Thursday, May 17, 2012

Sub-letting Your Instructional Day

Karns, K. (2008). "What's in my bag."
If there is one thing I know of that sets classroom teachers apart from the rest of the work-a-day world, it's this: when someone calls in sick, they can hang up the phone and go back to bed. (I know that there are exceptions, but let's for the moment take a look at the big picture.) When a teacher calls in sick, he or she is expected to construct a plan for the day so that someone else can take over. Many times, this calls for a moderate adaptation of what a teacher has actually planned for that day. In some cases, a teacher may need to find the substitue themselves. (It's probably no secret that teachers have a "go-to" substitute for when the need to be out of the classroom; that person isn't always be available, however.) The final step is for the teacher to get the day's plans to the sub. The advent of email and websites has made doing that remotely easy. Sometimes, however, a teacher needs to deliver the materials to the classroom prior to the school day.

Something that I've observed regarding integrating technology into lessons is that most subs don't understand the overall assignment, or don't know much about the technology that is being used. How does that affect the classroom if the missing regular classroom teacher?

Based on a recent experience, I would say poorly.

Please don't mistake this as a harangue on the substitute teacher. I have many to choose form that are perfect for my classroom: energetic, tech savvy, and possessing of a good dose of common sense. There are some who I have asked never to be be assigned to my classroom ever again. The reasons for those folks are less than exciting: they mostly didn't want to be in my classroom. Still, there are days when the best classroom plan is "silent sustained reading," simply because what I had planed to do would take more time to explain in a written plan than would actually take to implement by the substitute teacher.

The issue is this: the classroom teacher who integrates technology into their lessons/units/courses puts a lot of time and effort into the thought and planning process. If they do it right, they consider all of the benefits and pitfalls of implementing technology in their classroom. They are damn near experts on the software, hardware, and perhaps even the research behind its integration. They are prepared for all of the successes and failures that will come.

Kirkland, M. & Selman, M. (2009). "Bart Gets a Z."
The sub is there to satisfy the legal requirement that a licensed teacher be in charge of the classroom. There is no law or rule that stipulates they need to be expert in the subject they are stepping into. That's not to say that they aren't expert - some of the subs for my classes have had some amazing experience and credentials. But the substitute that helped write the AP World History exam last year will likely not have the knowledge of how my students use digital image editing for their projects, or have access to or experience with Edmodo.

The easy answer is "well, when I get back, I'll get everything back on track." The problem is - based on actual experience - is that the nagging back pain might be a kidney stone blocking the essential plumbing. (You'll miss three-to-five days because of this, but the painkillers are amazing.) This means your sub will be on call for many days in a row. That's a lot of time to have to "get everything back on track." You may not be able to schedule the substitute who understands exactly what you are doing in your classroom. What do you do then?

I wish I had an answer to this one. I'm fortunate that I work in a school and a department who support integrating technology, but they also have their own classrooms to tend to. Sometimes you have to restort to the "life gets in the way" philosophy. Perhaps your technically infused lesson will have to wait until your return. In my experience, a day or two delay is not a lesson killer; a week is a long time to let things go without specific instruction. I've had those days where specific instructions were left behind, along with the caution "please make sure they are working on their projects." I've always received the report the next day that "those kids really worked and were focused on the computers." Many times, the work wasn't project related. Kids are still kids when it comes to the substitute teacher.

How do you handle the heavy tech lessons when a substitute has to step in for you?

UDATE: And, oh, by the way, Happy 2nd Anniversary, BlamSpot! I can't wait to see how you handle the terrible twos!


  1. Great blog, I'm really curious how others will respond. This is something I've thought about a lot recently, as we prepare for a 1:1 next year. This year, I was able to not leave anything technologically rich for a sub..but next year, will be different! All I can do is leave detailed instructions of what the kids should be working on and what it looks like and hope students do what they are suppose to.

    I agree with your statement, no matter what kids will be kids when it comes to subs ("Oh yeah, this game? It's definitely my project for Ms. A"...arg). Most of our subs are not tech-savvy so back ups will be necessary if something doesn't work out the way I hoped. Oh now you have me all kinds of nervous! Thanks Bill!

  2. You make a good point, Bill. What do you do when you leave your Technology Rich Curriculum in the hands of a substitute teacher? The interesting point that Ms. A made is what will happen when subs are used in 1:1 schools?
    Does this make deepen or lessen the problem? If tech is a daily process, then the students may work on their own . . . or does that mean that subs need to know more to facilitate the learning?

    I don't know.

    Sounds like good dissertation material.


  3. I think there must be direct communication between sub & teacher. When I sub, the principal calls me & tells me the teacher's name (&, if I lucky, the subject). Frequently, there are several days' notice. If it's a large district, this is done via a "leading substitute placement and absence management service," and I never speak to anyone.

    Perhaps, subs need to initiate communication with the teacher, but is that appropriate? How can we honestly put in our comments how boring the day's work was, and how this boredom made our experience a nightmare? Would you ask for me to return if I told you this?

    I think a Web page could be added to a school's Web site that facilitates teacher/sub interaction - perhaps like our class wiki? Usually subs return to the same school on multiple occasions - their participation in this communication can indicate their interest level and expertise in certain technological areas.