Professional Practice

Setting Your Subs Up for Success (Ep. 082)

It’s theme week at the Art of Ed, and this month’s theme is all about substitute teachers. The Radio Guys want to join in the action because they have a lot to say about subs as well. Listen as they talk about suffering through sickness to avoid calling in a sub (5:00), taking a proactive approach with your students when you know you will be gone (11:15), and their top 3 tips for a successful substitute experience in your classroom (19:45). Full episode transcript below.


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Welcome to Art Ed Radio, the podcast for art teachers. This show is produced by The Art of Education, and I’m your host, Tim Bogatz. It’s theme week here at The Art of Ed, and articles this week are all about substitute teachers: the good, the bad, and the ugly. We’ve got articles that published yesterday about using Snapchat to make sub plans, and how to really get the lowdown about what happened when you’re gone. We’ve also got articles on turning sub days into an advocacy tool, and some other great advice that’s coming throughout the week.

And I’m pretty excited, because I wrote my first article in a while, and it’s publishing today. It’s all about some of the worst art subs that you’ve ever seen, and trust me, it is entertaining. Live snails, first graders playing with giant paper cutters, and copious amounts of armpit sweat all make an appearance in the article, so yeah, just make sure you check that out as well. And, of course, Art Ed Radio wants to get in on the action, so Andrew will be here in just a minute so we can talk about all things substitute-related. We’re going to chat about that guilt you feel when you have to be gone, what you can do to make sure your students keep functioning, and how to set your subs up for success. It’s going to be a good talk.

Before we get into the interview, though, I need to tell you that you can now get a 30-day free trial of Art Ed PRO. You’ve heard me talk about it on the podcast before, but PRO is AOE’s brand-new premium personalized learning system, which we have designed exclusively for art teachers. It has hundreds of high-quality hands-on tutorials, premium downloadable resources, and expert art room trainings. At this point in the year, when you are first starting things out, you need quality instructional handouts, you need new ideas for curriculum and assessment, and this is when you need them the most. We’ve assembled all of the best practice resources and videos in one spot, and you can sign up and get full access to the entire library in less than two minutes. Go to Art Ed PRO to get started on your 30-day free trial.

But now, it is time to bring on my partner in crime, Mr. Andrew McCormick. Let’s get this sub talk started. All right, Andrew, how are you?

Andrew: I’m doing great, man. I’m getting back into the swing of things with the new school year, so I’ve got a week or two under my belt, and things are moving right along.

Tim: All right, I’m glad to hear it. We need to talk about substitute teachers, and I’m just going to dive right in with, I don’t know, maybe the most important question. Do you feel guilty ever about being gone for a day, and do you think teachers should feel guilty if or when they need to be gone?

Andrew: I don’t want to answer the second part of that, because I don’t want to sit here and tell other teachers what they should think, because everyone’s pretty unique and different, but I do not like to be gone. I always tell my students pretty early on in the year, like, “Listen, I refuse to get sick. It is just not in my DNA. I will save all my sickness germs for, like, spring break.” That always happens to me. It’s like, “Hey, Thanksgiving break,” and then my body just goes into, like, “Okay, we’re going to make up for lost time and really get sick.” But I always tell my students, “If I am going to miss, I guarantee you it’s because I have a sick kid.” Like, I just … I won’t get sick, and I’m not going to take a day off. I feel guilty every single time I’m gone. I just do. I don’t like it, I don’t like the break in the routine that it causes for me and my students, so I try to avoid it at all costs.

Tim: Yeah, and you may be kind of afraid to take a stand here, but I’ll do it, and I’m going to tell teachers that they don’t need to feel guilty for being gone. Like, I always used to feel guilty, and then I don’t know what actually got me over it, but then I realized, like, you know what? I have a life too, and some days, I’m sick and I need to take care of myself, and there’s nothing wrong with calling in a sub. But, as you mentioned, it is a pain like no other, so … Just like you said, the interruption, the difficulty of that, just the logistics. My question to follow up with that is, have you ever gone to school when you know you shouldn’t have? You know, you’re so sick, but you go anyway, just because it’s easier than dealing with a sub?

