When the teacher is out: 3 ways to support short-term substitutes

In 2021-22, nearly half of schools had higher chronic teacher absenteeism.
Gintas Bradunas
Gintas Bradunashttps://www.gale.com/
A former classroom teacher, Gintas Bradunas is now a K-12 product manager at Gale, part of Cengage Group.

COVID has wreaked havoc on school attendance for students and teachers alike, and the problem is only getting worse. During the 2021-22 school year, nearly half of schools had higher chronic teacher absenteeism—defined as missing at least 10% of school days—than in the prior year.

Teacher absences caused by COVID have put a strain on schools. It also places more importance on the role of short-term substitute teachers in educating students.

Implications for students

As K-12 leaders scramble to line up enough substitute teachers to cover classes, many schools are looking to expand their pool of candidates. In the process, they frequently rely on less experienced substitutes to fill in for absent faculty.

These emergency subs need more support. That’s true of all substitute teachers, but especially those without a lot of classroom experience.When short-term substitute teachers aren’t supported well, students tend to be assigned “busy work.” Instead of exploring relevant topics with any depth or rigor, students end up completing worksheets, watching a movie, or otherwise spending time on activities that do little to close learning gaps or move the needle on achievement.

Three key strategies

To ensure that high-quality instruction continues even when full-time teachers are absent, here are three ways that schools can support their short-term substitute teachers more effectively.

1. Plan ahead

Schools should have a ready-made collection of high-quality, age-appropriate lesson plans that anyone can use if they’re asked to fill in for another teacher on short notice.

Unlike the typical “canned” lesson plans that are merely designed to keep kids busy until their regular teacher returns, these ready-to-go, standards-based lessons should allow for differentiation, go beyond lower-level thinking skills, and engage students in critical thinking and deeper learning.

2. Make it simple

The lessons that short-term substitute teachers are using should also be intuitive and easy to understand, with clear directions and step-by-step guidance so they can understand what to do at a glance.

However, simple doesn’t have to mean low-impact. A well-designed lesson that prompts students to think about an essential question, then pair off in small groups to discuss their ideas can be implemented with moderate effort—and can have a big impact on learning.

3. Encourage collaboration

When I was a classroom teacher, collaboration between faculty was challenging. Stretched thin by the demands of their own classrooms, teachers rarely shared lesson plans or ideas. Instead, each classroom largely operated in its own silo.

Thankfully, many schools are working to change this reality. Sharing and collaborating on instruction provides a host of opportunities for faculty to grow and improve their craft. This includes short-term substitutes who are tasked with filling in for teachers at the last minute. Having a single, searchable system where lesson plans are stored and where teachers can communicate and collaborate with each other makes this process even easier.

Help is available

With the stress of teaching through the pandemic and beyond, teachers are overwhelmed. They don’t have time to plan ahead and develop a cadre of high-quality lesson plans that are flexible enough to be used in a variety of situations.

But schools don’t have to go it alone. There are instructional resources available that facilitate collaboration and help teachers provide personalized instruction with curriculum-aligned materials across all content areas. These resources also include hundreds of high-quality, ready-made lesson plans that are inquiry-based to foster deeper learning.

Consider a lesson where high-school students read an article on civic engagement and are then guided to discuss the factors that contribute to someone becoming more civically involved. Students identify problems in their local or school community that they’d like to solve, and then brainstorm possible solutions. Throughout the process, students learn how they can become more civically engaged.

Contrast this rich experience with the lesson plans that many short-term substitutes administer, such as having students read a passage and answer questions at the end. Which is more likely to lead to better learning outcomes?

With staffing shortages and teacher absenteeism expected to continue for the foreseeable future, K-12 leaders need to be thinking about how to support their short-term substitute teachers more effectively.

By planning ahead, encouraging collaboration, and offering a collection of ready-made, easy-to-follow lesson plans that lead to real, substantive learning, schools can make sure high-quality instruction occurs—even when full-time teachers are absent.

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