Note Taking and Note Leaving

Good communication is so important. As a new-comer in a classroom, you expect things to be laid out very clearly for you. Since substitute teachers are rarely called in based on qualification, the (good) teachers who are out for the day tend to over-plan, over-explain, over-simplify, over-everything for their substitute teacher. Because the absent teacher has spent so much time planning for their absence, I try to reciprocate by explaining, in detail, everything that happened when he or she was out.

As students, we have all been there. We have all experienced the sub who, whether they were good or not, didn’t leave any feedback for your regular classroom teacher. Regular teacher comes back and has to rely on the word of 20 something teenagers about how the day went. Not a super reliable source of information, and that doesn’t leave the regular teacher with a good impression of the substitute teacher.

I want to avoid that. I don’t want my reputation to be left in the hands of teenagers. Sorry; whether they were nice or not, their memory of the day probably isn’t too dependable. I try to leave the type of note I would like to get if I were the absent teacher. That means lots and lots of detail.

Here is my list of Substitute Teacher Note Must-Haves:

  • For each period (for high school) or subject class time (for elementary school), I try to take anecdotal notes of the day’s activities as they are happening. Sometimes this requires rewriting so my notes are legible. Yes, my notes have a rough copy…
  • If a plan/lesson runs short, I let the teacher know how long their plan lasted, and what we did for the remaining time.
  • If I assigned homework, what were my reasons (misbehaving students, ran out of time, lesson took longer than expected, etc). If I did not assign homework, what were my reasons (basically the opposite of what I just listed).
  • If I had to deviate from the provided lesson plan, why did I and what did I do instead? I try to be very detailed because, if I’m doing my job well, students shouldn’t notice when the original plan ends and the new plan begins. I want the teacher to know exactly what we did, and why we ended up going in a different direction. Sometimes it is as simple as a class having a really good discussion (like the Grade 9 girls’ gym class I covered who were having a great conversation about sexual abuse and consent). Sometimes it is as complex as anything that is the result of the teenage brain thinking “This is a good idea” (like the Grade 11 English class I covered who decided they had never heard of the concept of poetry (and this was at the end of the poetry unit. Incidentally, it was a poetry unit I had started with them a few weeks earlier when I had previously covered for the same teacher) and we had to have a grand discussion on the importance of studying poetry and respecting teachers and following my directions. And then there was a fire alarm). Yes, both of these have happened.
  • Listing students who misbehaved, and–and this is important–how it was that they misbehaved. It is one thing to say “Andrew was rude.” It is quite another to say “Andrew was rude; he talked through all the announcements, did not listen when I asked him to sit down, swore at a student who made a mistake when I asked her something, and proceeded to ignore me when I tried to get the class started on their work because he was trying to convince me that your teacher chair was his from home.” (And yes, this too has happened.) By clearly detailing how a student misbehaved, the regular classroom teacher knows how to deal with the situation appropriately. Maybe Andrew has an action plan. Maybe he has a behaviour contract. Maybe he has an IEP. Maybe he was just having an off day. Maybe he exhibits a pattern of misbehaviour with new-comers. There are so many variables at play that we as substitute teachers are unaware of.
    When I had my own classroom and I had to be out for a day, I left detailed plans for my three classes. At one time I was teaching a locally developed English class at the time. (Locally developed courses, if you’re unaware of Ontario’s terminology, are courses for students functioning below the curriculum minimum and would not be successful even in the most basic classroom. As you can expect, behavioural issues go hand-in-hand for these students.) I left a very detailed lesson plan, along with steps to take in case anyone misbehaved. When I returned, I was met with the note, “James was rude.” Um…ok…how? Why? With you? With his peers? James, when I asked him, blamed it on the substitute teacher, and I got nowhere. His peers certainly weren’t going to rat him out. This was an issue that should have been dealt with that I couldn’t deal with because there were too many blanks left and no one to fill them.
    And before I leave the topic of bad kids, sometimes it can be hard to put names with a student’s actions. There just isn’t enough time to learn everyone’s names when you are in the class once, maybe twice a year. Here are just some tricks that have worked for me to match up names with bad kids:

    • Use the seating chart provided (Ha. If there is one provided, of course you would. If there isn’t, then dang)
    • Pay reeeeeeally close attention during attendance
    • Call attendance by last name. Students and teachers both have to pay more attention, and I personally find last names easier to remember.
    • Eavesdrop on students’ conversations (I have no shame in admitting I’ve done this)
    • If you’re picking up work, pick it up strategically. If you want to make note of a particular student, add their work to the bottom of the pile as you’re collecting it. Other students’ work can be added to the top of the pile.
    • And, if all else fails, give a physical description of the student, their seating location in the classroom, or names of their friends if you happened to catch those names but not the names of the culprit.
  • As I said earlier, good communication is so important. I always give teachers an email address where they can contact me if they have any questions about the day or my notes.
  • And finally, on the rarest of occasions, I will give the teacher feedback on how they did, but only if it is important that they are made aware immediately. I.e., don’t plan for students to use the computers if substitute teachers aren’t allowed to work with computers, don’t ask me to photocopy something if you don’t give me code, don’t send me to a room that I can’t get into, don’t ask me to teach a math concept if you haven’t explained it in your plan or at least given me a textbook page number. Stuff that the regular teacher really should have known better about.

These are the things I try to include every.single.time. There is a reason I am remembered–and appreciated–by the teachers I replace. And two last things: 1–try to keep your notes private. I have caught students reading my notes right off the teacher’s desk. Not surprisingly, every time it was students who had already been named in my note for misbehaving. 2–At the end of the day, put the note in the teacher’s mailbox. It is safe there from little hands who might want to destroy the note and tell their regular teacher that you didn’t leave a note (Sigh. My dad did that last one as a kid…)

9 thoughts on “Note Taking and Note Leaving

    1. My spot on the sub list is guaranteed, so my portfolio is more to support my applications for contract positions. However, it would be a good addition for anyone with prior experience applying to a new board/school!


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