Andrew: Oh, yeah, so I … Especially as a new teacher. I think now that I’ve had a little bit more experience, if I’m really sick, I do try to think of, like, I don’t want to get everyone else sick, and my students sick, and my fellow teachers sick. So if I really feel sick, I’m going to stay home, but if I’m just like, I’ve got a little bit of a head cold, kind of a funk, I’m going to try to soldier through.

But I remember two times when I was new to teaching, there was one time … Like, I used to think that the expression “a fever breaking” was kind of just this thing that old people said. I didn’t know that that was a real thing. And I was teaching third graders at the time, and I just felt awful, and I’m demonstrating, and I’m just sweating profusely. Like, literally, sweat is dripping off of my forehead and onto this painting or drawing I’m showing off. And I stood up, and I felt a little dizzy, and then it was like … 10 minutes later, it was like, “Oh, I feel better.” I was like, “I think my fever broke.” I probably had like a 102 fever or something, and I don’t know what the heck I was thinking being at school that day.

And I had another one of those, where … I think like a year later, I was working, actually, at the high school doing set design for The Wizard of Oz, and we had like one week left to do it, and I was just like, “If I don’t work on this with my class, and I promised the theater teacher we were going to get this done, I’m going to be screwing over all these theater kids.” And I felt so miserable. I told my kids, I was like, “Hey, I’m just going to be in the theater. Come down when class starts, because I’m going to be sitting there.” I had actually fallen asleep, I was so sick, and my kids, they woke me up like, “Hey,” and I was like, “Oh, I’m so sorry, I don’t feel very good.” And I think the next day … Like, we got it done, and the next day, I was like, “I’m staying home sick.” So yeah, I’ve done some kind of stupid stuff because I didn’t feel confident in my substitute game.

Tim: Yeah, for sure. And actually, that’s the perfect segue for me, so let’s talk about that. When you do have to be gone, or when you choose to be gone, what do you do to kind of set your substitutes up for success? Like, how do you plan ahead? What do you do logistically to make sure that it’s not chaos in your room when you’re gone?

Andrew: Sure. I’d actually say I’m gone every once in a while for conferences, or we would even have in our … At my previous job, we’d have all-day building leadership team meetings, so I was technically still in the district and working, but I was off-site. So if I knew about those, I would go in the night before. You know, hang out with my kids at night, but as they’d go to bed, I’m like, “Okay, I’m going to go back to school, and number one, I’m going to clean really well so stuff is super-organized.”

Tim: So you’re not embarrassed when the sub comes in?

Andrew: Well, to some degree, it’s like, yeah, I don’t want to be embarrassed, but I also want them to understand, like, “Oh, here is logically where stuff is,” like it’s all kind of clearly laid out, versus inheriting the system that only my students and I, or maybe even only I understood. So I really did try to tidy up, put things away, make sure the desk is pretty clean. And it’s not just an embarrassment thing, it’s so that they can find stuff more easily. I’d make sure I’d have a roster with students’ pictures, so it wasn’t just their names, but they could also see pictures. I’d always write really extensive notes. And that’s why I think people don’t like being gone. It’s like, dude, I’m working three hours sometimes to be gone for a day. That’s just a pain in the butt, you know? I’d rather just muster through and get through it. But yeah, I try to be as thorough as possible with my note-taking. I think that that helps quite a bit.

I actually had a tip from a teacher I work with. She said something, and I was like, “I don’t know why I never thought of that.” So you know when you’re a teacher, you get all these IEPs and 504s and health concerns, and all that stuff? She’s like, “I put all that stuff in my sub folder.” And I’ve never done that before, and I actually felt kind of stupid and kind of embarrassed that I’ve always had sub folders, you know, with fire evacuation plans and tornado drills, and who to call and what to call, but I never actually had, like, “Hey, this kid might have a seizure, and here’s what you should and shouldn’t do if that happens.” We have all this stuff as teachers, and it’s just making that clear.

