A Teacher’s Absence Should not Equate to Wasted Instructional Time

A couple of months ago, I decided that it was time to go back into a formal role in a school setting. Since I have been out of the classroom for over two years, I figured I could make my way back in through substitute teaching. After deciding on my next career move, I began to do research on tips and strategies for being a successful substitute teacher. I looked forward to walking into a classroom and taking the lessons plans left behind to do amazing work with the students as I assumed that this would be a great way to get back into my “teacher mode.” While my idea sounds idealistic, my expectations came from my own experiences as a teacher and based off notes left behind by some of the substitute teachers who subbed my class at one point or another.

As a former teacher in two different charter schools, I was required to submit thorough lesson plans on a weekly basis to ensure that anyone could walk into my classroom and know exactly what the learning outcomes were. This created accountability, but it also helped tremendously when teachers were absent. In addition, so that we were prepared for the days when life happened and we had to call in absent, the school administration provided us substitute lesson plan templates requiring detailed information so that instructional time was not wasted. When I requested time off, I submitted my lesson plans the night before because if the school was not able to hire a substitute teacher, my colleagues would have to cover my class during their prep periods and I did not want to create more work for them. I cannot say that every substitute followed my lesson plans, but ninety percent of the time, I was able to come back to positive notes regarding my class. Yes, my students were well-behaved but this wasn’t because they were any different from the typical middle school students: they were engaged and when provided clear expectations, they would stay on task and behave properly. As the substitutes themselves shared thorough feedback left behind, having clear learning outcomes made it easy to keep students accountable for their own learning as well.

I share my experience because the whole concept of lesson plans has been a consistently controversial topic when I discuss substitute teaching with colleagues. The truth is, of all the colleagues I know who have experienced substitute teaching in the public school setting, not one has shared with me that the teacher they were subbing for left detailed lesson plans. I found this to be unbelievable, so I began asking colleagues who had been working as teachers in public schools for years about the expectations and requirements regarding being absent and submission of sub lesson plans. Not one said that they were “required” to submit any lesson plans. Most shared they were asked to leave something for students to work on, but there was no criteria or template provided to ensure sub lesson plans were actually left behind. I asked a close friend, who has been subbing for a couple of months now, about his experience with sub plans, and he confirmed the same thing I was hearing from teachers themselves: sub plans were not always left behind and since there was no actual requirement, some teachers left simple hand written notes with busy work and others left nothing at all. Additionally, since lesson plans and unit plans were not required to be submitted ahead of time, he did not have access to these in order to try and plan for his sub assignment himself. He was responsible for keeping the class busy without any expectation to try and engage the students in their content area. Unfortunately, other friends who have also served as substitute teachers confirmed his experience as similar to their own.

As absurd as this all sounds, this is the reality happening in many classrooms. As a former teacher, I am disappointed that lessons plans aren’t actually required in all school settings. Moreover, I am saddened to realize so many of our students waste their time when teachers are absent. Life happens, and I don’t expect perfect attendance from everyone. But wouldn’t it make sense to have a plan so that students continue their learning and not fall behind regardless of whether the classroom teacher is there or not?

I share this information about the lack of lesson plans for substitute teachers because I believe there is a power in knowledge. If more parents demanded accountability for their student’s learning, absent teachers wouldn’t jeopardize student progress. More needs to be done to provide inexperienced substitute teachers training and opportunities for growth as well. A logical start would be for schools to require that substitute teachers are provided lesson plans to follow so that they are not given the responsibility of simply “babysitting” students as they entertain themselves with busy work. Our students deserve more. I know that setting clear high expectations works — this is a given when working with students and adults. So why not expect more from everyone?

What do you think?

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Alma Renteria

Alma Renteria

Alma-Delia Renteria is a proud product of Lynwood schools. After graduating UC Riverside, with a B.A. in English and a year earlier than anticipated, she decided to commit her “gap year” to City Year. After City Year Los Angeles, Alma went on to purse a teaching career with Teach For America Los Angeles. Upon joining TFA, Alma began her education career as a middle school teacher. It was while teaching that she realized the need to do her part to help serve the community she grew up in and decided to run for office, getting elected to the Lynwood School Board at only 23 years old. Alma completed her Master’s degree in Urban Education at Loyola Marymount University and is currently pursuing a 2nd Masters in Education Leadership and her Admin Credential. She was recently appointed by the Speaker to the Instructional Quality Commission and also serves as a Digital Learning Instructional Coach at a dual immersion school in Pico Rivera.

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