Planning for Stress-Free Sick Days

March 24, 2016
Classroom full of children
Taking a sick day

My immune system’s good luck finally ran out this week, and I ended up sick at home, leaving my elementary music students in the care of a substitute teacher. Planning for a music sub is uniquely challenging. I’ve had subs who are very competent musicians, subs who can’t read a note of music, and everything in between. Most subs have had experience subbing in a regular classroom, but teaching back-to-back classes in a specialist’s room can be overwhelming for someone who hasn’t been in that setting (or even for someone who has). Being mindful of the challenges that face music class subs, music teachers can prepare plans that will help the day run as smoothly as possible for the sub and students.

Create a sub folder. Keep all of the general and unchanging information that a sub might need in a folder. This should include class lists, classroom management procedures, daily routines, and emergency procedures.

Write a detailed schedule. Provide a detailed schedule for the day that includes the names of the classroom teachers of each class, good times to run to the bathroom, classes that will come with paraprofessionals or teachers aids, etc.

Appoint helper students. Choose one or two students in each class to act as helpers for the sub. My strategy is to pick two in each class–one very responsible and well-behaved student paired with a capable student who could be tempted to cause behavior problems in the class if not given a responsibility.

Write lesson plans that don’t require reading, singing, or playing music. It’s hard enough for a sub to walk into someone else’s classroom with confidence, but a lot harder if the sub doesn’t have the necessary skills to carry out the lesson plans. Assuming that the sub might not have any music-specific knowledge will ensure that anyone will be comfortable with the lesson plans. For those days when you’re too sick to write your own plans, you might consider investing in one of the many commercially produced books of music sub plans.

Plan the same activities for multiple sections. If at all possible, plan the same activities for multiple grades. It can be overwhelming even for me to try to remember my plans when I have to teach something different to each of the eleven sections that I have in a day. Repetition can make the day more manageable for a sub.

Don’t plan anything that requires any kind of technology. I’ve made this mistake in the past, and inevitably, there is always some problem with the technology. It’s annoying when that happens in my own teaching, and it can derail a class for a sub. There are plenty of technology-free music activities that can cut out that risk.

Plan fun, engaging, and educational activities. It would be easy to just have a sub show a movie, but we want our students to be learning something while we’re away. Plan activities that review skills that students have been working on, so the sub won’t be required to teach new content, and if possible, activities that students have done before. Educational music games are great for sub plans because they’re fun and engaging, which reduces the chance of behavior problems.

Invite subs to share their own musical experience and skills. Students can really benefit by learning from another musician. Invite subs who are musical to make room in the lesson plans to share their own musical talents with classes, whether through teaching a new song, demonstrating an instrument, or telling about their experiences. I recently had a sub who brought her guitar, and the students loved it!

Ask for the feedback that you want. Give your sub some guidance in providing the kind of feedback you need when you return to your classes. If you’re looking for specific information about behaviors or what happened in class, ask for it. You might even consider creating a form for your sub to fill out for you.

I was happy to return to school to find thorough sub notes, evidence that my plans had been followed, and assurance that my days of absence had gone well. Being a substitute teacher is a challenging job, and I am so appreciative of those who are willing to step into unfamiliar classrooms and unfamiliar content. Consideration of what will help a sub have a good day in the music classroom ensures that we can worry less during our days away and be better prepared to return to school.


Maia Hamann currently teaches music at Holdingford Elementary, grades K-5. You can read all of her blog posts here. View our entire portfolio of educational resources on our Music for Learning page.