Professional Practice

A Better Way to Write Sub Plans (Ep. 087)

We all know that it’s easier to go to school sick than it is to write sub plans. And who knows what kind of a sub will even be in your room? Today, Cassie tackles the topic of substitutes and how to prepare for them. Listen as she discusses the two types of sub plans, why you need your specials team on speed dial, and everything you need to put inside your sub tub.  Full episode transcript below.

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Cassie: Okay. I’ve been working on my stand-up art teachering routine, so I thought I’d try out a couple of jokes on you. Are you ready? Here it goes.

What’s the best thing about writing sub-plans? Magically feeling so much better being no longer sick because you realize that it would be way more work and such a drag to actually sit down, work on those lesson plans than it would be to drag yourself to school sick and all.

Okay, my jokes need a little bit of work, I’m not gonna lie. But seriously, how many of you all have been there, where you’re like, “Ugh, I don’t feel great today, but I would much rather just go to school, suffer through then sit down and try to organize my life and get these sub-plans laid out for a smooth sailing day for a sub.”

Well, I think I might be able to help you out a little bit with this podcast today. I have a lot of things I want to share, all about making your life a little bit easier on those days when you just can’t make it to school because you’re feeling a little bit sick or let’s be honest, maybe you need a mental health day. Don’t we all? I feel like I could take a mental health month, but regardless I’m not gonna, ’cause I’m Cassie Stephens and this is Everyday Art Room.

Okay, so let’s talk sub-plans. I’m ready to dive right into this business because it’s like the bane of all teachers’ existence. Like this crosses the board. It’s not just for us art teachers. I cannot even imagine being a classroom teacher and trying to make sure to lay out every minute by minute because no matter what age group you teach, those kids they can smell out fear and the moment a sub starts to hesitate with a, “Where are we gonna go, what are we supposed to do” that’s when the kids, they pounce. They feast on that kind of thing. Well usually this is the time that we all eat a big handful of Skittles and they’ll go right outside for 45 minutes to three hours for recess. Y’all, they’ll try it and you don’t want them pulling that kind of noise in your art room.

So really there’s two kinds of sub-plans. There’s the unplanned absence sub-plans and then there’s the planned absence sub-plans. Let’s first talk about unplanned absence because that’s the kind of sub-plan that you always need to have ready to roll. Maybe you got sick or somebody in your family is not doing well. You had a fender bender on your way to work, heaven forbid. Something has come up and you can’t even make it into school to write a sub-plan. But lucky you, you smart thing, you have your unplanned absence sub tub. Oh wait, you don’t have one of those? It’s okay. It’s okay. I’m gonna walk you through it just in case you don’t have one. I have one, it’s currently buried somewhere in my office. Thankfully though I’ve got my specials team on speed dial … is that such a thing anymore? Is speed dial a thing? Regardless, they know that I know I can always reach them, tell them the location of my sub tub. That if I can’t make it into school my sub at least has something for my students to do.

So let me just tell you what’s in my sub tub that you might want to put in yours. I have, and I started this this year, it’s really helped me out as well as my subs. At the beginning of the school year I got five file folders, one for every day of the week. My schedule, just like yours, probably changes every single day. Now you might be on a rotation schedule, in which case if you’re on a rotation schedule that has more than five days, you’ll need a folder for everyday of your rotation. Me, my schedule is this, I have the same classes every Monday. I have the same classes every Tuesday. So every Monday, I know exactly who I’m going to see, it doesn’t change. That’s how my schedule works.

So as far as my file folders go, on my Monday file folder, I have printed out my schedule for the day and it starts right when the bell rings and it goes all the way to the bus duty that I do at the end of the day which my sub is required to do also. I have that schedule, minute by minute, hour by hour, stapled to the front of my folder.

