How to Keep Your Classroom Running When You’re Off Your Game

Life happens. You’re up until 3 am with a sick dog, or sorting out family issues, or visiting family in the hospital. For any variety of reasons, be it that your school can’t find a substitute or that you need to recover some sense of normalcy, you decide not to take the day off. 

But you’re still not bringing your A game into your classroom. Effectively, you are your own substitute teacher. 

We all need those days where our kids don’t need us as much so that we can cope or recover from whatever we left in the school parking lot (like an over heated car–real story). But we also don’t want to waste a day, especially when state testing is around the corner.

So here’s what you can do so that you have rest time, but your kids get learning time, too.

Pre-make your own substitute plans before these days hit you

You know you’ll have at least one day where you need to invoke the “I’m sick/dealing with stuff” speech to your kids, so go ahead and plan for it. You can double these plans as your actual emergency substitute plans, or make them slightly different since you’ll be in the classroom (even if you’re not functioning well).

Having plans pre-made gives you one less thing to think about in your non-functioning state, freeing up brain space you could devote to your problems and reducing the overwhelm of rushing around in the morning. And, because you made them when you were not distracted and thought through everything, you’re less likely to experience last minute problems, like the activity running too short.

I recommend making one plan for each unit if you can. That way, you’re prepared no matter where your class is in the curriculum.

Use your team

So what if you haven’t pre-made any sub plans, or your sub plans are useless because your past self way overestimated your teaching powers at this point? 

If you have a team, reach out and ask if they have something on hand that you can use on minimal brain power. If the other teachers on your team have been around for a while, they probably have a stockpile of worksheets and activities that would suit your needs. 

Go for enrichment

If you don’t have a team, or your team is unable to help you, then you’re probably panicking as you scramble for an activity. Obviously, you don’t want to give your kids anything new if you aren’t up for direct teaching or guided inquiry. This is a great time, though, to build in some enrichment. 

The easiest way to enrich your kids is to tie in real world applications to what they’ve been learning. Find a few news articles that correspond to your unit, or your general subject matter if that’s not possible. Have your kids do a close reading of each article (consult your nearest English teacher if you aren’t sure what that is), and answer general questions on what the article is about.

(If you want a free close reading worksheet, I have one at my TPT Store here)

Alternatively, bring in some history to your curriculum (or more obscure history if you you’re a history teacher already). Make a list of people who made significant contributions to your field and ask your students to do a quick research project on the person of their choice. They can demonstrate their knowledge in a poster (or mini-poster if you don’t have chart paper on hand), essay, or whatever you feel like assigning and grading. 

A quick note on diversity: use this enrichment opportunity to expose your kids to other parts of the world and different types of people. Find articles based in non-European countries or find people whose discoveries and contributions may have been overlooked at the time. Anything you can do to expose your kids to what textbooks often don’t will enrich their experience.

Or, go for review

You have a lot of options under this strategy. 

You can give a packet of worksheets to give your kids practice time with what they’ve already learned. If you have the brain power available, you can level the worksheets such that, as students struggle, they can “step down” to easier problems to try and figure out what to do on the harder ones. If you vary the number of points on each problem (easier ones have fewer points, etc.), you encourage students to try more difficult problems.

You can run a review game if you feel up to more interaction with your students. Trashketball involves minimal setup 

If you have older students, you can have them create test questions for other students, and then answer the questions their peers came up with. Or, teach them how to create their own “cheat sheets” for review (a great college skill).

If you want to minimize the number of questions you get as your students work, then designate two students who really have it down as “designated helpers.” Tell your students that, if they need help, to ask one of your helpers first. This is peer-to-peer teaching, which gets you “good teacher” points if anyone asks.

Don’t forget to tell both your admin and your kids what’s going on

Be honest with the people around you about your situation. Your admin may decide not to do a walkthrough while you take the day to recover, or they could even offer resources to help you get something together for your classes (or even to help you with your actual situation).

You don’t have to give your kids all the intimate details of what you’re going through, but they do deserve a warning if your usually patient self is unable to tolerate nonsense for a day. You might be surprised to find that they behave better for you when you’re off your game (temporarily). 

We all go through life situations during the school year. Hopefully, with these tips, you’ll be able to recover while not sacrificing your students’ learning.


What else has helped you when you’re off your game? Share in the comments below!

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