I don’t know if there are many jobs like teaching where it is actually HARDER to be out than it is to be there. Writing sub plans for secondary science teachers is almost always worse than powering through your dreaded seasonal allergies or actually making it to your bi-yearly dentist appointments.
But thanks to the pandemic, most of us have had a LOT more practice with making sub plans than ever before, and if you’ve been around here a while, you know that I talk a LOT about using all of your personal days (and your sick days when you need them!!) every year.
Backstory: One of my mentor teachers in my department my first year teaching was on her last year pre-retirement and constantly harped to us younger teachers that her biggest regret was not using all her days each year. She saved as many as she could for the bonus you get at retirement for all your saved days and she said it wasn’t worth it!!! The small financial reward, in the end, wasn’t worth the years of pushing through illness or mental exhaustion to avoid missing school, and I’ve never forgotten this!!
So if we are going to take sick days (either willingly or because we absolutely HAVE to) – how are we to write sub plans for secondary science that don’t absolutely suck all of the life and energy out of us in the process??
Here are my five best tips for making sub plans as pain-free as possible:
Sub Plans for Secondary Science Tip #1: Pre-establish sub procedures with your students.
I firmly believe that establishing and consistently reinforcing procedures is the #1 way you can avoid whole class behavior issues. I create, communicate, and reinforce a MULTITUDE of procedures in my classroom, but I share my 5 most important procedures to teach to your students here.
In addition to those top 5 procedures, I also think it is incredibly important to teach your students procedures for what you expect from them if you aren’t able to be there one day.
My last year teaching full-time in the classroom we were in the middle of the adoption process, and I knew going into that year I needed to prepare my students for me to be absent last-minute and at random times. I am grateful that I did it because we had to be out multiple times to talk with caseworkers, lawyers, meet expectant parents, and then eventually to head to the hospital to get our son!
Here are a few of the expectations and procedures I put into place with my students in advance:
- They would never get a “free” day. I would leave them MEANINGFUL non-busy work to do, so I set the expectation to be prepared to learn even when I wasn’t there.
- If the substitute left a negative report in any regard, the class would lose all of their board points. (Read more about this HIGHLY effective whole classroom management strategy here.) This includes if I returned to an absolutely wrecked classroom.
- If they had any late work, I expected it to still be submitted into my turn-in bin (a must-have system I very strictly reinforced!)
Two additional things I HIGHLY recommend doing in ADVANCE to set yourself up for success (especially with last-minute absences):
- Select 2-3 students per class whose names you could leave with a substitute if they had any questions for where something is or how you do certain things. I tried to choose students who were responsible, honest, and very rarely absent. I asked these students in advance if they would be willing to help a sub and answer any questions. This was SO HELPFUL for my substitutes, and they regularly thanked me that they knew who they could trust with their questions!
- Create a General Substitute Guide sheet that includes the following information: the bell schedule and classes you teach, classroom rules and procedures, neighboring teachers’ names and room #s who they can ask for help, student helpers in each class they can ask for help, and rosters for each class. Write it in a way that it is useful all yearlong so it isn’t just ANOTHER thing to edit when you will be absent.
→ Action tip: Talk to 2-3 students per class that you can ask to be helpers for potential subs, and write your general substitute guide!
Sub Plans for Secondary Science Tip #2: Create a shared department folder with “evergreen” sub plans.
This was a school policy that was SO HELPFUL to have. As a science department, create a shared Dropbox or GoogleDrive folder that everyone in the department and admin has access to. Make a subfolder for each teacher and have everyone upload the following at the beginning of the year:
- General Substitute Guide (described above)
- A few “evergreen” sub plans
What do I mean by “evergreen” sub plans? I mean that you create a few plans that can be used ANY time of year in ANY class. This will be SO HELPFUL for those days when you wake up to your alarm only to realize there is a 98% chance you have strep throat, or for the nights where you are up 4x times with your puking toddler and don’t have the mental capacity to call a sub, let alone type out a sub-plan to send to the school secretary.
If this seems impossible, you can make a few evergreen plans specifically for each subject (Ex. 2 biology any-time-of-year plans, 2 chemistry any-time-of-year plans, etc.)
