Setting your Substitute Teacher up for Success in the Classroom

Videographer and filmmaker Dre Kahmeyer of Fiction Media presents during an “off-day” in the production cycle for students in Seamless Productions, a video creative agency that was named a 2022 Innovation Pacemaker winner. How could we as advisers use media professionals, journalists and guest speakers prior to an absence and then build an assignment asking students to reflect on their presentation, what they learned and how they can better their own craft moving forward? (photo by OneMaize Media)

Here are a few easy sub ideas to keep your students engaged and can offer an infusion of new media and journalism in your classroom while the teacher is out

What’s the best way to prepare for being absent for a few days to attend a conference?

How do you prepare when you have to leave on a whim with a sick kid?

For many journalism and media advisers, leaving sub-plans for a self-guided staff is usually more work than just preparing for a normal class period during a publication cycle. Substitutes often come to your class hoping you leave them a play-by-play game plan similar to a core class (English, Math, Science) and learn very quickly that your students are working on dozens of different assignments in writing, photography, design, videography and in topics they really don’t know much about.

Throw in the fact that your students are leaving the room with a press pass to go to other places in the school? This can be TOTALLY overwhelming on a sub stepping in for a day or two.

Here’s four simple sub assignment ideas if/when you have to be out for any reason during the school year.


Idea #1-Listen/critique and evaluate a local podcast
Classes for use: 21st Century, Broadcasting I/Video Productions

For this assignment, simply find a local journalism, media or communications focused podcast (I would suggest 20-30 minutes at the max) for students to listen to, evaluate and get them thinking about interviewing a guest, crafting questions on the spot and really taking a deep dive into the conversation presented within that podcast. This assignment in the past has even generated NEW ideas for topics and guests for our own podcast! Podcasts can include topics on covering local news, creating an awesome theme in a yearbook, how to prepare for contests and competitions for high school journalists, etc.


Idea #2-Career Exploration mini-research project
Classes for use: ANY

If you need a 2-day project, journalism students can research and write via a “Career Exploration Project” that’s an in-depth look at a specific job in the communications/journalism or media field. For those interested in communications, media, photography or other related fields, this assignment really gets them thinking about the day-to-day operations, salary, college needed, and skills necessary to pursue a specific field in journalism beyond high school. On the assignment, I provide many types of positions so that each student can find at least one job on the paper they can really dive into. When grading, I really assess content, voice and effort more than the grammar, spelling and punctuation. This is an assignment that I like to give if I’m gone the first 3-4 weeks of school, as it can also provide a nice baseline of their writing skills early on in the course.


Idea #3-Inject more ethical scenarios into your class
Classes for use: 21st Century Journalism, Broadcasting 1 or even a cap-stone level student media class in between work cycles

For this lesson, it’s a great idea to cover basic ethics and what’s important to know in writing, broadcasting and media prior to leaving an assignment. I rely on the Society of Professional Journalists as my go-to resource for some of the more timely, important ethical scenarios happening in real time to discuss with many of my classes. In order to get students interested and discussing ethical scenarios and to have ANY interest in ethics, I think it’s important to use figures and people that get them talking. In addition to reading about real-life ethical dilemmas, I like to use Newseum’s “What Would You Do?” media ethical questions to get some feedback on mini situations and how the students would handle them. While some assignments we simply toss and put participation points in when we get back to the room, I like to discuss the answers to this assignment and contrast student viewpoints-this can lead back to a great discussion of ethics, morals and values and how they differentiate from each other.


Idea #4-Mental Health day
Classes for use: ANY

By leaving an open-ended list of 4-5 tasks that do not have to do with learning new material, working on a large project or attempting to make a deadline, you can allow kids to have an “off-day” but with some structure provided in the directions for each student. One option would be to catch up on homework from other classes or study for a test in another class. One option may be to catch up on any missing assignments in YOUR class. One idea could be to have students begin brainstorming potential topics, ideas, stories or communicating with clients, sources and students in your school and community on their next big creation. An unstructured, ungraded sort of recharging day can be JUST as needed for your students as it is for you! You would be surprised at how many substitute teachers just enjoy getting to have conversations with your students while filling in for you.

Spencer O'Daniel

Spencer is in his 11th year of advising student media at the high school and college level. He currently advises videographers in the OneMaize Media program along with a special productions project class called Seamless Productions. He enjoys being active and outside, spending time with his two sons and wife Jenna and his students have won over 500 individual awards and team awards including a KSPA state championship, collegiate photographer of the year, All-Kansas publications, Pacemakers and STN's Broadcast Excellence Award.

Spencer O'Daniel has 11 posts and counting. See all posts by Spencer O'Daniel

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