Professional Practice

How to Simplify and De-Stress Your Sub Plans This School Year

three printable packets

We have all said at some point, “It’s more work to have a sub than to be here at school.” Over the past year, educators learned to prioritize their health and the health of their families. It’s essential to step away from the classroom in order to take care of ourselves and allow a guest teacher to work with our students.

Here we have some strategies for preparing for a sub from art teachers in the field. These tips will make the whole process efficient, meaningful, and stress-free. Even if we can’t get to completely stress-free, let’s strive toward a less stressful experience!

It pays to plan ahead.

Who wants to plan for future potential absences during the summertime? It’s best to prepare for the unexpected. Sub plans are something that many of us put off when the school year starts because we get wrapped up in other priorities. There will be a huge payoff later if you take some time to plan ahead now. If something unexpected occurs, you will be able to take off with peace of mind because you have a plan in place.

Simplify your plans.

Create plans that are approachable for all students. Try to avoid plans that are geared toward specific classes or grade levels. Broad plans cut back on the amount of time spent on prep. Prioritize activities that are steeped in artmaking to keep students focused.

grid of cartoon dogs
Image courtesy of Dan Juravich

My dad, who is a cartoonist, created a painting of dogs that inspired this sub lesson:

  1. Copy pages of empty squares. Make sure to copy enough for the entire school!
  2. Students pick one animal, such as a pig.
  3. Students draw the same animal, but in different variations, in each square. Add pigs with hats, mustaches, glasses, different patterns, or plaid shirts. The possibilities are endless!

For more ideas that will work with a variety of grade levels, check out the following resources:

Here are seven stress-free strategies when preparing for a substitute teacher.

1. Record demonstrations linked to a QR code.

Writing out each note and instruction is tedious and time-consuming. Instead, elementary art teacher Klair Hans in Minnetrista, MN, has been working with her newfound video skills to record instructions and demonstrations. This way, the rotation of classes is not thrown for a loop if one day is missed. The substitute does not need to have artistic knowledge for students to be successful.

treehouse artwork video still
Image courtesy of Klair Hans

Klair is also amassing a growing video playlist of fun artmaking prompts. A QR code is available for students to access the videos with their own devices. The links are also left for the substitute teacher to present to the whole class.

If you are looking for a fun and unexpected way to make videos that will engage students, take a look at Why Using Snapchat is the Best Way to Make Sub Plans.

2. Put together a color-coded binder.

Is the sub going to be an art teacher? This is not something you can bet on. Starting with purposeful plans and clear communication will make a non-art teacher feel more comfortable and confident stepping into your shoes for the day. The art classroom comes with its own challenges, strengths, and unique experiences. These factors make it overwhelming to someone who is unfamiliar with the art teaching space.

Jennifer Hamilton, an elementary art teacher in Fenton, MI, has a labeled, color-coded guest teacher binder. The binder includes classroom expectations, protocols, and schedules. If changes are required, it only takes a few minutes since the bulk of the work is already done.

For more tips on how to create a sub binder, sub folder, or sub tub, check out thePRO Pack on Planning for Substitutes. You can find this Pack in PRO Learning to learn more.

3. Host an Art Game Day.

Leslie Castorena of Lewis Center, OH, has her students take part in Art Game Day. The directions for the substitute teacher state, “Put a different art game at each table. The students know what to do.” The simplicity of these directions is a result of her preparing the students ahead of time. On the first days of class, Castorena teaches them how to use the games or building materials. This is also a fun way to start the year!

two students playing a game
Image courtesy of Leslie Castorena

If you want to implement this idea in your sub plans this year, check out this list for fun games to include and the PRO Pack, Games in the Art Room. Look for this Pack in PRO Learning to learn more.

4. Provide a collaborative activity.

Jennifer Hamilton leaves a collaborative project for her substitute and students to engage in together. Sometimes students work on large printed puzzle pieces of an image. Other times, students fill small blank pieces of paper using their creativity. The students work together to create a cohesive composition at the end of class. The final giant artwork represents all of the students and their contributions. Students see what is possible when they work together.

collaborative drawing of the mona lisa

5. Distribute packets of printables.

Amy Neiwirth, a K-12 art educator in Columbus, OH, developed packets that students received at the beginning of the year. The students store their packets in an art folder. They pull these packets out if they finish early or when there is a sub. The younger students have packets with drawing prompts and activities from illustrator Jarrett Lerner. The older students use handouts from AOEU PRO Packs.

three printable packets
Image courtesy of Amy Neiwirth

Jennifer Hamilton also has 30 worksheets organized in her Google Drive by grade level and project. They are ready to print and use with a guest teacher as needed. The worksheets provide students with artmaking opportunities that are quick and require little instruction. They are meaningful because they serve as extensions of previous student learning.

6. Organize centers.

Centers are another way for students to continue artmaking and collaboration with each other while you are out. Centers also keep students engaged, resulting in fewer behavioral issues because they are moving each time the centers rotate. There are many reasons why centers work well, and there are several easy activities you can include in them.

7. Cultivate student leaders.

High school art teacher Carrie Barnett of Cincinnati, OH, empowered her students to take the lead. If students attend art class multiple times a week, prep the students the day before a planned absence. Students can enter the room and get to work without missing a beat, even if a substitute teacher is there.

Just as you have your own instructional style, you need to find a substitute plan that works for both you and your students. Not every strategy works for every teacher. It may take some trial and error as you try some of these suggestions this upcoming school year. Whatever you decide to do, plan ahead for the unexpected and simplify your overall plan to decrease stress and maintain the art rigor for all.

For more sub-plan resources, check out the following:

What is one skill you learned this past year that can support your future sub plans?

How have you collaborated with other art teachers to gather sub-plan resources? 

What are some steps you can take now to plan ahead for sub plans?

Magazine articles and podcasts are opinions of professional education contributors and do not necessarily represent the position of the Art of Education University (AOEU) or its academic offerings. Contributors use terms in the way they are most often talked about in the scope of their educational experiences.


Jonathan Juravich

Jonathan Juravich, an elementary school art educator, is a former AOEU Writer. He is a social-emotional learning enthusiast and explores this essential concept with his students and fellow art educators.

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