Here are a few ideas for evergreen sub-plans:
- Podcast walk and talk – have students listen to a science podcast while walking around the track outside (a great way to keep your classroom clean while you are out too 🤪 ) and then write a reflection. You can read more about how I do this, as well as how I have students write reflections, in this “engage students in science” blogpost.
- Turner’s graph of the week – students can NEVER have too much practice interpreting graphs, as it is a skill required in EVERY science course, standardized test they will take, and article they will read (and have to evaluate for legitimacy) on social media. Check out the FREE website here!
- Scientific reading – students can never have too much practice with scientific literacy. Have them read a scientific article and write a reflection (you can use the same reflection described for the podcast reflection from this post here). Two sites I recommend:
The best part is that EVERYONE in your department has access to this, so anyone can quickly prep sub plans for you when you have a last-minute absence – and it makes it easy for them to do it!
→ Action tip: Talk to your department chair or admin TODAY about doing this department-wide or school-wide!! It takes very little effort on the frontend for the IMMENSE benefit on the backend!
Sub Plans for Secondary Science Tip #3: Don’t assign something that requires lots of grading.
I highly recommend as you are considering your sub plans for secondary science NOT to assign anything that requires lots of grading. The LAST thing you want to do after an absence (whether pre-arranged or not) is to return to a stack of papers that will take you hours to grade.
Whatever you assign, check for completion, discuss and go over it in class the next day, and MOVE ON! Relieve yourself of the burden of having to check every little thing when you return. Your students will survive – and you will too!!
→ Action Tip: Take a deep breath. Let go of the feeling that you have to grade everything in order for your students to actually try and work hard for you. You don’t. In fact, I beg you to stop grading everything!!
Sub Plans for Secondary Science Tip #4: Avoid tech, if possible.
When thinking of sub plans, I think we often quickly go to our favorite science documentaries and movies. And while I have a few I LOVE, I cannot tell you how many times I have returned from an absence only to find out that the substitute couldn’t figure out how to access the video, project it, or get the sound to work. That doesn’t even include potential wifi issues that can arise at any moment – which we all know always happen at the WORST times.
I highly recommend eliminating as many potential tech issues as possible – especially if you are from a small school (like I was most recently) where 90% of the subs are parents of elementary school students. Nothing against them, (I am soon to be one myself – ha!) but none of them were trained to teach secondary science, and most were not the most tech-savvy. Having the assigned student helper for each class will help, but isn’t foolproof so when you can, avoid tech!
Exception: If you are in a 1:1 school where students have a daily expectation to have technology with them, wifi, and headphones, go for it!
→ Action tip: Come up with at least ONE evergreen sub-plan that requires no tech, and if you do plan to require tech most absences, then include tech. guidelines in your General Substitute Guide (referenced in Tip #1)
Sub Plans for Secondary Science Tip #5: Set yourself up for success with how you plan regularly.
Last but not least, you can really set yourself up for success with last-minute absences and making sub plans based on how you lesson plan on a regular basis. Here are my best tips for this:
- Batch lesson plan. This allows you to always be far enough ahead in your plans that if something comes up, you easily know what is next and what students could do in your absence.
- Consistently incorporate student-centered learning activities. If students are used to learning ON THEIR OWN without you, it becomes 0% a big deal for them to continue learning in your absence. Here are a few of my favorite student-centered activities you could start using today.
- Use packets. I cannot tell you enough how much I love packets as an organizational tool. Packets allow me to give my students all of their handouts for the entire unit at once. This makes it SO EASY if I am absent for them to continue on without me in their learning because they already have all of the practice, activities, and notes’ outlines there in front of them! Speaking of notes…
- Record your lecture videos. Recording all my lecture videos on my YouTube channel was originally to help my absent students, but it became a GAME changer for me when I was the one who started being absent a lot. Students could watch the lecture and record notes when I was gone (the easiest sub plans secondary science ever left!!) and when I returned, we could quickly go over them and jump into our next lab or activity.
→ Action tip: Choose ONE thing you can start doing now to set yourself up for success in the future when you may need to write sub plans. Best of all, the four suggestions above aren’t just useful for when you are absent – they are helpful YEAR after YEAR!
What are some of your best tips for preparing to be out and writing sub plans for secondary science? I would love to hear! Reach out to me here and let me know!