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Guest Teacher Handbook

By Rosalea Fisher

After you've been teaching for even a little while, you'll probably find yourself in this situation: You'll be attending a reading workshop tomorrow. Today, you talk with your students about how they need to act and work so that they will have a successful day in your absence. You write up an extensive lesson plan. You even write the News and Announcements chart for Morning Meeting.

As you leave for the day, the room looks perfect. But something still doesn't sit quite right. Will your preparations ensure that the Guest Teacher will do all components of the Morning Meeting? Understand the purpose and process of time-out? Know how to use "thumbs-up"?

From the
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I used to ask myself these questions while planning a day away. If I had an illness or other unplanned absence that left me no time to prepare, my self-questioning grew even more anxious. Then, in the Responsive Classroom newsletter (Winter 1999), I read an article by Janice Portland, a second grade teacher at Penn Valley Elementary School in Levittown, Pennsylvania, who created a Guest Teacher Handbook with her students. The children recorded information important for a Guest Teacher to know. Each child wrote and illustrated a page, which Janice laminated and bound into a book.

This sounded like a useful proactive strategy -- an effective way to help students contribute to the success of those days when I would be absent. So now my students and I create just such a handbook each year. The details of creating handbooks for the Guest Teacher will vary from classroom to classroom. Here's how they look in mine.

Creating the handbook

We usually begin creating our Guest Teacher Handbook (or GTH) in late October or early November. By then the children know and have practiced many of the important procedures that we will include in the GTH.

Our writing workshop offered the perfect setting for making the GTH. This year, we brainstormed the topics that we thought should be included. The children listed fire drill, recess (of course!), Morning Meeting, homework, our schedule, our specials, the thumbs up signal for quiet and attention, Guest Teacher Helper (a student who greets the Guest Teacher and answers his or her questions about classroom and school procedures), snack (very important!), classroom rules, cafeteria rules, school rules, and more.

We sorted through topics to come up with a final list. The children eagerly chose the topics they wanted to write about. Letter writing is part of our third grade curriculum, so the students wrote their drafts in the form of a letter to the Guest Teacher. What a great way for them to learn proper letter format while creating an important and useful document for our class community!

In about a week, the children, with help from the editorial board (my co-teaching partner and me), had edited and re-edited each letter, and it was time for them to decorate their pages.

We mounted the completed pages on colorful construction paper, laminated them, and bound them into our official GTH. We decided the best place to keep our published handbook would be on the chalk ledge, where it would always be visible and accessible.

The handbook in action

The ultimate test of our GTH came very soon: An in-service workshop would take me and my co-teaching partner out of the room for half a day. At the Morning Meeting the day before our absence, we used the interactive section of the News and Announcements chart to ask, "What do you need to do to make tomorrow a day of learning for you and a day of teaching for our Guest Teacher?" We talked with the children about their responsibilities, emphasizing that we expected them to work hard and to act respectfully to each other and the Guest Teacher. We reminded the children of their work on the GTH and told them that we would make sure the Guest Teacher would see it. This re-referencing of the GTH helps boost children's investment in making the day go well.

We also made a big deal of giving the Guest Teacher Helper badge to the student who had selected that job from our monthly job roster. (As with all classroom jobs, the Guest Teacher Helper is rotated monthly so that many children throughout the year have this important role.) We stressed how crucial the helper would be to the success of the day: The Guest Teacher would find it much easier to ask questions of one student and to hear answers from one voice than from twenty-three!

We placed the handbook itself on top of the lesson plan on the desk the Guest Teacher would use. Then we left the classroom, hopeful that all, or mostly all, would go smoothly.

The day after

The next morning, we asked the children to write about their day with the Guest Teacher in the form of a letter to us. (One important rule for writing these reflections is that instead of naming classmates, we describe behaviors.) The children wrote that they finished their math work, the Guest Teacher looked at the GTH, and the Guest Teacher Helper answered several questions. They also noted that they were a bit too noisy throughout the day.

We brought the Guest Teacher experience to a close by talking about how the class could improve the experience the next time. This period of reflection is as important as the preparation before the Guest Teacher arrives. Indeed, the concept of the GTH goes hand in hand with our wish to be proactive with our students and to encourage the habit of reflection. Making and talking about the GTH prepares children for their teacher's absence. And the handbook does give important support to the Guest Teacher. But just as importantly, the GTH lets children practice thinking about and taking responsibility for their own behavior. These are important steps in developing the self-discipline so essential to successful learning.

A school-wide initiative

After experiencing success with the GTH in my own classroom, I decided to share it with the rest of the school. I surveyed students and teachers to find out how they felt about and what they hoped for from a Guest Teacher. Then, to encourage teachers to create handbooks with their classes, I developed two sets of templates, one for grades K through 2 and another for grades 3 through 5. Each page was a topic that could be included in the GTH, with blanks for students to fill in according to the specifics of their classroom's routines. Teachers could have their students use the template and simply fill in the blanks, create their own GTH pages from scratch, or combine the two methods, depending on their students' abilities.

One teacher from each grade then volunteered to do a pilot GTH. The result was six unique handbooks, one for each grade from K through 5.

After reviewing the pilot GTHs and hearing the teachers talk at a staff meeting about the impact of the handbooks on students, our principal, Kathy Pfister, recommended that we make the GTH a school-wide practice. I put the templates online so that everyone could access them. How and if they were used was up to each teacher.

Now a GTH is a common sight in classrooms at our school. Students clearly see themselves as the authors and often read their classroom's handbook during Self-Selected Reading time. One Guest Teacher even read the students' handbook to them as a read-aloud.

Following up

A few months after introducing the GTH idea to the school, I distributed a brief questionnaire asking how teachers were doing with their handbooks. Their responses revealed much enthusiasm. "I love this idea of a GTH," said one second grade teacher. "The kids are so engaged in writing it." A fifth grade team leader noted that the GTH "helped students understand what is expected of them."

Some teachers wondered how to make sure the Guest Teacher would have time to read the GTH. One idea is to add a note in the lesson plan suggesting the GTH as a read-aloud. Another is to encourage the Guest Teacher to read the handbook while the children are in a special. To emphasize the central role of the GTH, the Guest Teacher Helper could hand it to the Guest Teacher or remind him/her of its importance to the class. Many other options are possible, depending upon the routines in each classroom.

Guiding without being there

Days when we cannot be at school are a reality of every teacher's life. At such times, we rely on Guest Teachers, but we know that taking over our classes can be daunting for them -- and unsettling for the children. The Guest Teacher Handbook offers a solution. It allows us to guide without being there, and it helps both the children and the Guest Teacher do their jobs. The result: a more productive, comfortable day of teaching and learning.

About the Teacher

Rosalea Fisher teaches third grade at K.T. Murphy School, a public school in Stamford, Connecticut, that uses the Responsive Classroom approach school-wide. Previously, she taught third, fourth, and fifth grades for fifteen years at Toquam Magnet School in Stamford. Rosalea is co-founder of The Center for Reading and Writing, a summer enrichment program for children, and is a trainer and coach in the Responsive Classroom approach for the Stamford school system. She is presently co-teaching a bilingual class for English language learners.

This article first appeared in the Responsive Classroom Newsletter, August, 2005, published by Northeast Foundation for Children. Click here for a free subscription.

Copyright The Responsive Classroom, reprinted with permission

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