Tips for Creating Successful Sub Plans

Whether I’m off to a meeting or I've managed to catch the latest bug floating around the building, the thought of writing sub plans makes me think twice (or 3 or 4 times!) about leaving. 

It boils down to this: What can I leave that has a better than average chance of getting accomplished, and is meaningful and engaging?  

Kids see through busy work and if that’s all the day is going to be, I guarantee they’ll choose their own type of “busy-ness.” I try to make it purposeful, and throw in a good dose of fun. 


One of the advantages of a self-contained classroom is the ability to be flexible with time. This flexibility helps create an energy ebb and flow to the day. Without it, chaos ensues. I regularly strive for that delicate balance between total silence (not realistic - but thank goodness for sustained silent reading and writing, strategically placed in the schedule) and pandemonium (lively engagement). I try to keep sub days as close to that as possible.

Math games are generally the no-brainer starting point of my planning. They give students the opportunity to practice, and I have yet to have a sub tell me students were not engaged during math. I choose the game and build the ebb and flow around that.

A couple of my class favorites, PEMDAS Bowling and 36 BINGO, both offer great practice building equations, while providing friendly competition. The nice part about these games is they’re easy to set up, I’ve already taught the kids how to play them, they work for all ability levels, and they’ll last for the entire math period. The sub keeps track of the winners or high score bowlers and prizes are awarded when I return.  

If I'm out for a couple days, I'll set up a PEMDAS Bowling Tournament and let them create teams. It pretty well guarantees success. 

As a fabulous parting prize for my guest teacher, I will often leave a copy of whatever game they play that day (if it's one I've created), as a thank you for spending the day with my kids. 

I’d like to end with a cautionary bit of advice - How to reduce post-guest-teacher headaches upon your return... 

When writing your sub plans, I would suggest staying away from:
  • New  material - Chances are you'll just have to reteach it when you return. There’s no guarantee your sub will understand and teach it correctly, and research shows it’s really hard to un-teach inaccurate information.
  • Activities with lots of parts and complicated directions. (See above.)
  • New projects - Even if you’ve prepared your class and you’re certain they know what to do, don’t do it! I promise you'll end up starting over when you return.
  • A test - This one is a bit tricky. I left a test once. It wasn’t a major test, but I thought it would keep students engaged for one period and we were in a time crunch. I didn’t plan on the sub helping them with the test... even after I said, "Don't help them with the test!" ... It instantly became a practice test and then I had to write another one. (I still think there's a way to make it work. I’m the eternal optimist. :) )
  • Anything requiring computers- Unless your class is well into a project and they know what they’re doing, stay away from the computers. 
The above cautions have all been classroom tested by me ... more than once... I’m stubborn like that. ("Maybe if I tried it this way..." Just. No! It never ends well.) But hey, if you're feeling adventurous, you’re welcome to give them a shot. And then please, let us know how it worked out for you!