Now, I did … My immediate reaction, after I’d kind of gotten over how shocked I was, was like, “Is that legal? Like, can I share IEP and 504 and health stuff with a substitute teacher?” Because, I mean, there’s privacy concerns and stuff like that. And she’s like, “No, of course, they’re hired by the district, and part of being hired by the district, even as a substitute, is the safety and wellbeing of your kids. Like, they need to know a lot of this stuff. I’ve started doing that this year. It’s kind of a slow process, but I don’t plan on being sick any time soon, so hopefully I can get my sub folder in order before I need a sub.

Tim: Yeah, and I think it’s worthwhile to do that kind of stuff, and especially if you can just put it into your sub notes, where it just stays and you don’t have to redo that every time. I think that’s worthwhile. And just one kind of simplified thing that I do is just with each class, I will make a note that says “Students who can help,” and so if the sub has a question, needs something run to the office, these are the trustworthy kids that you can ask about this stuff. And then I leave a little note on “Students you should watch,” you know, like this person talks way too much, this person’s always out of their seat, this person punched a kid last week, whatever the case may be. You know, just “Here’s who you may want to keep an eye on.” And I’ve had subs tell me that they really appreciate that, just, you know, on both ends of the spectrum, because that really helps them out.

So there’s my big takeaway for the episode, I think, but let me ask you, beyond just getting everything prepped for the sub, how much do you tell your kids? Like, if you know you have to be gone to one of those all-day leadership things, or you know that you have a sick kid that you’re going to have to take to the doctor tomorrow, how much do you prep your students? How much do you set them up to have success when you’re not there?

Andrew: Yeah, I really think it’s important to be as upfront and clear with them that that’s a possibility that you’re going to have a sub, whether you have a hunch or it’s a for-sure thing, and I just let them know, like, “Hey, I’m going to be gone tomorrow, and I’m going to have a sub.” And every single time, the students’ immediate question is “Who’s it going to be?” And my answer, every single time, is “I don’t care. I don’t know, and I don’t care. This person walking through the door tomorrow, they could be King Kong or Mary Poppins. I don’t care. You’re going to be respectful and nice to them, and I’m going to hear nothing but good things when I come back.”

And I think that has worked well, that students actually, after a couple years, stopped asking me, because they just kind of knew, like, “Hey, it doesn’t matter if it’s our favorite sub or someone we can’t stand. Mr. McCormick is going to want us to have a productive day, a respectful day.” And, you know, they want to know if this teacher is going to let them get away with murder, or be really strict, and it’s just like, “It does not matter to me. You’re going to be productive.”

I actually want to backpedal a little bit. Something I started doing a couple years ago and I really liked, and I’m hoping to get there soon again, is if I knew I was going to be gone, I would actually shoot a screencast video and then upload that to our school’s LMS, learning management system, which was Schoology at the time. And it was just like a 10-minute video of “Hey guys, sorry I’m gone today, you know, I told you yesterday. Here’s what I really want you to work on, and remember this, don’t do this, so when I come back tomorrow, I want to see this.” And it was great. I mean, it took some time to record this, but then, my sub notes literally looked like “Have them watch the movie on their Schoology,” and it was just like … Done.

And now, at my new school, they’re doing this thing, and I forget the fancy word for it, but it’s like autonomous substitutes, or something like that, where if you know that your students — and again, this is high school, and it’s only 10th through 12th graders — can work on something content-specific that you have for them, and they don’t need a sub, they can actually go to a study hall that’s mildly supervised, so like a study hall in a commons area that has 40 or 50 students and one supervisor, and just work on stuff, and then the district doesn’t actually even have to pay for a sub, because they can just go to this commons area and kind of work what they want to work on. I was like, “That’s a brilliant idea.” I have not yet had to do that, but I’m kind of curious to see how that’ll work down the road.

