Why I Stopped Punishing My Class For Their Behavior with Subs

We've all been there: you had to be gone for a day and now you walk into your classroom, cautiously approaching your desk where IT sits.  Maybe it won't be there because there was nothing to say, your mind imagines.  But it is.  Full of writing that fills the front, the back and goes sideways up the margin.

It's THE NOTE FROM THE SUB.  (Cue horror music and flashes of lightning.)

Inwardly you hope it's all good.  It just has a lot to say about how fantastic your class was: helpful, well-behaved, on-task and courteous; how the sub is begging to come back anytime; how they called your principal and just had to say how awesome your class was.

But this fantasy ends as you begin to read.

They were awful.  They played around.  One talked back.  Three were off task.  It goes on and on and on.  Your core body temperature rises.  The crease between your eyebrows deepens.  Another gray hair springs forth.  How could they do this?  They know better!  They're high school kids, for God's sake!

Your mind then jumps to what you'll do:  the lecture, the disappointment, referrals, parent phone calls, recess revoked...oh, wait, high school...detention for them all!

Let's call a brief time out here so I can propose something really radical:  do nothing.  I see that crazy look your eye:  "Nothing?  Are you kidding?  Let them get away with that behavior? Never!"

First, let's take a step back and think about this whole sub thing with some distance:

-  How long have you spent building relationships with the students you teach?  How long did you spend getting those tough kids to trust you?  What's that you say?  Weeks?  Months?  You're still working on it?  And you expect those same kids to transfer the relationship they've established with you on to someone they just met and who's only going to be around for a very short period of time? Does that even sound logical?

-  How long have you spent honing your skills as a teacher of your subject matter with your age students?  Your years in college, the years you've been teaching, the hours and hours you've spent observing and honing your craft with these particular students?  Yeah, a lot of time.  (And my guess is that every now and again, a lesson still bombs.)  And you want a sub with less experience and no knowledge of this particular group to walk in and be you for a day?  Really?

-  How much control do you have over what the sub chooses to do with your students?  How will the sub interpret the lesson you left?  How will the sub treat each of the kids in your room?  What experience with your subject matter does the sub have?  What experience with your age students does your sub have? (And that's assuming your sub job filled...)

I hate to tell you this, but you matter a lot.  You know how to get Jack to work despite the fact that he forgot to take his meds today.  You know what Rosie needs when she comes in having worked until midnight the night before.  You've got a plan for Anna freaking out because she has two tests and a paper due this week.  You handle these things with a look, a word, a phone call.  Your very presence in the room soothes Devon whose life is a mess.  Your smile makes Natalie feel like she can do it. You just being you is huge.

Subs can't do any of this. Not because they're bad. But because they're not you.

But let's say you go ahead anyway, full-steam mad ahead.  In come the kids... you glare and glower at them.  Their adrenaline cranks up. Nervous energy convulses through their bodies.  And you chew them out.  You scold and punish and yell.  And for a brief moment, you feel powerful.  And the kids? Well, they might have felt bad, but now they're mad at YOU!  You didn't even listen to their side.

Relationships crack, split, and break.  Months of hard work smashed.

Is there better way to handle having a sub?  Fortunately yes!  Here are four ideas:

1.  Plan a lesson the kids can do independently and that will keep them all working all class period. I create a packet full of comfort activities - those tried-and-true things that are awesome learning, thinking and brain-engaging, and, mostly importantly, that my kids CAN do.  And I write all the directions TO THEM, not to the sub.  What does this packet look like?

  • page 1:  Read your independent book for 25 minutes.  Then summarize what happened today (be detailed) and write about your biggest thinking today.  Use evidence to support your thinking.
  • page 2:  Read this article and mark your thinking in the margins.  (Choose wisely - current events article; controversial topic to hook them in). After you've read it, answer these questions:  What was the article about?  (be detailed)  Did you agree or disagree with the author?  (use evidence) 
  • page 3:  Writer's Notebook entry:  Give them a list of choices, like "you just won the lottery, write a detailed description of how you'll spend your money" and always include - write about anything you want.  Must be at least one page of writing.
Make sure the lesson is all familiar things.  This is not the time for anything new.  Make sure the kids know how to get a hold of you if they have a problem - can they email you?  Leave a message on your learning management system?  They need to feel your presence even when you're not there. They need to believe they still matter to you.  (Note: you don't have to get back to them right away; I rarely get actual emails, but knowing they can reach you is important.)

And don't pull that, sometimes it's last minute.  Yep, I know (I'm a single mom with 3 kids, remember?).  That whole, "Have an emergency lesson plan ready" thing -  yeah, do it.

2.  Leave a simple, specific behavior plan for your sub.  Be direct about what to do with kids who are truly causing problems.  Write, If a student is not working and is disrupting others, do the following steps to resolve the problem:

     1.  Calmly, directly tell the student to stop doing ____ (the disruptive behavior).  Warn only once.  Then:
     2.  Send the student to _____ (a buddy teacher?  his/her principal/assistant principal?)
     3.  Write down the student's name and what happened in your note.

Be simple, clear and specific.  No substitute needs to put up with one student who hijacks the whole room.  You are not there in person, so be clear on paper what specific action must be taken.  And remember, you can't control behavior when you're not there - not the kid's, not the sub's.  Some subs will follow this and some won't.  You can't control this.  If the kid's name wasn't written down and the kid was not sent out per your directions, that is the sub's problem, not yours.  Questioned by administration?  Show them the plans you left.

3. Only talk to the individuals mentioned in the note.  You know how on the first day of school there will be certain kids whose names are burned into your memory for all of eternity?  Don't you think the same will be true for the sub?  You left clear, direct instructions for the sub to write down the name of any student who was a problem.  No name = no problem.  There's no way your whole class was off-task, and there's no way they all need a consequence.  But the ones whose names are left on the note - deal with them individually.  First listen to them.  Then make a decision about what to do. Sometimes a consequence is warranted.  Sometimes it's not.  

4.  Get back to learning as quickly as possible!  You already missed a day, or more.  Now show your class what's most important - get right back to learning. "Thank you everyone who worked so hard with the sub yesterday.  We've got some ground to make up, so let's get back to it."  Collect the work you left and move on. You're back - keep the good relationships you've established by focusing on learning and moving forward, not by reliving the time you missed.  

*     *     *

I know it's tempting to focus on all the misdeeds of your class, to feel let down that they misbehaved. But don't.  Instead, focus on how much you matter to your kids. You are essential to their learning. Make students feel at ease when you're gone by strongly being there on paper with a clear assignment, and let them know how much you value them when you come back by praising the good and dealing privately with the problems.

You might be surprised the next time you have a sub that with the strong relationships you've maintained, less anxiety in the room, work students can handle, and clear directions for the sub, the note might not actually be so bad.


  1. Our principal recently let us know that this was his philosophy too. Basically, if a student and a substitute have an issue that causes the sub to get admin involved, then it's already been dealt with. Otherwise, take it for what it was and move on. I really appreciate his take on it--and yours!

  2. Thanks for reading, Wendy! I actually got this idea from my own children and their experiences. I think it has helped me with better relationships with my students, since, really, you don't know exactly what happened.


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