Hands Off the Wheel

What to leave the sub? That’s sometimes a dangerous question, but one every single teacher is used to. Since I’ve been out a large number of days this year, I’ve had a lot of sub notes to plan. I don’t have a lesson plan book on the desk in my classroom. In fact, I don’t have a desk in my classroom. I don’t even have one in the teacher’s room upstairs. I gave that one away to a new hire about 14 years ago, since I didn’t spend any time there. I don’t even remember where it was.

What I do know is that when I am out I still expect the class to go on. I write out what I think are detailed instructions and then… take my hands off of the wheel.

Because I am actually home today, and not at work teaching (oh, irony), I wanted to take this time to reflect on what I plan, how I plan it, and how I can improve. Here’s a list of my sub notes this year:

My observations focus on a couple of areas: 1) time, 2) effort, 3) content, 4) skills.


I’ve noticed that it is very difficult to assess how much time students will need to complete the assignments when I am not there. Maybe my internal clock only works in  proximity to the classroom. Maybe I make many unconsciousness adjustments in the classroom. Maybe I just need to get better at focusing my out-of-classroom instruction on task management. Do I just kow-tow to the idea that students will take about 10-20 minutes of jumping around over an imaginary effigy of their absent teacher?

What’s the best use of time when I am absent? Is it realistic to expect students to remain studious for the 83 minute block? Should I buffer the classwork with about 10 minutes of talking time? For me, as I’ve looked over the assignments I’ve given to the sub over this year, I have moved in the opposite direction. I actually give more work than can be done in an 83 minute period, especially with limited resources in my classroom. So, since the assignment can’t be finished in the time, I am leaving students with the option of continuing (or rather, starting) their work at home, or handing in something that is not yet done. Clearly, this is something I have to improve.


Well, this is where the rubber hits the road. How many times have I come back to hear, “The sub didn’t give us anything to do!”? After looking over the work, I think about half of the assignments were creative in some way, while about half involved reading/recall. This is a bit surprising for me, because I had thought that more of my tasks were creative in nature and not based on something at the end of a chapter or handout. I personally feel that those kind of assignments are a bit devaluing. RAFT writing prompts have given me an ‘out’ in that area. Each answer has to be different in its design.

But the larger question is ‘How do I create a culture of learning, especially when I am not there?’ Is  it simply a function of culture? What about the stuff I can’t control, like the individual work ethic of the student? Then there are distractions, distractions, distractions. Depending on the substitute and their personal style (or lack of) classroom management, some of these factors may not even matter.

I think overall, though, its pretty clear that the beginning of the semester has to be focused on creating communities in the classroom that last beyond (ideally) my presence. In an urban school, where subs are more and more common for students, this is not easy. If there is a devaluing of learning overall, it is hard (but not impossible) to sustain one when the teacher is absent.


After reviewing my sub plans, I’ve noticed that there’s almost no review, which makes some sense, and not much independent learning time, which doesn’t. A lot of the work focuses on supplementary tasks for the weekly unit we are on, depending on the class. Because I plan for about 18 weeks of instruction, and have lessons, notes, projects, essays, etc. for each week, it makes sense for me to try to ‘stay on the ball’ concerning the overall semester schedule. The hard part that I’ve always struggled with is selectivity, especially when I have been absent. What gets cut? Or rather, what has a lesser priority because I want to keep meeting my unit objectives and overall big understanding goals?

I’m not sure if there is an answer here. If I take each day I am out of the classroom and count it as a null-content day, I will never be able to get through all of the content I’d like to cover. Then again, how much understanding do I have to sacrifice to keep the content ‘covered’? It’s the age-old battle between content and understanding again. Inch wide, mile deep = understanding. Mile wide, inch deep = coverage. From a pedagogical point of view, I know which side of the fence I’d like to be on, but I still struggle with the idea that my students ‘need’ to know about this story or that issue.


Almost all of the work involves writing. I’m not sure at all if this is a good or bad practice. There’s so much that needs to be done with my students to help them develop skills as a writer that having students write ‘just to write’ may not help them in the long run. Still, is there any penalty to over-writing? My school’s 9th grade population has half coming into the high school reading below the 5th grade level. Their writing skills are also underdeveloped. So, if I am not there in the classroom, and I’m asking students to complete a RAFTS assignment, or defend a position, or analyze different perspectives, am I really helping my students?

Given that my classroom is relatively technology free (with the exception of donated iPads in the last 2 months of the school year), there is little I can do to monitor their work when I am out (assuming I am not sick and unconsciousness). So, is writing the best method? Should I focus on other 21st century skills for my students when I am absent? Reasoning? Negotiating? Collaboration? Creativity?

Mirrors are useful

So, how is this reflection going to help my students? First, I am going straight out to my online personal learning network of colleagues on Twitter and the net to get feedback and advice. Second, asking deeper  questions about my craft help point me in a direction – and I need to make sure that direction matches my vision for a culture of learning in the classroom. I guess the bottom line is that everything grows. Even sub plans.

Feedback is strongly welcomed! :)

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