Tim: Ooh, I’m not sure that I’m sold on that idea. I feel like that kind of devalues what we’re doing. I don’t know, I’m going to have to think about this one.

Andrew: But … Okay, but listen. So if you knew that … So I’m going to take my own case, for example. If I’m in a … I have a graphic design class, and I know … Because sometimes, my notes will look as simple as this: “Hey, it’s a work day, we’re halfway through a project, all the students know where their materials are, all the students know what they’re supposed to do.” So I don’t elaborate that much on a process or an idea that the substitute needs to model or remind them of. Like, I’m going to trust that … At the time, my eighth and ninth grade students had autonomy to kind of just keep plugging away and keep working.

There’s been times where I’m like, “Man, that was a really easy job for that sub, because all they had to do was just take attendance and make sure no one stabbed anyone,” because what the students were supposed to be doing, they had it under control. So I think if there was a class — a drawing class, a painting class, a graphic design class — and they just knew what they had to work on, and they could do it in a commons area, why would you pay for a sub to come in and just read a book in front of them because they didn’t have anything to do? You could have this big study hall supervisor watch 50, 60 kids, and as long as they’re all being behaved and on task, it’s all good, you know?

Tim: Okay, I’m still not sold, but I don’t want to get derailed, so we’re going to turn this back to my pre-written interview questions. But no, I want to talk about your … Kind of the best subs that you have. So, I guess, question like, if you’ve ever had a dream substitute, like somebody who you just want to have back in your room all the time. What do they do? What do they do to be successful? And then part two of that is, do you have any little hacks, or any little workarounds to make sure that person gets back to your room repeatedly?

Andrew: Okay, so that’s a good one. I can answer that one without getting too far off course here. We always use an online registration format called Aesop, and you just go in and say why you’re gone, and you can actually have your top five people, and you can actually move your top person to be the number one person, so if you get sick or are gone, they … I don’t know how it works, if the system shoots them an email or a text message or a phone call first, but it does seem like you can kind of set up your preferences, so that person kind of has a first crack at it sort of thing. That’s been really good.

And one of the ways I can answer this question is to also flip it in a second on, like, the worst substitutes, because you can also tell your principal, like, “Hey, that person should never substitute for me ever, ever again. In fact, you might want to actually think about if they should work in this entire building, because that was really horrible, and that was not good at all.” But I can actually … When it comes to favorite subs, I can actually give a shout-out to Craig [DeBerg 00:17:39], Mr. DeBerg. He was the best. My kids loved him. You know, I told you kids would always ask, “Who’s our sub going to be?” If I knew it was Mr. DeBerg, I would always say, “It’s Mr. DeBerg,” because they were so excited.

Now, here’s the funny thing. Mr. DeBerg did not have an art background at all. He was an older retired school counselor, actually. And here’s the funny thing. Some of the worst substitutes I’ve ever had were people who wanted to be art teachers and had an art education degree. And I don’t know if that’s like, if I’m an anomaly, but I think that there’s some teachers out there in that sub pool who are disgruntled angry people who have not gotten a job yet, and when they get into the classroom that they wanted, they’re like, “Oh, this person doesn’t know anything. I’m going to throw their lesson plans out the window, and they’re going to do a whole new lesson plan.”

I had a sub, she threw away my lesson plans, I had it really well laid out, did this whole other weird thing, and then the students were all telling me, “Hey, she was talking smack about you all class period long, saying you didn’t know what you were doing, that your lesson plans were stupid.” And it was just like, “Well, that person doesn’t need to work in this building ever again,” because that’s just not even professional, you know?

Tim Bogatz: I feel like that happens far too often, and I don’t want to be too cynical or too negative, but a lot of times, I’m like, “You know, there’s a reason this person may not have a job,” so yeah.