On the inside of my folder I have class lists of the classes that I see that day. Written next to every child’s name I have their seating assignment. So, for let’s say I’m going to be absent on a Wednesday, my sub simply has to pull out the Wednesday folder. On the front of the folder she has my schedule for the day. Inside she’s got class lists as well as seating charts. This has worked out so stinkin’ well for both me and my subs. Me, for the first like two months of the year, I can’t get a hold of my schedule, meaning I can’t wrap my brain around it just yet, I haven’t quite memorized it, it really helps me at the beginning of the year to pull out my Thursday folder, just throw it on my desk so I can see what classes I’m seeing that day.

So, I really recommend that you have a set of those folders with either your weekly rotation, however your rotation works, have that in your sub tub.

Another thing that I would recommend making sure that you have on hand for your sub is your emergency binder. I cannot imagine … I’ve never subbed before. I think that that has got to be the toughest job ever. Can you imagine … and those of you who’ve subbed before you’re probably nodding your head, “Yes, I can imagine.” Going into a classroom where 10 minutes before the school day starts you’re just figuring out what’s gonna happen that day? I don’t know how they do it. That’s like running improv comedy and obviously I’m just a really bad stand-up comic, so I don’t understand how to do any of this. So all of this sounds very, very freaky to me. But, I cannot even imagine if a fire alarm went off or all of a sudden we’re supposed to do a lock-down or there’s a tornado drill. Having an emergency binder, and mine has a really bright pink sticky note on it that says, “Please read.” That way they can just flip through that binder and see, “Okay, during a fire drill this is our exit that we take. During a tornado drill, this is where we’re going to be going.” That way there is no confusion.

You also will probably want to have a little one sheet reminder of just how you run certain procedures. If a student asks to go to the restroom, which restroom do you have them use, do you actually have time in your schedule to let them go to the restroom? If students need water. If a student needs to go to the nurse, make sure you have the little forms if you have to fill one of those out or maybe the lanyard the kids have to wear. If you have an office referral, heaven forbid. Just those little day to day things that you don’t even think about ’cause you use them all the time, your sub isn’t going to have a clue. Making sure to compile all those things into a tub is really gonna help your sub especially for those unplanned absences.

I also like to keep a stockpile of books for my sub to read in case she has kids who finish early or a particular kindergarten class that she just wants to sit, or he, and read books too. That’s fine by me. The early finishers can do that. I also in my sub tub I have drawing sticks, which are Popsicle sticks that I’ve written drawing ideas on. For example, on one side of the stick it will say, “Draw a castle at night.” On the other side of the stick it will say, “Draw yourself as an alien.” Just something fun and easy that you can keep in that tub that you don’t really need to have on hand during your day-to-day art teachering, but that a sub could easily use to give the kids kind of time to do a free draw project.

I also like to tell my sub where my how-to-draw books are. My students love using those. And I also have, on my laptop, in my art room, certain videos that I’ve got bookmarked that way my sub, if she wants to use those videos, can do that also. Art Hub for Kids is always bookmarked for a sub to find. Mati and Dada is a really great resource of videos to have kids watch. You might wanna preview them first because I have seen some nudity that I was a little caught off guard when it popped up on my TV screen, and I’d hate for that to happen to a poor sub.

And then of course, just your very basic sub-plan. Maybe a project that you’ve done before with your students that requires very little art supplies. Perhaps just something you already have on the tables, markers, pencils. I don’t usually venture into the scissor and glue territory unless I’m going to be out for a long time. But having a very simple sub-plan on top of those other things like books and videos that your sub could use. I’m gonna go a little bit further in my favorite sub-plans, but this is just the bare bones basics for those unplanned absences. Something that’s there when you need it. And trust me, when you have something pop up and you can’t make it, you’re gonna be so thankful that you took the time to create a sub tub.

Now, I rarely take a day off from school that’s unplanned. I mean it’s just super rare. If it happens once every couple of years, I mean that’s still pretty unusual. I’ve got a great immune system so I don’t usually just get sick enough to take a sick day. Usually I have planned absences. For example, going to NAEA, attending a Fall conference, those sorts of things. Taking a personal day. I usually know ahead of time. So for those planned absences, I don’t use my sub tub. Mostly because if I’m going to be away at a conference, I’m usually gone for a couple of days. Which means if my kids come back-to-back to art, the natives will start getting a little bit restless if they’re going to be asked to do free draw for two days in a row.

