Avoiding Chaos When Your Class Has a Substitute

Substitute losing control of class

You know what happens when you’re out.


You have a family emergency or illness and must call out of work that day. Students enter your classroom to find a substitute. A carnival atmosphere kicks in.  The poor substitute just wants to survive the day while the principal just wants no injuries or obvious criminality.  The substitute hands out some packets of dittos, just busywork, and tells the students to get to work, saying that papers are due at the end of class. Students sit in their rows, taking a halfhearted stab while mostly goofing around. The sub admonishes but can do little. Essentially, the whole class has just gone into a holding pattern until you return.


We have to do better than this with our substitute days


Substitutes are not regular teachers, so by definition students cannot learn as well. But a day with the substitute can and must be more productive than the typical scenario. The taxpayers deserve more than just extensive babysitting. Real learning has to take place. Too much is at stake for the students, the school and society.


Here is what I suggest:


Understand student thinking. Your best defense is good preparation. Students think they have the day off when they see your substitute. Some may try to challenge a substitute or spread disorder. It is essential the class has something valid and productive to do during that 40 minutes. The assignment must be clear, direct and  do-able within a class period to keep students focused, because the moment they see the sub, their thinking changes.



Be certain that the sub has all of your institutional information. The principal will expect you to present to your substitute all class rosters, your schedule and classrooms, student allergies, IEPs, procedures for assemblies and fire drills, technology protocols, procedures for your duty periods, etc. We take this as a given, that you have done everything the principal has asked you to do. Anything else is an invitation to chaos and if you are new, denial of tenure.



Schedule a full-period test, if you know in advance you’ll be out. Proctoring under formal academic conditions is viable for a sub of even minimal teaching skill. Be certain that all tests and answer sheets have been reproduced, that copies are made, and that copies are kept  for any students absent. During test day, students may forget that they have a sub at all.



Show a film but require written analysis. Substitute days are good days for critical viewing sessions, but students must have some writing and thinking to go along it. Otherwise they will stare out the window, play on their phones or create smirkery. View the program for 30 minutes, and then have the students write for ten.



For emergency absences, create an all purpose assignment.  It should stand alone in your classes at any time if you must be absent on short notice. This is something to be done in one period and simple to implement, where something is collected and graded.


tips for grading students

Assiduously grade anything you collect. If your sub collects work that is never graded, the next time you have a substitute, the student will ignore the assignment, guaranteed. It may be difficult for you to come back to a pile of papers to grade, but bite the bullet on this one. The students must see that there was a consequence–in the form of a grade in the book– to the work that they did with the sub. Your first sub day is the litmus test for the rest of the year.


Would you like to save time in your planning without skimping on learning? We have American history lesson plans that do all the prep for you and get the kids out of their seats. Check out our sample lesson plan here.


Consider exchanging contact info with your sub. Problems may arise and the sub may want direct access to you. Perhaps you can take the call. Also, consider calling the substitute at the end of the day. It beats being surprised in the morning!


Never punish the whole class for poor behavior with a sub


Under no circumstances discipline or punish an entire class for acting out with a substitute teacher. It is impossible that all the students are guilty, so punishing them all makes no sense and will simply create resentments. It will also fuel contentious calls to your principal. If you must discipline a student for substitute misconduct, the individual student must be identified specifically and the transgression documented.


Punishing an entire class is not sound educational policy and will always blow up in your face.


We all must miss work from time to time. But the days cannot be wasted. Prepare well for your substitute teacher, make the lesson plan easy to implement, and then grade and follow up on everything that your students did.


This guarantees that the next time you need a sub, things will go smoothly for everyone.


If you liked this post, please consider sharing it on social media. Sign up for our mailing list too. We won’t barrage you with emails, we promise!