Insider Tips for Getting Great Subs (and What to Do to Keep Them Coming Back)

Being away from your room is difficult. Sometimes I’d rather come in sick than write up all those sub notes. Choosing the right lessons, having a designated sub area, and leaving concrete projects are important, but today I’d like to give you three less obvious tips to help things run smoothly when you’re out of the art room.

1. Choose great subs

There are a few things you can do to better your chances of having someone qualified cover your classes. If you have an online system, check for a place where you can list your preferred substitutes. These may be people that you’ve met in your building, people you know have an art background, or people that have been recommended by colleagues in your building. You might want to even talk to other art teachers in your district to see if they have some names you can use. If you have a person that you call when you need to be out, have them do a little digging for you. Chances are, the person manning the sub line can tell you who has art credentials, who comes highly recommended, and who would be a good fit for your grade levels.

2. Be prepared for anyone to walk into your classroom.

Even if you know you’re getting an art sub, be prepared for the worst. That person could get stuck in traffic, wake up with a sick child, or choose another job on short notice. You just never know! That’s why I keep five to seven “emergency lessons” in a big folder in my office. These are all drawing based projects that require very little set up and can be explained in just a few sentences. All of the lessons have a teacher sample that go with them. For one idea, check out the first project shown in the video here. Book based lessons are also a great idea to leave for a sub.

You may also want to include an “Art Room Cheat Sheet” for non-art subs who may have never been in an art room containing clean-up procedures, classroom management tips, important numbers, etc. This document can help put non-art subs at ease and will be useful for anyone new to your room. You can download my cheat sheet here, or download one to customize yourself here.


3. Identify a person that the sub can go to for help

Choose someone in your building that can answer any questions the sub may have, and identify that person in your sub notes. This could be someone in a neighboring classroom or one of the other specials teachers. Make sure that whomever you choose knows your basic routine and where to find items the sub might need. You might also want to email your sub notes to your point person in case the sub system can’t be accessed at school for some reason.

With these three tips under your belt, you’ll feel great knowing you’ve done everything in your power to make sure your kids and your sub have a successful day without you. It’s great coming back to sub notes that say, “Please have me again. Art was so much fun!”


What do you do to make subs feel at ease in your classroom?

Do you have any other, less obvious “insider tips” to getting great subs? We’d love to hear about them!


Amanda Heyn

Amanda is the Senior Editor at AOE. She has a background in teaching elementary art and enjoys working to bring the best ideas from the world of art ed to the magazine each day. 


  • Jacque V.

    I have created a sub binder with photographs of where things are kept for a visual!  One of my most recent AMAZING pinterest finds! 

  • Love the cheat sheet idea!

  • Another thing I would do is text my sub directly and ask if they are free, and let them know that I would be putting their name in, and to look for the request. I almost always got my favorite art subs using this method. This way, I could make that personal connection and be even more proactive. 

  • GenaSmith

    I am thinking I would like to have a document for my sub that has ‘Words that encourage…’ and ‘Words to avoid…’ since many subs may not be aware of how harmful their words can be when it comes to art. As well, I think it doesn’t help to tell every student how beautiful their work is, but maybe I am expecting too much from a sub.  Do you have a document like this on your site?  Thanks for all your wonderful topics!  This is my favorite blog by far.

    • Ooooo, what a great idea! I love love love it. That’s what I was getting at with the short statement at the bottom of the cheat sheet, but something more concrete would be awesome. I had a horror story once when I came back to school and the students told me that the sub held up a student’s art from a different class to show how “bad” it was. I made sure that person never got to come to my room again! 

      • Or my favorite when a sub of a colleague let the kids make mustaches out of paper and walk around wearing them, while he read a novel behind the desk! haha.

      • Gena Smith

         That is terrible.  I have had parents comparing their child’s work to others or their own sibling.  ‘Well, I guess it is just the process that really matters.” Ugh!
        I was told by my only art teacher how bad I was at art with no guidance and it took me until my late 20’s to realize I wasn’t.  Words have such a huge impact…maybe the note at the bottom should be in bold print :)

        • Yuck! So glad you were able to see your talent! Unfortunately, I think that many people who have had your same experience never get over it. 

  • Heidi

    I love the cheat sheet idea! I filled out my own but I’m not going to just keep a copy in my room… I’m the only Art teacher in my building so I’ve emailed copies of my cheat sheet to the PE, Music, Health and Library teachers too. I asked them to fill out ones for their room and email them to me. Between all of us, we’ve had a some unplanned absences where the other Unified Arts teachers have scrambled to find or create emergency plans for a sub in someone else’s room. Sometimes, there have been plans in place but we didn’t know where to look! Now – if someone is absent unexpectedly and their sub needs help, we can pull up that teacher’s cheat sheet and send them on their way! Thanks for the idea!

    • Isn’t it cool how so much of Sub Week on AOE can work for other specials areas too? I know that the Spanish teacher at my school has been reading this week for ideas :). I love that you’re sharing the cheat sheet with others. Glad it will help out your team! 

  • Susie Belzer

    This is so helpful!  I added it to my sub binder right in the front!  We have to make our own sub folders for each classroom with emergency info, student info, etc.  I also include my schedules, extra duties, seating charts and rosters as well as some back up lesson plans.

    • I am so glad the resources were helpful to you! It sounds you are really organized and ready to roll!

  • Lauren Snider

    Anothing thing that happens a lot of times is the office pulls you from subbing for art and puts you into a regular classroom because there is a sub shortage :( that has happened to me all the time when the art teacher is in the building but needs to get grading or paperwork done.

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