Thinking about adding a new trick to your teaching repertoire this year? Read on…

This strategy addresses a question that every teacher has asked him or herself at some point: how do I get my students to be productive, respectful, and engaged when there’s a substitute teacher in charge? I often get frustrated with a couple scenarios that frequently play themselves out when I need to miss a day in my classroom because of a training or professional development day.

Scenario 1: The substitute teacher assigned to my classroom is an excellent educator who follows through by working with the scheduled lesson. Students generally behave, but still take advantage of an opportunity to put forth minimal effort and turn in shoddy work.

Scenario 2: The substitute teacher lacks the content knowledge and/or management skills to execute the lesson, or may not even be too concerned with what the kids are doing as long as mayhem isn’t occuring. Students leave the room discombobulated, do not bother to turn in work, and don’t even seem to know what the assignment was by the following day.

Too often, it seems that students–even the ones who are normally dynamic and just generally awesome–morph into apathetic, learning-resistant slobs when a sub is in charge. So what to do? While I certainly cannot claim to have solved this debacle completely, I can share a slightly offbeat strategy that I tried last year. I call it “ghost teaching.” It requires a sense of humor, a little prep work, and a good relationship with your students. And it works better than anything else I’ve attempted when it comes to getting students to pay attention and do great work, even in my absence.

My conceptual framework behind the ghost teaching strategy is that I want my students to feel as if I’m there in class with them, even if I’m not. Now, at this point in time you may be thinking, “Control freak alert!” But hear me out. I truly believe that the teacher sets the tone, creates the atmosphere, and defines the expectations for every day in class. Students become accustomed to the specific “auras” of their teachers, and respond to them. When this aura is done well, it can be a very positive, motivational force. The point of ghost teaching is to keep that atmosphere consistent, even when the teacher misses a day. If all goes well, it makes things easier and more enjoyable for the sub, too. Everybody wins!


1. Let the sub know what you’re doing. Take the time to write out a full note for the sub, explaining the procedure for each class step by step. Have copies of handouts made and organized. Also make the sub aware of the main rules of your classroom so that the students are getting consistent messages about what’s ok and what’s not (these are probably posted in your room already). Once students see that the sub is wise to the normal ways of the classroom, they’re primed for good behavior.

2. Leave an extensive, personal note on the board, addressed to the students. Students will pay more attention to a handwritten note on the board than the most extensive word processed printout or blog post of instructions. I like to write in all caps, use arrows, make little drawings, and throw in classroom inside jokes to get the students to read what I’ve written. The purpose of the note is to provide a step by step agenda for the class so that they can follow along and also to have that extra reminder that I am the one asking for them to do these things today; the sub didn’t just find some random handouts lying around in a drawer. I also include reminders about what they should hand in/prepare for in the coming days. I always try incorporate a message about how much I appreciate them and expect from them as well. Even the most thorny adolescents secretly want to know they are valued by their teachers. Part of my board typically looks something like this:

3. Leave a short video in which you introduce the day’s activities. It may sound a little bit strange, but this is a key part of leaving your teaching ghost behind. Students will respond to the same face, voice, and (in my case) cheesy jokes that they are used to. Really, it’s not so strange. This day in age, people use Skype video calls to chat and YouTube videos to express their thoughts about the world. It’s also extremely quick and easy to do. If you have access to a webcam-equipped laptop or a digital camera, and you have the ability to press the “record” and “stop” buttons, you’re over halfway to a video teaching broadcast of your own. I save the file to a flash drive that I leave plugged in to the computer for the sub, but a video could also be saved on your desktop, posted on a class website, or emailed. All the sub has to do is turn on the LCD projector, open the video file and press “play.” If you don’t have a projector, the students can huddle around the computer monitor. This is where the “ghost teacher” can truly emerge, and where students know, indisputably, that it’s going to be business as usual.

In my first video, I sat down in front of my webcam and envisioned my classroom and the kids in it. It actually felt pretty natural, since I said all of the same things I would have said had they been physically sitting in front of me. The first part of the transcript went something like this: “Hello, my wonderful friends from English 12! I’m sorry that I can’t be with you today in person, but you guys are so lucky, because you are here to bear witness to my very first teaching video broadcast. I’m SO pumped about that… and you should be, too. So, at this point in time, you’ve already responded to your writing prompt which was “If you were stranded on a desert island with only the people sitting immediately next to you, what rescue plan would you make?” Now I’m sure this has generated some interesting, fascinating, potentially disruptive discussion. Hopefully nobody got voted off the island. No matter how that has turned out, I will ask you to turn in your prompts as it is Friday and therefore the last day of the week. Ok. At this point in time, I’d like to explain your main activity for the day, which is something that I really think you’ll enjoy and really get into a little bit…  In keeping with the Senior Skills Scavenger Hunt unit, this activity is designed around a real life communication skill that you will need whether you’re headed for college or the workforce, and that skill is the ability to work with a group in order to solve a complex problem. Ok, so here’s what you’re gonna do…. etc. etc.” And I went on to explain the procedure for the lesson as well as several reminders and the reasoning behind the lesson as a whole.

I was very curious to see the student reaction to the first video that I did. I knew it was a success as I came into school the next day. The seniors smiled at me and shook their heads a little. They were very humored by the fact that I actually recorded a video of myself to instruct them, but I soon discovered that they definitely listened to it! One girl quoted a particular direction nearly word-for-word, and the average reaction was, “Not gonna lie: that was pretty cool, Ms. H.” In fact, I think some of my students may pay more attention to my sub day videos than my real time spoken instructions!

4. Finally, require a presentation of any assigned work on the following day. Instead of just turning in a written copy of work (which is easy to just not do, since there’s no immediate consequence), I hold my students accountable by requiring them to read aloud, explain, or otherwise present their work from the previous sub day. This allows me not only to give an immediate response with descriptive feedback, but also makes things uncomfortable for students who did not act responsibly. I’ve found that for most students, mindful of my on-the-spot assessment before an audience of their peers, do indeed deliver under these circumstances.


Ghost teaching takes preparation. Please note, it’s not for the sick days when you wake up feeling like the reaper is nigh. However, if you are like many involved teachers, you may have event coordinating, training, or professional development that takes you out of your classroom on days when you really need the students to stay productive and not lose progress. In these cases, if you can get a little time to prepare in advance, your ghost teacher will make sure that you, your students, and your substitute will all go home happy!