Andrew: Hey, I can be as negative and cynical for the both of us, and I feel the same thing every time I have a sub that just completely blows it up, and just kind of screws it up. It’s like, “Man, I worked really hard to make sure that there would be a smooth continuation of what we’re doing, and you just blew that out of the water. That was nuts.”

Tim: Yeah, it’s incredibly frustrating. All right, let’s go ahead and wrap this up, though. Why don’t you give us your three best ideas or three best practices on making subs successful in your classroom?

Andrew: Well, I like … I kind of said a couple of them. I like the roster with photos on it, I think that’s really helpful. I like the IEPs in the folder. And then my go-to, you know, I know sometimes they’ll … You kind of mentioned it, you know, list your most helpful kids, list maybe the kids to look out for. There’s actually a part of that that I’ve tried not to do, because it kind of goes against my DNA as a teacher. I understand how, in the short term, it’s efficient, right? But I never wanted to be that teacher who started off the school year going to other teachers and say, like, “Hey, give me all the dirt on all the horrible kids you had last year,” because then I feel like that starts to paint your own relationship with that student.

And I don’t want to tell a sub, “Hey, look out for this kid, he’s a real piece of work,” and now they’re on edge. Because I’ve had kids that were tough for me, and gave me all sorts of opportunities to be a better teacher — that’s a positive way to say it — and I’m worried about them, and then I’ll ask the class, like, “Hey, how was Tyler yesterday?” “Oh, he was good.” You know? And they’re kind of shocked, and it’s like, “Well, I’m glad, then, that I didn’t tell that sub to look out for this kid.”

So I don’t do that, but here’s what I do do in my lesson plans, or in my sub plans. I always tell them a teacher to go talk to, and I’ve been fortunate that I work right next to a teacher, like, “If you have any questions, Mrs. Black is right next door, Mrs. Cardamone is right next door.” And it doesn’t even have to be an art teacher; it can be a science teacher right across the hallway who can help out. So I think that helps set them up for success.

Tim: Yeah, I like those ideas quite a bit, and I think I’m the same way. But my idea is just, you know, if I am … I don’t want to talk badly about kids either, but I do want to give subs the most information they can, give them an honest assessment of what they’re going to be dealing with. So yeah, I think if … My top three would be, number one, make sure you prep your kids, and just let them know, “Here’s what I expect from you, here’s what’s going to be happening with the sub.” Number two, make sure that they have something specific that they need to be working on, and the sub knows it, and so make sure your lesson plans are well laid out, even if it does … Even if you’re just having a studio day or whatnot, lay out, “This is what I told the kids they need to be doing, these are my expectations,” just so everybody’s on the same page.

And then, yeah, number three, just give them as much information as possible, with seating charts, pictures, IEPs, who to trust, who to go to for questions, all that kind of stuff, and I think that’s going to make things run as smoothly as possible. So, cool. All right, well, we’ve talked a long time. I think it’s time for us to wrap it up, but Andrew, thank you very much for joining me.

Andrew: Hey, my pleasure, man. We’ll talk to you later.

Tim: We’ll see you later. Bye.

Andrew: Bye-bye.

Tim: That was a long talk, especially with a couple detours in the conversation that I’m going to blame on Andrew, so I will wrap it up quickly here. I hope that the last 20 minutes has given you some good ideas and some good advice on what you can do to make your life a little less hectic when you have to be gone, because when things are running smoothly in your classroom, you can worry less. Your kids can be more successful, your subs can be more successful, and you don’t have to feel any guilt about being gone from your classroom.

Art Ed Radio is produced by The Art of Education, with audio engineering from Michael Crocker. Remember that you can sign up for our email list at, and make sure you check out theme week about subs on The Art of Ed. My article is publishing today, so make sure you read that. And also, most importantly, make sure you sign up for your 30-day free trial of PRO at Thanks for listening.

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.