Flip that sub plan

5-6 class periods, 25-35 students per class, 2-3 different preps, 5 days a week.

That’s the typical schedule for an American high school teacher, and as I have noted before, it doesn’t allow much time for professional development, reflection, or even creative preparation, let alone absence.

Just staying on the treadmill – keeping up with planning and grading during after-school and weekend hours – can feel like marathon training.

But what about when you have to (or choose to) be gone? Most teachers I know would rather go to school sick (or poke their eyes out) than agonize over sub plans or lose a day’s progress. I’m not particularly proud of it, but earlier in my career I taught with strep throat, a double ear infection, stomach flu, and even laryngitis. That was fun.

Now I find myself missing school a lot more often, due to graduate school in a different state, professional conferences, teacher training and student competitions. In April alone, I will miss five instructional days, four of them for Econ Club.

How can I minimize the pain to my students and myself? Can I still do a good job when I’m not there? Thankfully, technology offers a solution.

Two years ago, while working on strategies to teach my blended (part online, part in-person) classes, I learned how to use Screencast-o-matic, free online software that lets you record your voice and whatever is on your screen.

I realized that when I need to be gone from any class, I can make a 15-minute recording explaining the new lesson, then leave students (supervised by a sub) with practice problems they can work on alone or in a group. The results have been phenomenal.

On each assessment this year, I’ve compared student performance on concepts taught this way to concepts I’ve taught when I’m actually there – and there is no significant difference. I even used this strategy to run a simulation in my absence.

The students have been enthusiastic too. “So much better than having a sub teach us!” one boy said, when I asked for feedback.

The students like the fact that they can speed up, slow down, and replay anything that was difficult. Plus, they have time to work and apply the lesson, and I let them help each other.

So why not flip my classroom every day? There’s evidence that it is effective – Clintondale High School in Michigan flipped every class, with good results – but I’m not a fan of all-or-nothing approaches.

Using any strategy every day gets boring, for the students and for me. Also, I think the fact that this is occasional may be a key ingredient. Most days, I am there to answer questions, re-explain concepts in new ways and provide encouragement.

Despite my enthusiasm for this new sub plan, I don’t think we can be replaced by video lessons, either. I read a lot about the future of high-tech classrooms with Khan Academy, EdX and other resources, but I’ve found it’s very difficult to locate high-quality videos that work for my students.

A few weeks ago I had to find one short video to teach grad school classmates about scaffolding, and it took me two hours of watching a lot of painfully boring videos to find what I wanted. It would have been easier to do it myself – if lower tech.

It’s still critical that students have an actual teacher who knows them and knows the learning targets – and who can motivate, provide feedback and offer one-to-one help. But it is nice to have another option for absences, besides dragging your sick self to school.