Dear Teacher, In Your Absence…..

Substitute teacher, the unsung hero of education.

My mother has been very sick as of late. It has necessitated me taking many days and periods off. In times of stress like this, I find temporary respite in reflecting on some of the more trivial things in life, like absentee lesson plans.

It is the policy of most schools in which I have worked for teachers to hand in three days’ worth of emergency lesson plans for the main office’s file. I suppose that, from an administrative standpoint, it helps in the smooth functioning of the school day.

While I do not like taking days off, it is something that I have lately found unavoidable. It is has given me cause to reflect upon my entire absentee lesson philosophy.

From my days as a student in New York City’s public schools, as well as a teacher who has both covered classes and had classes covered for me, I have a pretty good idea of the mood of a class when the teacher is absent. In high school, students walk into a room where the teacher is absent and reflexively think “free period”. They will sit next to their friends, usually well far away from their regularly assigned seats, and set up shop for a bull session, a card game or a freestyle cipher.

To be honest, I used to leave busy work behind when I was absent in the first years of my career. I would provide a history crossword puzzle or graphic organizer because I felt the students were more likely to do them. But then the teacher who covered my classes complained to me that the students were done too quickly and had enough free time to play around and cause trouble.

That is when I decided to go to the other extreme and provide dense readings with tons of questions. It would be the type of work that took way more than one class period to complete. I figured it would keep the students more than occupied and I can grade them on the amount of effort they put in rather whether or not they completed the entire assignment.

Then, one day, one of the school’s favorite substitutes complained to me that the students found the work “boring”. He was having trouble motivating them he said, so he scrapped my handout and did a lesson with them on the fly about the topic. His tone could be described as gloating, as if he had one-upped the regular classroom teacher, which was me. I did not have the heart to tell him how little I cared.

At the same time, I have also covered my fair share of classes. The first thing I do when I get a coverage is look over the attendance roster for names of students I might know. It usually gives me an idea of the type of class with which I will be dealing. Once I and the students are in the room, I look on the teacher’s desk for any assigned work for the period. I do not really care what type of work it is, since it is not my class and I assume the teacher knows best what their students can handle. At the start of the period, I introduce myself, ask for their indulgence while I take attendance and lay down some modest ground rules. Then I ask them the topic they are studying, hand out the assignment and let them know that I would be happy to help them complete it on their own. They will be collected by the end of the period.

There are those circumstances when the work is easy or there is no work at all. Far be it from me to let the class off light with a free period. I usually take the opportunity to test myself and pull a lesson out of thin air. If I do not know the topic, which is most likely the case with any subject that is not history, I rely on the most vocal students to guide the class through explanations. Sometimes I refer to the textbook and struggle through the topic out loud so the class can see the thought process in action, and maybe get a few laughs at my expense.

I do not recall there ever being a time when I had a nightmare coverage. For many years I was a dean, which meant I had the pleasure of getting the toughest classes to cover. For my entire life I have been a big, tall loudmouth, which means I still get the pleasure of the toughest classes to cover. Never once did I think of leaving a negative report for the regular teacher, even if the class was not the most angelic. I know that, for my part, I do not like the feeling of being told that my classes or lessons suck by another teacher. This goes double time if I am returning to work after dealing with an emotionally draining personal problem.

My view is that I am a professional and that any class will be safe while I am in charge. The regular classroom teacher should be free to recover from their illness or deal with their personal life without the fear that they will get reports about paper airplanes being thrown and “kick me” signs being taped to the substitute’s back.

I have never understood the tension that exists between the substitute and the regular classroom teacher. Substitutes always seem to find a reason to bemoan the work the classroom teacher leaves behind, or lack thereof. Classroom teachers always seem to find a reason to bemoan how the class was handled in their absence, or how their lesson plan was not followed.

Teachers have enough guilt and worry calling out as it is. No matter what work is left behind or not left behind, take your day, deal with what needs to be dealt with and come back to work when you feel you are ready to face the day. Your colleague will be there to pick you up because, at some point, we will all need to take a day for ourselves.

The days that I have had to call out lately have solidified my policy for leaving behind absentee work. My number one bottom line rule is that the work must be relevant to the unit we are currently studying. At the start of each unit, I hand out a sheet that has all of the homework assignments that go with it. If I am able to anticipate calling out ahead of time, I make copies of the exact lesson plan that I would have delivered if I had been there that day. Their assignment is to do the homework that goes with that lesson. Their motivation is that they will not have any homework for the class when they go home that evening. It is not perfect, but I find that it works most of the time.

On those days when I cannot make copies ahead of time, or when the class has just taken a test (meaning they did not yet receive the new homework sheet), I call in an essay prompt over the phone about the last lesson we studied. Sometimes, I will offer extra credit on the previous or next exam for those students who do a good job. It is a hard assignment to cheat on. As a matter of fact, students will try to work in groups and compare information. They will think in their minds that they are cheating. In my mind, they are doing exactly what I want them to do. They are working  collaboratively to write the strongest essay possible. Not only can it be an actual learning experience, but it co-opts the natural urge to socialize when the teacher is absent, marshaling that urge in the name of education. It feels good to return to work and get a stack of 30 essays packed with historical information (it feels good until I have to grade them, that is). Even the students who usually do not do homework or write essays hand in the assignment. And, in the end, if they really think they have gotten away with cheating, who does it hurt? Let them have their fiction.

So, if you ever cover my class, I apologize ahead of time if you consider the work I leave too boring or too easy or both. I am doing the best I can. We all have our days when we need to handle life outside of school. If, for whatever reason, you think you have a better way to handle my class for the day, go for it. You are the one that has to deal with them then and there, not me. I respect your judgment as a professional, even if you do not respect mine.

And when the day comes that you might need me to cover your class, I will do it dutifully and ensure that your darlings are engaged. You will not receive a bad report about your class from me. I have your back.

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5 responses to “Dear Teacher, In Your Absence…..

  1. Pingback: Dear Teacher, In Your Absence….. | assailedteacher - Angryteach

  2. This right here. If we could have more opportunities to share this in our world, we’d find so many of our insurmountable crises are actually pretty tackle-able with some group effort:

    “Teachers have enough guilt and worry calling out as it is. No matter what work is left behind or not left behind, take your day, deal with what needs to be dealt with and come back to work when you feel you are ready to face the day. Your colleague will be there to pick you up because, at some point, we will all need to take a day for ourselves.
    [...]
    And when the day comes that you might need me to cover your class, I will do it dutifully and ensure that your darlings are engaged. You will not receive a bad report about your class from me. I have your back.”

    • Whoops, I was so grateful for your support to your community that I forgot what I was initially going to reply with! I am so sorry to hear that your mother has been ill. May peace, and love, and healing surround her and all who are in her circle, that you may each have the strength and support to make it through this. <3

  3. My heart truly goes out to your mother.

  4. My thoughts and prayers for you during these hard times. You hit it right on the head with this topic. I will be a substitute teacher next year and will take some insight that you made. Losing my regular teaching job during the RIF process I fall to the course of struggling to be accepted by working teachers to be chosen to fill their classes during time of need. I would like to say that your gravatar picture looks like Michel Foucault.

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