Easy ways to simplify preparing for a substitute teacher

You know what I hate? Preparing for a substitute teacher.

There is never a single moment where I am excited about the idea of having a substitute in my classroom. For years, I would drag myself into the classroom regardless of how horrible I felt just to avoid the hours and hours of paperwork and copying and prep that was required for a sub to teach my classroom for a day.

preparing for a substitute teacher

Then I had kids.

They tell you kids change everything, and they do! They even changed my approach to having a substitute because there isn’t much you can do when your child wakes up tossing their cookies at 2 AM. You’re going to have to get a sub, like it or not.

The hardest part is no one teaches you how to prepare for a substitute teacher. You just have to figure it out on your own.

Preparing for a Substitute Teacher: How to Simplify Having a Sub

These days I’ve developed a few systems that help make creating sub plans way less stressful (because having a sick kid is stressful enough).

In addition to having a few subs that I know I can count on in a pinch, I’ve also set things up to make preparing for a substitute teacher super easy…so easy that the teacher next door could do it in a real emergency situation.

I’ve even discovered that now that I’ve got all these great things in place, I don’t feel quite so bad taking a sick day myself every once in a while when a nasty cold or migraine hits.

How did I do it? Here are a few tips.

Make sure you leave your substitute teacher plans for your daily routines

This may sound obvious, but a surprising number of teachers leave their substitutes to wing it when it comes to things like lunch and recess routines.  Even if you have a seasoned substitute, keep leaving detailed plans until the substitute tells you she no longer needs them.  (This may never happen, so be prepared.)

I like to spend some time early in the year creating a template of the general layout of our day. I include:

  • Which students leave for group
  • At which points of the day they need to leave for group
  • How we line up and transition to different places

….basically, everything but the actual lesson plans themselves.

This lets me plug in the content later and saves a ton of time when I have to do lesson plans for a substitute last minute in an emergency.

Here are a few important items to be sure to include in your template:

– How you manage your classroom

 Give a detailed description of your management system and examples of the behaviors you want from you students, as well as the behaviors you do not encourage.

  • If you hand out rewards like stickers or small prizes, let you substitute know where to find these items.
  • If there are specific students that have “alternative” expectations because they are working on replacement behaviors, be sure you leave notes about this too so you can help prevent battles that don’t need to happen in the first place.
  • If any students are on a behavior plan, leave the details with the substitute so she can carry it on.

– Your schedule

This is how I lay out my sub plans:

  • I use the time and subject as my headers
  • I add detailed paragraphs under each header
  • I describe my expectations for what that looks like for the students
  • I describe what I would like the substitute to be doing during that time

Be sure to use the language your sub should use with your students to make it easier on everyone.

Here’s an example of what my sub plans look like with my schedule:

Preparing for a Substitute Teacher - Schedule

You’ll notice I even add images from Pinterest of the lessons I am using to help the sub out.

Bonus Ideas & Extras

Subs always love ideas for early finishers.

They don’t know your students the way you do.

Preparing for a substitute teacher and leaving anything you can that will keep the kiddo who finishes the work you give in 10 minutes busy for some time is going to help the sub.

It isn’t their job to try to figure that out.

This also includes those times when the sub finds themselves with 10 extra minutes they need to fill between lunch and recess…or that random fire drill and library.

It could be skill practice worksheets or directions to puzzles, the classroom library, and other materials in the classroom.

I always have a stack of skill related BINGO games on a visible shelf.  Students love BINGO, and I know they are working on skills while making it easier for the substitute to keep them on task.  Make sure the substitute can find the prizes.

Simplify Your Sub Prep

Actually keep up with your emergency substitute folder

On my campus, they used to check these at the beginning of the year. They had to be in a box at the beginning of September, and I was horrible about it.

I literally used to throw things into it on the day it was due just to check it off my to-do list.

Of course, it was then useless when I was sick, but at the time I couldn’t have cared less because it was just one more thing on my already too full plate at the beginning of the school year.

These days I like preparing for a substitute teacher at the beginning of each month with some great themed plans, and then I know I don’t have to worry.

If I make it through the year without using it, I just tuck it away in my files for next school year. Here’s an example of what I have in my September Sub Plans.


After reviewing fictional elements and reading Miss Nelson is Missing, the class completes this super cute story element foldable including:

  • characters
  • setting
  • problem
  • solution
  • summary
  • and a recommendation
Preparing reading sub plans

Early finishers get the opportunity to color before turning this in.

I also have an enrichment project that goes with this one that walks students through the process of writing a news article explaining where their teacher went including illustrations. It is super fun and ends up totally adorable.


I love having a related writing project to make it easier for my kids to transition.

Sometimes I use the writing project in my sub plans. Other times I don’t necessarily need it because of where we are in the writing process with other projects.

However, it is nice to have just in case. I had my students a friendly letter since they had read Catching the Moon.

I included a graphic organizer to help them brainstorm, and I made sure my lesson plans included scaffolding for those reluctant writers.

However, I also purposefully pick writing topics that encourage engagement when I know I am going to have a substitute.

Related Reading and Writing Project for Sub Plans

Social Studies

One thing I always do when I’m preparing for a substitute teacher is to include two passages that align with monthly themes in my social studies lesson plans.

That gives me (or a last minute substitute) some options depending.

For example, in April I have Earth Day passages including an article on water conservation. My space sub plans include an article on space trash and how scientists are hoping to clean up space.

social studies & science passages with multiple choice questions

These are perfect for an easy grade, and I love that they allow me to bring in some timely social studies topics that I might not get to cover as easily otherwise.


As I’m preparing for a substitute teacher, I tend to use math as a time for spiral review with a substitute because I don’t want to worry about the depth and differentiation aspects for a new lesson.

I build in some challenge activities and some early finisher tasks into my sub plans, and I am good to go.

My September subfolder has place value, addition, subtraction, and rounding. I try to make the majority of the math sheets at least two steps so my kids practice following multi-step directions.

For the “Apple Addition” sheet below, for example, the students find the sum and then color the apples based on whether the sum is even or odd and the “What’s the Score?” sheet has students think about decomposing and recomposing numbers then comparing them.

Math sub plans

Science/ STEM Learning

I always try to build at least one fun and hands-on activity into my sub plans.

Science is a great place to do this in a STEM challenge format. In my September plans, for example, students work to build towers out of index cards.

My space plans focus on exploring sun protection, like sunscreen.

Throughout the STEM plans, students record their thinking in their Engineer Journal, which guides them through the scientific process.

STEM in Sub Plans

Needless to say, preparing for a substitute teacher is time-consuming and oftentimes, not the first thing on our priority list.

If it all just seems like too much work, I’ve posted my print & go sub plans on TPT with lesson plans that can be copied and pasted into your own template.

They include all the printables you see in this post (and more)! If you’d like to try a set for free, click the button below.

Click here to get free sub plans

Related Posts:

5 Simple Tips for a Better Substitute Experience…it’s More than Just Sub Plans!

How to Take Control & Get More Done in Your Next Rti Meeting

10 Super Simple Ways to Appreciate Your Classroom Volunteers Without Breaking the Bank

Do you have a plan ready for when you’re out for a day?

Any tips and tricks you would like to share?

Let me know in the comments below.

How to simplify having a substitute

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