I once returned to my classroom after being sick for a day, ready to pick up where my classes left off. I got to my desk in the morning, and on top of my papers was a note from the substitute who covered my class. Usually these ‘sub notes’ have a summary from each class, and often say something nice like, “Great group of kids. Here’s my # if you need a sub in the future.

This was not one of those notes.

The note said this: (In all CAPS) THIS WAS THE WORST GROUP OF STUDENTS I’VE EVER SEEN! THEY MADE ME CRY. WHAT THE HELL KIND OF TEACHER ARE YOU?”

Yikes.

The sub did not leave their phone number, so I’m guessing they don’t want an invite back to my classroom.

When I saw this note, I was immediately angry with my class and determined to get an explanation. So the first thing I did that morning was ask what happened the day before. Kids sat awkwardly silent and looked at each other, until finally one kid spoke up and said they acted kind of rowdy. I said, “Kind of rowdy doesn’t usually lead to these types of notes from the substitute. What happened?”

After doing some digging, I found out one of my students hid a remote controlled noise maker that produces flatulent sounds (I’ll just say it- a fart machine) in the classroom, and any time it got quiet, he activated the machine. When the substitute would ask who’s making the noise, everyone else would laugh at her. The more upset the sub became, the harder kids would laugh. Eventually she snapped and wrote a note to me in all upper case letters.

Leaving your class and feeling okay about it.

As silly as this incident might sound, it was a very low moment for me as a teacher. I felt like my class let me down and even embarrassed me in my absence. However, I also let myself down in not having a class culture that could manage itself without my presence. These were normally well-behaved kids who wouldn’t be this disrespectful, but this was not the case when I was out.

As I knew this wouldn’t be the last time I’d be absent, I resolved to change this bad habit in my classroom. This started with a very stern conversation about what happened with the sub (I mean, very stern), and Mr. Fart Machine obviously faced consequences. However, I made changes for the future to make sure my class was not only respectful, but productive in my absence.

Leave challenging work for students to accomplish.

Often the reason for disruptions with a substitute stems from students not having anything to do. When making sub plans, it’s easy to just divert to giving students simple activities or have them do review-work. However, kids can smell busy-work from a mile away. Instead, leave students activities that are just as challenging and enriching as if you were there. Tell students that if they have questions or problems to ask each other for help. And if they need you for an answer, to write it down and ask when you get back. This might be frustrating for students to have challenging work in your absence, however, they need to know how to work hard without their teacher present, and staying busy will also help keep them out of trouble.

Set deadlines for the work.

Along with leaving challenging work, make sure that work has tight deadlines. Students should know that when there is a substitute, this does not mean there is time to be wasted in class. Have something for students to submit at the end of the class period or the first thing the next day. Also make sure the sub clearly announces the deadline for work so students know they need to maximize the time that they have.

Give class a heads up if possible.

No one can predict illness or absence for unexpected reasons. However, if you do know that you’re going to be out the following day, give your class a heads up. Let them know you are going to be out, and go over your expectations for them when there is a substitute. Talk about the work they will have to accomplish, let them know who the sub will be (if you know in advance), and remind them that how they should behave even when you are not there. Hopefully your words will still be in their heads the next day and they’ll be reminded of how much you value their positive behavior in your absence.

Compile a strong list of substitutes.

In a perfect world, every substitute would be a former teacher who loves working with kids, knows how to manage a classroom, and loves to cover when teachers are out. However, I’ve had too many subs who simply read a book all of class and can hardly be described as a babysitter. Sometimes these subs are fine because the class can manage itself and does not need any supervision. However, sometimes you need an adult in the room, a person who can help manage, be present, and engage with students.

This is why any time you come across a substitute with a strong reputation, you should get their phone number and email and utilize them whenever you can.  Build a relationship with them; send them a thank you email every time they cover your class. Understand how valuable they are to your students, and make them want to come back and keep serving your classroom. A list of strong substitutes is invaluable.  

 

Missing school every now and then is inevitable. You will get sick, your kids will sick, you’ll attend a professional development, or you’ll need a personal day. But being absent does not have to mean a day wasted in your classroom or that you will return to an angry note from a sub. It comes down to establishing a class culture that is strong whether you are there or not, as well as ensuring fart machines are forever banned from the walls of your classroom.