Building a Successful Elementary Music Sub Tub

It was the end of teacher work week. I was getting ready for back to school night, getting the music room ready for kids and parents to ooh and aah at. (And hopefully not wreck.)

And then I felt it. That telltale scratch in my throat. The school year hadn’t even started yet – how could this be??

Building a solid music sub tub is essential to your peace of mind (and your sub’s success!) while you’re away. Whether it’s for a planned absence or a sudden stomach bug (we all know how that goes), the earlier you can build out the bones of your sub tub, the better. In fact, I prioritized my sub tub even above setting up my room – I could always add more decor later, but if I’m absent with no sub tub, that’s a baaaaad situation. (Have you ever run out of sub plans before? I have. I don’t recommend it.)

Through many years of trial and error, I designed my ideal sub tub. Even though it morphed a bit every year, growing and changing throughout the school year, the core elements stayed the same. Whether you’re reading this in August or in April, a sub tub is something you’ll always need – so it’s never too late (or too early!) to be thinking about building out your ideal music sub tub.

Key Parts of a Music Sub Tub

You can choose to change up your sub tub from year to year – I find myself adding new lessons to it all the time! But there are some core pieces that every effective sub tub needs.

Basic Class Info and Procedures

Remember – a sub is coming into your room possibly for the first time, or even if it’s not the first time, they’re in and out of so many classrooms (and even schools!) that there’s pretty much no way they’ll remember every detail about your room.

I print a basic information section that goes to every sub, every time. It includes information like

  • Important school numbers
  • Staff they can ask for help
  • Schedule
  • Location of basic supplies (pencils, coloring supplies, pencil sharpener, tissues, clipboards)
  • Directions for turning on the sound system
  • Evacuation map
  • Emergency procedures

My attendance list is constantly changing. It’s super important to have an up-to-date attendance list in case of an emergency. In addition to keeping those lists in our emergency folder (every classroom in my district has one), I always print a second copy and keep it in a binder with my sub tub. I also like to star student leaders’ names and leave any notes about supports students need. Always star more than one student leader per class, just in case someone is absent. If you can add pictures of students to your attendance sheets, even better!

No-Prep Sub Plans

This sounds like the most obvious part of any music sub tub – but there is nuance to consider!

For example, I like to leave sub plans based on music books. One day I was out unexpectedly and thought my sub would be fine to pull the necessary books from my bookshelf. You know, the one right behind my desk. That I explicitly gave directions to in my sub plans.

I came back the next day and the kids had apparently watched random cartoons on YouTube because somehow the sub could hook up a laptop (a rare feat) but not find a book.

So lesson learned: just have a few books that always live in your sub tub.

A thumbnail for music sub plans based on the book Change Sings by Amanda Gorman

These are just some of the books I like to leave for my subs (with print-and-go sub plans linked!):

Of course, you could always leave music math worksheets, composition worksheets, or other print-and-go sub plans – but I find a massive difference in students’ engagement when the lessons are connected to a book. The engagement helps the sub with classroom management and plus it’s always nice when you’re able to engage the sub in a music-related lesson and show them that yes – even though they’re not a Classically trained musician, they can still handle subbing for music class!

Music-Related Videos

Nothing’s wrong with the occasional movie day! And sometimes when you’re gone, they’re necessary – subs can’t find your plans, the printer breaks down, or classes have to combine because there is no sub!

Keep in mind your technology set-up. Do you have a VCR player? (I still did!) DVD player? Would a sub have access to a laptop, a login for said laptop, and be able to navigate to a YouTube video?

I love these videos because they’re not just vaguely music-related – there are lots of ways you can connect them to musical concepts from class, either while the sub is there or when you get back. Here are some of my favorite music movies and shows that take 20+ minutes:

  • Bill Nye the Science Guy S01 E12 – Sound
  • The Magic School Bus: In the Haunted House
  • Stomp Out Loud
  • Camille Saint-Saens’ Carnival of the Animals, hosted by Gary Burghoff
  • Peter and the Wolf – there are many versions, but I like the storybook version below best
  • Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood – he has many, many episodes about music, instruments, and famous musicians! (Kids these days don’t tend to recognize the original Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, but once you help them make the connection to Daniel Tiger, their eyes light up!)

Digital Music Sub Plans

You don’t have to tell me twice – I know that subs and tech usually don’t mix! But I’ve been lucky enough to have some regular subs who can not only handle it, but make some really effective learning happen with it as well. This is a great option to have if you have a planned absence coming up and know who will be covering your classes.

Even if you don’t plan on having a techy sub, ALWAYS keep a Google Drive folder with sub plans and your basic class info and procedures. There’s a 99% chance the sub won’t know how to use it, but your office staff or coworkers will and they can access it to print extra copies for the sub in a pinch! Just remember to share it with multiple people who can help – in case some of them are absent that day too!

If you have a sub who can handle the tech, there are a couple different approaches you can take:

Pre-recorded Lessons

This was a lifesaver when I had a planned absence leading up to a performance. I knew we couldn’t afford to miss a rehearsal – but without a music sub available, what could I do?

Luckily, one of my tech-savvy sub friends saved the day. I was able to record call and response clips from the songs we were still learning and pop them onto Google Slides. I built the directions (for both the kids and the sub) right onto the Google Slides. All she had to do was flip through the slides and press play!

You could do this with hello and goodbye songs, song tales, familiar songs and games – just about anything you put your mind to!

Music Centers and Independent Work

This is probably one you’ll want to wait to do until routines and expectations are solidified – so maybe later in the fall, or even winter. If your students (especially your older ones) are self-sufficient on their devices (like Chromebooks or iPads), you can set them up with music centers, task cards, research projects, or other independent work. Ideally, this leaves the sub’s job to just be to float around and make sure everybody is on task.

This does take a bit of preparation and forewarning. For one, there’s always a student who forgot their charger or their device, someone whose login isn’t working, or whose laptop has decided to brick itself that day. That student can’t sit there twiddling their thumbs – so what should they do instead? I always write this down explicitly for the sub. Most of the time, they can pair up with another classmate and do just fine!

Kids are always begging me to use fun websites like Chrome Music Lab or Incredibox. This is the perfect opportunity to let them get out some of that pent-up excitement while keeping them exploring music while you’re away.

Putting it All Together

The only thing left to do is put it all together! My sub tub was literally a tub – a little plastic filing “cabinet” that I found abandoned in the teacher’s lounge my first year teaching – but yours doesn’t have to be! Depending on your school’s policies, you may be able to keep all your sub plans stored on Google Drive and have someone print them as needed. One school I taught at required us to print a week’s worth of sub plans, put them in a binder, and hand them in to the office – just in case! It all comes down to a mix of your school policies and personal preference, which may take some experimenting to figure out.

I hope these ideas have gotten your gears turning. Creating an effective music sub tub doesn’t have to be intimidating. In fact, it can be really fun!

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