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Planning for a Substitute Was Never This Easy

Voice of ExperienceUnhappy with inconsistent results and lousy reports from substitutes, educator Bob Brems came up with a new strategy for his planned days off. He turns over the teaching reins to one of his students. Included: Tips for planning for student-as-teacher days.

Bob Brems

I used to dread being away from my classroom. It always was difficult to find a substitute who would follow my lesson plans as intended. Often, the students viewed a day with a substitute as an invitation to suspend all classroom rules. It got to the point at which I decided against attending meetings or conferences during the school day; I would usually be greeted the next day by notes from substitutes about students who had acted poorly and by students who had lost a day of instruction.

One day, after returning to my classroom to find nothing had been accomplished in my absence, I decided to try a new twist on an idea I had used to liven up classes during the mid-semester doldrums. It turned out to be the perfect solution to my substitute problem.


For several years, I had set aside a few days in the middle of the school year to allow students to take control of the class. I would select from student volunteers a single student or pair of students who would take charge of their class for one class period. The student(s)-as-teacher would use my lesson plan to lead the class through the assigned activities for that day. The student substitutes would

  • use my seating chart to take attendance;
  • present the day's agenda to the class;
  • lead students in the correction of homework;
  • select student volunteers to go to the board to answer questions about homework corrections generated by the class;
  • review concepts introduced during the previous class (or introduce a new concept);
  • give directions for the homework assignment; and
  • answer student questions during independent practice.

The day after having a student as teacher, I would spend a few minutes discussing with students their reactions to the previous class. The students would usually remark on how different it was to have a classmate in the front of the room. Some students commented that the student-as-teacher's explanation of a concept was different from mine. Several even commented on how the student's explanation actually cleared up some points of confusion they had been experiencing.


Each year, the first time students were exposed to that approach, they were very tentative. They quickly grew to enjoy those student-as-teacher days, however, as did I. Each year, I would have only a few volunteers when I first introduced the approach; but after students experienced having a student-as-teacher, the number of volunteers skyrocketed.

I have witnessed a handful of benefits from using students as teachers:

  • Students are more alert and on task when another student is leading the class.
  • Student interest is piqued by the change in approach.
  • Some students benefit from instruction or review led by a classmate. The difference in presentation of the concept helps them better understand the material.
  • The student-as-teacher usually displays a level of understanding of the concepts that is greater than the understanding displayed during a regular class. "I don't want to look like an idiot in front of everyone!" one student explained.
  • Students often are better behaved when the class returns to the regular format. When questioned about that, students-as-teachers often expressed empathy with a teacher in front of a class. They related how frustrating it was to repeat the same thing several times, asking: "Why don't they listen?"


Because of the success I had had with this approach, I decided to try it the next time I needed a substitute for a planned absence. The basic approach would be the same as it was on days I was in the room to observe my teaching students.

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I chose the students-as-teachers several days before my absence. The students and I discussed the lesson plans and their understanding of the material to be covered. When my day off arrived, the substitute found complete lesson plans on my desk. The plans explained the agenda for the day and informed the substitute which student would be in charge of each class. The plans asked the substitute to allow the students to take charge of the class; they asked the substitute to take care of any discipline problems that might arise.

I have had several reactions to this approach from the substitute teachers. Most were not prepared for it. Some thought the lesson plan directions were a prank being played on them. But once the students started class, most substitutes responded with awe at the positive behavior and hard work of the students.

A couple of substitutes have refused to allow the students to take charge of the class. To prepare for that event, the students were told, in advance, to comply with the substitute's wishes.

Recently, I extended this approach to include my unplanned absences. For those situations, I pick well in advance a volunteer to take charge of the class in the event of my unforeseen absence. So far, that approach to unplanned absences hasn't met with the same degree of success as it has when used for planned absences, but I have not given up trying. I will continue to think through this idea; I imagine I will come up with a workable plan.

Overall, the approach has worked so well that I have begun attending conferences and meetings during the school day. I don't dread coming back to class after being gone for a day. I know my class is in good hands.

A teacher for more than 20 years in both public and private schools, Bob Brems currently teaches 8th grade math at South East Junior High School in Iowa City, Iowa. Bob has published educational software.

Article by Bob Brems
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