As an elementary principal, I would do my best to arrive at school at least 15 to 45 minutes prior to start of the opening school doors to prepare for the day. I would sit at my desk making a list of ‘things to do that day’ and wait for the digital arrival of the daily Human Resources (HR) Teacher Absence Report. Honestly, it can be an anxious experience waiting for that report to appear in your email inbox.
A majority of the time I knew if a teacher planned to be absent, but there was always one or two surprises every couple weeks in a large elementary school. Something sudden and unexpected could happen with a large staff of sixty to seventy faculty members. We are all human – we become ill – our own children get sick – there are family emergencies with parents and grandparents. These things are going to happen – come rain or shine. But, the teaching profession is a bit different than other professions when an employee is absent for one reason or another.
The Uniqueness of Teaching Children
If I were sick when I worked as a structural engineer back in the day, I would call my supervisor and let him know, “I will not be coming in today. I am not well.” Then, I would roll over in bed and go back to sleep. I would pick-up where I left off when I returned the following day. But, not so in teaching. The kids are still coming. The kids are still coming! We need a human substitute.
The most depressing aspect of the Human Resource (HR) email report for the principal to discover on any given morning – known or not – is when a teacher’s absence occurs without an assigned substitute. When this happens, the office staff begins telephoning the school’s regular substitutes hoping they are not already assigned at another school.
In approximately 45 minutes, teachers will begin to pick-up their children and walk to their classrooms. So, if the office staff can’t get a substitute in time, other arrangements must be made – dividing the students between the other grade level classes or using an instructional specialist to teach the unassigned class. Now, only one important question remains for the principal if the absence was not planned, ‘Does the absent teacher have quality substitute lesson plans?’
Teachers: Be Prepared for an Emergency Absence
Prepare for the unknown. No person knows what is going to happen on any given day - fender bender car accident, major traffic jam on the interstate, sick children, etc. Again, prepare for the unknown! Create a set of general substitute plans in advance. Label and place the lessons in a red or colorful folder on your desk for easy access and recognition.
Importantly, design the instructional day so normal classroom routines stay the same and that all instructional activities are highly structured on content that has previously been presented. It is highly recommended to not give a substitute teacher new material to teach. If it is taught poorly, it will take days for the kids to unlearn that content. However, if the unexpected incident does occur in the dead of night, the peace of mind this folder provides to a teacher is substantial.
It is also highly recommended that a principal require all classroom teachers to supply the office with two days of general emergency substitute plans at the beginning of the school year. These folders provide the principal with the same peace of mind as the classroom teacher when unexpected events occur. However, the plans should be used only in the event of an emergency and not as substitute plans for a known, planned absence.
As soon as possible, when a teacher knows they cannot make it to school due to an unforseen event, they should telephone or text the principal to alert them of an unexpected occurrence. The sooner the principal knows, the easier it is to make arrangements and adjustments. Unfortunately, the teacher may be out, but the children are still coming and require a human substitute.