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5 Tips for Preparing for Substitute Success in the High School Art Room

What is it about being in the high school art room that sets off alarms and shakes the nerves of even the most seasoned teachers and substitutes? Is it the music playing while students talk the WHOLE time? Is it the materials and everyday clutter that come with even the most organized art rooms? Is the general controlled chaos that we’ve come to love, that makes the uber-conservative English teacher want to run for the hills when assigned coverage for your class? After being a substitute myself and being in the art room for more than 23 years, let me share with you my tried and true tips for substitute success in the high school art room!

If you’re like me, taking a day away from my high school art room is sometimes more challenging than just working through the cold or fatigue! On the heels of Covid precautions and digital learning, having a plan in place is even more important than ever. Check out these 5 tips for substitute success in the high school art room.


1. Create an Emergency Sub Folder

In my school this is a mandatory obligation before the week of school is over. But some administrators may let you skip this step….Don’t do it! A well-organized substitute folder will make everyone’s life easier whether you’ve planned this personal day for weeks or woke up at 6 am with the sniffles.

Leave the sub folder in the main office or in plain view on your desk. Consider emailing an electronic version to the secretary or leaving the electronic version in your Google Drive for quick access at home. Either way, anyone who walks into your room can find it right away. Consider telling a neighbor teacher, a secretary, or even a trustworthy student where it is located.

If you use Google Classroom, be sure to set up drafts of material so that you can easily post to the Class Stream when needed.

Consider the following items for your emergency sub folder:

Seating charts 

When I was a substitute, I found that knowing the names of students in the room was key to the success of my day. Students of all ages will test the will of even the best substitute teachers and knowing the names of the students in the room provided immediate authority when speaking with and getting to know students. 

PRO tip: leave a little note on the seating chart as to who the trustworthy and helpful students might be. These students can help pass out supplies and will be happy to step up if the sub finds themselves in a little pickle with a difficult student.

Master Schedule

This includes your teaching schedule, the school’s bell schedule, room numbers, and helpful notes for navigating the building. My admin gives us this information in about four different papers. Having it all on one master sheet for your sub will save them so much time especially if the environment is new to them. Nobody likes to get left with a mess or be in the middle of a sentence while everyone walks out because the bell rang. And if you teach in multiple rooms like I do, be sure they know where they need to be and when.

PRO tip: Spend a few extra minutes creating a master schedule for your sub folder. Not only does this master schedule help your sub, but I find it helpful to carry with me during the entire first week of school. The extra 15 minutes to type it all up will save you loads of time in the rush of the first week.

High School Art Room Classroom Management: 

Things in the high school art room are different from the regular classroom. My current school uses a demerit system while my former school didn’t have any formal discipline procedures and left things like detention up to the teacher themself. Spelling out common procedures and explaining your school’s policies will give the substitute the autonomy to control the situation.

Pro Tip: Use my Substitute Classroom Procedure template to help you get organized. 

Download it here for FREE.

Emergency Sub Plan: 

What if this isn’t a planned absence? Have some one-day art lessons for substitutes that can be completed with little or no supplies to use in case you are experiencing an emergency that just doesn’t allow you to prepare anything. KEEP it SIMPLE and keep it in your subfolder!

PRO Tip: Explain where basic supplies like plain drawing paper, colored pencils, and markers can be found in the room. Photocopy some adult coloring worksheets and leave them in your subfolder with instructions on where to find the photocopier. Remember, this is for just one day, this is for the times when you just can’t deal with making a proper plan…an adult coloring page is still better than a study hall!

2. Create an ongoing assignment

In my classroom, we keep an annotated journal as our notebook/sketchbook. I got serious about sketchbooks about six years ago and they are an invaluable part of my grading system and classroom management strategy. Even my administration has noted that the sketchbook is a make-or-break piece of success in the art room.

Throughout college and in my first years of teaching I always considered a sketchbook to be, well, for sketching. I thought it was a tough sell to ask students to complete the difficult task of drawing independently. But as I moved into a more choice-based style, I found that using sketchbooks as annotated pages could be quite helpful.

In the first week of school, I set up an ongoing, eight-part assignment due at the midpoint of the quarter and the end of each quarter. This has helped with early finishers as well as when I am out for a personal or sick day. It requires very few supplies and can be completed fairly independently so the sub can tell students to work on their sketchbook assignment and students know exactly what is expected. 

Having students break down the Elements of Art or the Principles of Design is a good way to do this.

This resource is available in my Teachers Pay Teachers store, click here to purchase!

3. Label, label, label… EVERYTHING!

Lots of teachers are nervous about actually telling everyone where they can find things in the art room. Maybe it’s because people often feel like the art supplies are free for the taking (when they really aren’t) or maybe because they feel more in control when they are the master of their space and know all the secrets. I find it so much easier for students and guests in my classroom when everything is organized, labeled, and easy to find when needed. Your sub is a new guest in the room and things you and your students may take for granted aren’t always so obvious to the substitute.

4. Set expectations and follow up

One of the things that I love about teaching middle and high school is that I can talk to my students. In addition to building a rapport and atmosphere of trust, I try to spell out clear expectations for expected behaviors; both when I am present and when I am not. Early and often, I explain that when we have a guest in the room, they are to be treated as such…a guest! I tell them that I expect “grandma visit” behavior. 

Explain to your students what empathy means and try to establish a climate that allows them to see the classroom through your eyes and by extension, the eyes of the substitute. I’ve experienced that the culture in some schools that doesn’t really value the efforts of the substitute. Perhaps this is because they are less experienced teachers or perhaps it’s because the school population just hasn’t gotten to know this person, as a real person. But explaining to your students that this person is helping you and spelling out that they need and deserve their respect goes a long way in helping your students to show empathy for the person who is in your room in your absence. 

Photo of art messy art supplies with blog quote

5. Plan ahead and take those days!

Let go of that feeling that nobody can do it as well as you because you are right. For your own sanity, let yourself use your days!

I have often sat and worried and wondered and worried about whether I should take a sick day or days. Guess what, the building was still standing upon my return. I remember being in a panic over my three maternity leaves and guess what, the building was still standing upon my return.

With a little planning ahead of time, you should feel free to take the time you need to be the best person for your students.

If your administration allows it, tell them ahead of time that you will be out. Plan well with a good subfolder, a good set of plans to keep them busy, AND learning. Be upfront (if you can) and be direct about what you need. 


We all know some subs are better than others and as art teachers, we all know that the best sub for the English classroom isn’t always the best choice for the art room. At the end of the day, the substitutes are a necessary and valuable asset to the school.  Value your subs and your subs will value your classroom.  It sounds simple enough, but appreciating and understanding what makes your sub have a great day could make the difference between smooth sailing and complete catastrophe upon your return.

Looking for additional classroom management techniques?

Visit Aloha Monday Teaching read the blog: 3 Essential Components for Science Classroom Management

And Angela J Maxell: Top 3 Tips for Co-Teaching Success Between School Librarians and Teachers


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I help middle school & high school teachers, like you, create art rooms built for student growth & creative expression even if they don’t have a background in art!

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