Substitutes: What To Do When the Teacher Doesn't Leave a Lesson Plan


Feeling stressed about what to do with all of these unfamiliar students? Check out this blog post for ideas of what you can do in the classroom as a substitute teacher if the regular teacher hasn't left you a lesson plan.

Leaving a Substitute Teacher Hanging

Substitute teaching can be quite the challenge. You're assigned to a new classroom every day to teach a group of children with whom you have no rapport, arriving in the middle of a unit with which you're unfamiliar, and sometimes with as little as an hour's notice. You expect - or maybe just hope - that you'll find a lesson plan waiting. But unfortunately, that's not always the case.

Given these circumstances, substitute teachers often function like superheroes in that they find ways to make even the most difficult situations work. Here are our suggestions for what to do if you're having one of those superhero type of days.

Ask the Students

If your class's usual teacher wasn't able to provide you with guidance about what to teach during his or her absence, your next best resource is your students. Don't be shy about asking them what they've been working on lately. Younger, more immature students might try to take advantage of having a substitute and be dishonest, but you can usually count on somebody to have the integrity to tell you, especially with older groups. If you're able to find out where the class last left off, you can pick up from there by having a discussion, reviewing assignments, or reading from the textbook.

Have Go-To Resources on Hand

Like a magician, substitute teachers are always better off if they come to work with a bag of tricks they can dip into in when there's no lesson plan. Take some time to build a list (physical or online) of credible, go-to resources that you can bring with you to every class. For example, you can bookmark your favorite academic content libraries, ones you know you can trust. Sites like and Newsela are common favorites among substitute teachers, with a large number of resources you can turn to in a pinch.

Play an Academic Game

Games are another effective tool for substitute teachers who find themselves without a lesson plan. Like movies, they're entertaining. And they'll let your students harness their ''go crazy when the teacher is gone'' instincts instead of trying to suppress them. You can choose games that relate in some way to the subject of the class you're subbing for, or, you can simply find one that has more general educational value.

Here are a few of our favorites:

  • Riddles: Put riddles on the board and have your students take turns trying to answer them. The trickier, the better.
  • Logic puzzles: Logic puzzles, like the game in which you transform one word into another through a limited number of steps, are an easy way to keep your students using their brains while also having fun.
  • 20 Questions: Everybody knows how to play 20 questions: The instructions can be found in the title of the game. Plus, you can give the game an academic twist by choosing a topic your students are learning about rather than an object.

A substitute teacher plays a game with students

Show a Movie

A tried-and-true approach to a day without a lesson plan that's sure to be appreciated by students and substitute teachers alike? The classic: showing a relevant movie.

Movies are an effective resource for many reasons. They exist in all topics, appropriate for all audiences, assuring that you'll always be able to find one that'll work for the class you're subbing in. They guarantee some level of peace and quiet in the classroom. They'll keep your students entertained. And they take a long time to show, so your students will be occupied for the entire class period.

To be prepared for the most last-minute of situations, we recommend keeping a library of movies on your laptop appropriate for different subjects and ages, so that you're sure to have something available that'll work. Just load up on the Bill Nye and literary adaptations and you'll be good to go.

Substitute teachers can show movies in class

Open a Study Hall

Finally, and depending on the circumstances and grade, consider letting your students use the day's class as a study hall. This works best for older, more mature students, like high schoolers, who have a lot on their plates. Chances are, they'll appreciate the opportunity to get caught up on homework or study time more than they'll be tempted to get rowdy. Be careful, however; if you're less than confident in your ability to maintain order in the classroom, this might not be the best choice for you.

Students work in class quietly with a substitute teacher

Hold Realistic Objectives

It can be easy to get stressed and anxious walking into a classroom for the first time only to find that there's no lesson plan for the day. But not if you see yourself as a superhero swooping into a teacher-less classroom to save the day! These tips should help you feel confident taking on even the most unstructured school day. And remember: As a substitute, you're not expected to prepare your students to ace their final exams. Maintaining an orderly, peaceful classroom is an accomplishment in and of itself - and one we're confident you can achieve.

For a go-to, credible library of over 70,000 lessons in every subject and grade level, check out

By Daisy Rogozinsky
January 2019
teachers substitutes

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