So for my planned absences I go a little bit more in depth and I really do invest a lot of time to make sure that my kids have a great art experience and my sub’s life is easy.

Here’s what I do. I remember reading many, many years ago, Ron Clark. If you’re not familiar with Ron Clark then you need to get yourself familiar. I read his book, I think it was … oh geeze, his very first book he wrote. I can’t … the title is eluding me. He’s written several books. But in this one particular book, his first one, he was talking about how he prepares for when he was absent. Now this book granted was written in the early 2000s and he said that he videotaped himself, we’re talking like VHS taped himself, made a video for his sub to play. And I remember thinking at the time, holy cow, I do not want to see myself on video, so that’s not a thing and how much work is that? Oh Mylanta, I’m just gonna write sub-plans.

A couple of years ago, I had to be out for jury duty. I had no idea how long I was gonna be out and I decided, you know what, I want to make sure my kids are still creating, still making quality art, still excited about what they’re working on, so I’m going to create a video. I created a series of videos for everyday that I knew I was gonna be absent and my sub used them and she absolutely loved them. The behavior was great because I gave a little chat at the start reminding them of my expectations of their behavior, of how the sub was well aware of our behavior check point management routine, our happy/sad board essentially. And I also shared all the directions and my sub really loved it. She is not an art person. I try to always use the same subs, being consistent is a really great thing, and she really enjoyed it. Especially because the kids were all happy and successful in what they were creating. And like I said, I’ll share those lessons with you.

So, I know what you’re thinking, “Stephens, do I really have to record everything? Geeze that sounds like a lot.” It’s not as tough as you think. Let’s talk about the pros. Subs love them, the kids respond well, and you can reuse your videos. Let’s say you come back and you have a couple of classes that haven’t done the project yet, show them that video. It gives you a minute to catch your breath when you’re just come back into your art teachering land. The cons of course is creating a video does take some time. It’s not really that time consuming though. You’ve got a phone. You can download … if you have an iPhone you can use iMovie. If you don’t have an iPhone you can download a free video editing app, create it on your phone or your iPad, upload it to YouTube, keep it private. I would recommend keeping it private, just if it gets flagged or whatever, for some weird reason, and then bookmark it on your laptop. It’s that easy. You don’t have to have fancy lights. You don’t have to have fancy equipment. And trust me, your sub is going to love it and your kids will respond to it.

If you don’t have time or that just sounds like a daunting task, trust me, I get it. Something that I like to do that’s worked well in the past for me is to create what I call storyboard sub-plans. So a storyboard sub-plan, you could do this on a whiteboard, you could do this on a large … I have large pieces of foam core that I was using this for. But basically it’s just you breaking down the steps of a project.

For example, my students were creating construction paper monsters. They had to cut out certain shapes. They had to glue the shapes down. They then had to use oil pastels to create patterns. They then used oil pastels to add the facial features. I broke each step down, one by one, with a really quick description like I just told you right now underneath each. It was a great visual. My sub just had to remind the kids by pointing it out on the board.

Now, one thing that I have failed to mention that’s pretty important, is this. When I create my sub-plans, I make sure that my sub-plans are appropriate for kindergarten all the way up to fourth. That’s the age range that I teach. The reason I do that is because my classes are 30 minutes and I want to make my sub’s life as easy and seamless and have a flow to it, make it a cakewalk for them as possible. Because if they have low stress, they’re going to enjoy themselves. When people are having a good time, then that’s contagious and it’s going to rub off on the kids. If the sub is constantly running about, changing out supplies, frantic, the kids are gonna catch onto that energy and it’s gonna rub off on them. Make it easy for the sub. And make it easy so when you return then you just have one project to catch your kids up on, not five different lessons that you tried to get the sub to do. Bless that sub’s heart, you know, go easy on them.

