Ideas for Substitute Teachers With No Lesson Plans

A young student raises her hand in class

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From time to time, substitute teachers will go to a classroom and find that there is no lesson plan waiting for them. When you as a substitute are familiar with the subject at hand, you can typically use the textbook as a basis for a lesson about the topic currently being taught. However, an issue arises when you know little about the class's subject. It can be even worse when you have no textbook available for review. Make learning fun, because so long as the students view you positively, you'll probably be asked to return.

Improvising for Substitutes

Therefore, it is best to come prepared for the worst with activities and ideas of things to do with students. Obviously, it is always best to relate any work that you give to the subject if you can, but if not, it is still important to keep students busy. In terms of classroom management, the worst thing to do is to just let them talk. This can often lead to either disruption within the class or even worse noise levels that disturb neighboring teachers.

These curriculum ideas for activities will help you succeed as a sub in this type of situation. Several of these suggestions include games. There are countless skills that students can develop through game playing such as critical thinking skills, creativity, teamwork, and good sportsmanship. There are opportunities for the students to practice speaking and listening skills when games are played individually or in groups.

Some of these games or activities require more preparation than others. Obviously, you will need to use your best judgment about which will work with a particular class of students. It is also best to prepare with several of these as backups, just in case one is not working as well as you think it should. You can also get student input on which they would like to do. 

Lesson Ideas, Games, and Crafts

  • Trivia: Bring trivial pursuit questions and set the class up into teams. Have them take turns answering questions while keeping score.
  • Draw a Picture or Write a Story About a Prop: Bring in a prop and have students either draw a picture of it or write a story or poem about it. Then give out 'awards' for best in the class, most original, funniest, etc. before the end of the class.
  • View Optical Illusions: Print out a number of optical illusions, or put them on transparencies or a slide show and project them on a screen. Have students spend some time trying to work out what they are looking at. This is a high-interest activity that can spur interesting discussions.
  • Pictogram Puzzles: Pictogram or Rebus puzzles are word puzzles that are visual (GOT, GOT, GOT, GOT; Answer: FOUR GOT= FORGOT). Print out a number of puzzles, link them to a Smartboard, or project them. 
  • Play a Game of Hypotheticals: Pose hypothetical questions to students and have them come up with answers and solutions. These are best if they serve a purpose and instruct while still being fun. For example, you might include questions about first aid or dangerous situations to help students think through the best course of action in these situations.
  • Apples to Apples: Lead player draws a "description" card (adjective: "chewy") from the deck, then the other players each secretly submit a "thing" card (noun: "shark attack") in hand that best fits that description. The lead player chooses the "thing" card that, in her opinion, best matches the "description" card. Create your own cards that are discipline-specific (English suffix "descriptions": joyous, beauteous, gaseous, marvelous, and famous; math "things": axis, number line, average, cube, and probability) or find other examples.
  • Crosswords or Word Search Puzzles: Keep a stack of crossword and word search puzzles ready to hand out for students to complete.
  • Hangman: This requires little preparation. However, it is best done in small groups; winners could then compete in tournament rounds.
  • Origami "cootie catchers": Make cootie catchers to use as study guides. For example, have students place vocabulary terms on the outside flap and the definition when the inside flap is opened. 
  • 20 Questions: Tell the students whether you are thinking of a person, place or thing. Give them clues after every five questions. It can also be fun to keep score while you play. You get a point if you stump them and they get a point if they guess the right answer.
  • Scattergories: The object of this famed board game is to quickly fill out a category list with answers beginning with the assigned letter. Points are awarded if other players/teams haven't thought of the same answers. The player/team with the most points wins.
  • Four Winds Blow: Also known as the Big Wind Blows or Great Winds Blow, the game is similar to Musical Chairs. It allows students the chance to get to know each other a bit better. You’ll need chairs, one fewer than the total number of players. One person starts by saying “Four winds blow for everyone who…” and then says a characteristic or behavior that could be true, "...ate breakfast." All players who ate breakfast must quickly find a new seat that is more than two chairs away from them. If the player is not able to find a vacant seat, he or she is the new person who is in the middle.
  • Pictionary: You can play a game of Pictionary without the cards. Split the class into two teams, and take turns trying to guess what teammates are drawing on the board.
  • Write Mission Statements and Goals: Teach students all about personal mission statements and goal setting exercises. Then guide them as they create their own.