Template & Examples

Here is the template I fill out each August when I know my schedule for the year.  guest teacher plans template   After the first couple of weeks of school I add in the names of students who are helpful.  I love, love, love having the template set up early in the year.  If I need to be gone in an emergency, a bunch of the work is already done for me.

Here are several lesson plans I’ve used in the last couple of years.  The ‘xxxxx’ just represents student names I’ve removed.


To help you out – so we don’t all have to google things-I scoured #MTBoS (twitter and the blogs) for any advice I could find on math sub-plans.  What is below is a collection of possible emergency lessons (many of these lessons were sited as peoples favorite lessons for subs) and blogs on subs.  Enjoy.  If you have something to add, tweet me @saravdwerf, comment below or email me at saravdw@gmail.com and I will add more to this list.  In no particular order….


7.26.17  A final note to those of you who come to my blog often.  After a year & a half of my blog, I am starting a redesign of the blog tomorrow.  My blog may be down for a couple of days and will most certainly look different.  Be patient with me.  When I started my blog, I did so with no training (not that I have any now) or idea of what to do.  I just went in full blast and started writing.  I hope to make this blog a bit more useful to those of you who come here frequently.  More soon.  Thanks for your support of this classroom teacher sharing her work and thoughts with the world.


Sara VanDerWerf

I am Sara Van Der Werf, a 24-year mathematics teacher in Minneapolis Public Schools. I have taught math in grades 7-12 as well as spent several years leading mathematics at the district office. I currently teach Advanced Algebra at South High School and I'm also the current President of the Minnesota Council of Teachers of Mathematics (MCTM). I am passionate about encouraging and connecting with mathematics teachers. I'd love to connect via twitter.  Join the community.  Tweet me @saravdwerf.

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