So here’s a couple of hacks for you. These are my top six sub hacks. Let’s go. Label everything. Label everything that you want the kids to be able to access. Label everything that you don’t want them to access. Especially if it’s stuff that’s out in the room. If you don’t want them using rulers that you always keep in a certain place or something that you know they’re going to gravitate toward, especially when they see a stranger in the room, label it. “Not for student use,” or “Yes for student use.” If you don’t want them using your really good Sharpies, put a big sticky note on it. Because the kids, they’re used to using things when you are in the room. So a lot of times, innocently, they might not realize, “Oh, we’re not supposed to use these whatevers right now because Miss Stephens isn’t here.” Label everything. Make it crystal clear.

That being said, don’t leave out the good stuff. That’s my other hack. I remember my very first year teaching, I had went out and gotten all of these amazing skinny Crayola markers. I was so excited about them. Huge packs of like 24 to I don’t know, massive packs markers, and I was … They were brand new, y’all. I was devastated the next day when I came to school and the tables were trashed. The sub had not asked the kids to pick anything up. Half of the markers were uncapped, strewn about and dried out. And I was heartbroken because it was the beginning of the year and now we had no markers for the rest of the year. I never leave out the good stuff. I just leave out stuff that I know, well if it gets damaged or ruined it’s fine because I’ve got the good stuff put away. So if my kids are using oil pastels, I don’t break out the brand new sets of oil pastels, they’re using the older sets.

Do not continue lesson plans. I’m always like kinda shocked when I see other art teachers who have their sub continue on with projects that they were working on with the kids. The kids are not going to respond as well to a sub as they are to you. Because they know a sub isn’t going to hold them to a standard of creating, because a sub just doesn’t know. So if you have been working for weeks on a painting project or some really detailed drawing and then you decide to leave it out for the sub, well of course the kids are gonna plow right through it and not do their best and it’s gonna be disappointing if you’ve spent weeks working on this project with the students only to see them pretty much demolish it in the name of getting it done quickly. So I never continue with sub-plans. If I make a video, I’m like, “I know we’re all in the middle of something, we’re gonna press the pause button on it because I’m out of the classroom right now and you’re gonna work on this really amazing project instead.”

I really love to use a cart to prep because if I know I’m going to be out, I can work on the cart, work on adding things to the cart for a couple of days before being away, and on my cart I have everything labeled. I can wheel the cart right up to the front entrance. When a sub walks in, boom, they see the cart, they see the lesson plans, they see the sub tub, they see all the folders, they see everything they need on the cart. Which also might let them know, hey anything that’s not on this cart, you don’t need to be using it. Make sure if it’s on the cart, yeah use it.

I also make sure to let my school buddies know. My specials team and I, we tight, we got each other’s back. And if you don’t have a team, that your specials team that’s like that, then let your school buddies know that you’re going to be out. The reason this is important is because my buddies always pop in and check on the sub. Do you have everything you need? Did you find the sub-plans? Do you understand how to play the video? They just pop in, give a friendly hello and make sure that the sub is on track. It truly, truly helps. And also let your buddies know where your emergency sub tub is. Just in case it happens when you have an unplanned absence, they can get it out and ready for you.

I thought I would have time to share with you my favorite sub-plans. I’m so sorry, I’m just about out of time, but the good news is this. If you hop over to my blog, you will find … scroll down a little bit because I posted it a couple of weeks ago, a massive list of my favorite sub-plans. Many of them are with video and I’m sharing them with you in case you need them in your art teachering world, feel free to use them.

Tim: Hello, this is Tim Bogatz from Art Ed Radio. Thank you as always for listening to Every Day Art Room. Cassie is putting together a wonderful episode here on everything you need to know about substitutes and having them in your classroom. But we are going to follow it up with ever more information from the AOEU archives. We have so many good articles and suggestions and ideas if you want to dive even deeper. You can check out the show notes in your podcast app or go to the AOEU website and see it all there at

So many great ideas about substitutes and how you can be successful with them in your classroom. There might just be enough there to encourage you to take a sick day before the year is out.

Now let me hand it back over to Cassie so she can open up the mailbag.

Cassie: Let’s take a quick dip into the mailbag. I love this question because it’s something me and the school guidance counselor were just talking about the other day when I was taking down some artwork in the hallway. The question is, “How do you get your kids to take pride in their work instead of trying to rush through to be done with it?”

So that same question was kind of posed to me by the guidance counselor while I was taking down artwork in the hallway. So we stopped and chatted about it quite a bit. When I have students who say they are finished, I like to take a quick peek at what they are referring to as a finished work of art. So we’ll look at it and we’ll talk about it. If I feel that yes indeed their artwork is finished, they put all of their energy and creative juices into it, they really truly did their best, then congratulations you are finished. You may put on the drying rack.

However, if I … especially my younger kids because we do have early finisher centers, and I get this question also, “how do you keep them from rushing through their work just to skip on over to early finisher center?” If I see that my students have been rushing through their work, not doing their best, just … I don’t know, all of us have that handful of kids where they think it’s like a competition. Like I don’t get it. And we have this conversation a lot with my older students. I’ll tell them, “I am the meanest, most rottenest, although most beautiful, art teacher you will ever have. And I know what amazing artists you are. And if I see for just a second that you are not doing your best just to finish first, you know I’m going to have you go back, rework, redo, until it’s what I know you are capable of creating.” And y’all, I’m not messing. I will have them go back, redo, rework all day long. I don’t tolerate that, “Well I wanted it that way.” No. I know that you are an amazing artist and you can do better than this.

I don’t think there’s anything wrong with holding kids to a certain standard that you know that they are capable of achieving. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with asking them to push themselves a little bit more, work just a little bit harder. Just for the sake of maybe not hurting their feelings, quote, unquote. We are there to not only get them excited about creating and introduce them to new techniques, but there to help them be the best little artist, best little person they can be. Having perseverance, learning how to push yourself. Those are qualities that go beyond the art room. Those are qualities that they’re gonna carry with them for the rest of their life.

So making sure that you … You know your students, so you know what they are capable of, and you know when they are phoning it in. You know what phoning it in for one kid looks like may be reaching for the stars for another kid. So you’re not holding all your kids to the same standard, but you know them and you know how awesome they can be and how much they can achieve, so why not help them get to that place? That could be an entire podcast on its own. And that’s why I’m closing up this here mailbag. If you have a question for me, you should send it my way. You can find me at the art of … you can find me at Every Day Art Room at the

I’m gonna tell you a tiny little secret, that I’m only gonna share with you ’cause I really like you. So I do this thing where I pick the most firm, some may call strict, sub to be my sub. And the reason I always seek out a specific sub, one that I know is going to make sure that those kids cap all those markers and line up calmly and follow what they know to be my procedures, the reason I always do that is because when I come back I know my room is going to be in tip top shape. That’s one part of it. But here’s the other part.

Did y’all ever read Miss Nelson is Missing when you were a kid? If you didn’t, the premise goes like this, real short and quick. Miss Nelson is this really sweet and kind teacher who’s just a little too sweet and kind. The kids are tearing her apart. They eat her lunch every single day. So she goes quote missing when in reality she just ducks out, comes back dressed as this mean, horrifying, strict witch and then the kids are scared and they cannot believe how much they miss Miss Nelson and they swear up and down they’re just going to be so amazing for when she comes back.

Now I’m not saying my sub that I pick is like the witch persona that Miss Nelson channeled, but she may be a tiny bit close and so therefore when I come back everybody sure is pretty happy to see me. Is that evil? Maybe. Or is it genius? Probably evil genius. You get to decide. Regardless, that’s my last little hack for you. Make sure, if you can, that you know who your sub is going to be, one who knows your routines and your expectations and it’ll prove to be really smooth sailing.

Have a great week guys. Talk to you soon.

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.