Teacher is sick on couch wrapped in a blanket.

How to Survive Taking a Sick Day

October 26, 2021 14 min read

Are you feeling under the weather but you don’t know how you or your class could survive if you had a sick day? Got a sick kid vomiting all night? You know you need to stay home but you don’t have the energy to think about the hours of work it would take so you could be home? And that’s not including the horrible day your students and staff will have if you aren’t there. MANY special ed teachers say they cannot stay home for even a day because of the interruptions it will cause. Not to mention the fact that the school might not even be able to find a substitute teacher.

In this podcast episode, we are going to talk about why you shouldn’t feel guilty when you need to take a sick day from school (even if the 2021-22 school year has the worst substitute teacher shortage ever). We will also discuss how to prepare your students for when an adult is out, ideas on how to prepare your students to be ready for when any staff member has a sick day, and how to plan activities that will help everyone have a positive day.

Important Note about my FACEBOOK account: I got hacked by scammers and no longer have control of my Facebook Group “Help for Special Educators,” Lisa Goodell Equip Page, or my personal page. Please leave the group, and unfollow/unfriend the page.

Show Notes for Episode #30

Links & Resources

Teacher is sick on couch wrapped in a blanket.

About the Host: Lisa Goodell

Woman holding a pretty cat

Lisa Goodell, M.A., launched the “Help for Special Educators” Podcast on April 1, 2019. She has taught for 26 years, including third grade, resource/inclusion (RSP), and mild/moderate self-contained (SDC). Currently, she is an itinerant orthopedic impairment (OI) specialist/teacher for students birth to 21 years old in all general ed and special ed settings.

Lisa has a master’s degree in special education and six special ed and general ed teaching credentials. She has been honored as “Teacher of the Year” at both the elementary and secondary levels. She lives in rural Central California with her family and a bunch of cats. Connect with Lisa here.

Lisa is grateful for the thousands of listeners in over 65 countries around the world.

world map


NOTE: An artificial intelligence (AI) transcription service converted the audio file of this podcast episode into the written words below. The file is mostly accurate, however, be aware that spoken words and conversations are not the same as a conversation in a news story or novel. This means that there will be some inaccuracies or accidental errors (i.e. missing punctuation and words, misspellings, etc.). Thank you for understanding.

Transcript for Episode 30: How to Survive Taking a Sick Day

Lisa (00:00):

Episode 30, How to Survive Taking a Sick Day. We’re going to talk about why you shouldn’t feel guilty being absent when you’re sick, how to prepare your students for when you or any staff member is out, and how to plan activities that will help everyone have a positive day.

Lisa (00:25):

Do you ever find yourself barely able to hold your head above water waves of IEP data collection assessments, parent conferences, not to mention lesson plans and seasonal activities are all crashing around you? You need help, but not just from anybody. Grab the lifeline that is the “Help for Special Educators” podcast. We will equip you with creative solutions and teacher-tested strategies so you can navigate the rewarding, but difficult job as a special ed teacher. This is Lisa Goodell, your host.

Lisa (01:06):

Part of the reason why special ed teachers burn out is that they feel that they cannot leave their students for lunch or even be absent from school when they are sick or a family member is sick. This is due to the amount of work it takes to be sure everything is set up for a substitute teacher, the fear of a substitute teacher not doing what is needed for the students, and also in some cases, the biggest fear is that the students will have difficulties dealing with the change of not having their teacher for the day. There might be aggression, elopement, or I’ve even heard reports of students ending up in restraints for doing something due to the anxiety that happens when the teacher is gone. This is an ongoing problem. So if any of these things factor in for you deciding whether you can be gone as a special ed teacher or not, I want you to consider this, think about your situation and reflect on how you can better prepare your students for when an adult will be absent, because it will happen at some point, either with us as the teacher, or a paraprofessional, or perhaps you have a nurse or a psychologist that comes into your classroom on a regular basis.

Lisa (02:22):

I know most special ed teachers spend extra time preparing their students for daily routines, such as lining up, walking down the hall, rotating stations in class, how to go to the cafeteria, how to get lunch and on and on it goes. The first few weeks, even a month or two can be filled with getting the routines down so our students know what to do in every situation. Time is also spent on preparing kids for more infrequent, but necessary activities such as fire drills.

Lisa (02:52):

The first idea I’m going to share with you today is one I had while editing episode 26 with Emma Haring. She was talking a lot about how she prepares her students for fire drills. So let me backtrack and explain, and then it will all make sense when I share with you the idea I had regarding preparing your students for when you need to be absent from school for a sick day.

Lisa (03:16):

Emma is a moderate to severe teacher, and she really went into detail about how she prepared her students and staff for fire drills, because her students are medically fragile. And so she would prepare daily for the fire drills. Now, not only could fire drills cause stress for the students, but it could also cause seizures or medical emergencies. So it was really important for her in her class to do that daily. So when I read a recent post in a special ed teacher, Facebook group about a teacher who was absent and she had students that really had a hard time with her being gone, it made me think… Maybe we special ed teachers need to prepare our students more often or even daily for the possibility that one of the staff or adults in the classroom could be absent the very next day. So that reminded me of my interview with Emma, how she had a daily practice of preparing for fire drills. Maybe we could do the same type of thing, getting our kids ready for when a staff member might be absent, whether it’s planned or unplanned.

Lisa (04:22):

I know I never explicitly taught my class what to do if I would be absent other than reminding them to behave for the substitute. But I spent hours preparing lesson plans and explaining the whole schedule for a substitute, and getting all the materials organized, but I never had time to explicitly teach the kids what to do or how to be prepared. So here are some ideas that I came up with. However, I am just wanting to start the conversation. I am sure that probably some of you have already done this type of thing. And if you have, I would love for you to go into the Facebook group and share what has worked and what hasn’t worked for you. The Facebook group can be found on Facebook under Help for Special Educators Podcast. And after you listen to this podcast, you will probably come up with even better ideas. So be sure to share them with your colleagues, and if you want to go to my Facebook group, you can go ahead and share those ideas there as well.

Lisa (05:24):

The first thing that I thought of is trying to use positive behavior strategies [PBIS] , which is very common in the schools these days. And that’s where we come up with a matrix of behavior expectations with photos, maybe even videos to help prepare the kids. You can make posters or visuals for our population of students. Social stories can also be used, or even turn a social story into a video. Maybe you could brainstorm some ideas with the other adults in your class. So say, you had a day when you, or one of your staff members was gone and it didn’t go well. Well, talk to your staff and analyze why, what things went wrong? What were the triggers to any outbursts that might’ve happened the day that an adult was gone? Was it the fact that you were absent or was it okay until the child got to the absent person’s group, or were they okay maybe until lunchtime? Then think about how you can use those situations in your future mini-lessons to prepare students for future times when someone is going to be absent.

Lisa (06:28):

As you teach it, just talk about how sometimes any of us might get sick and miss school. Students miss school. And sometimes we’re sad if our friends aren’t there and also adults. Hopefully we are always teaching about how things come up that are unexpected and that we need to be flexible in those situations. The company, Social Thinking has a lot of different lesson ideas and curriculums that can teach you about how to teach kids expected and unexpected things. And Superflex is a great curriculum for teaching flexibility.

Lisa (07:04):

Another idea would be to use Pete, the cat books. How about the one titled, I Love My White Shoes. Unfortunate things happen to Pete while he’s wearing his white shoes and he can choose what his reaction will be. Kids love the song that goes with the book and that can help them learn that they don’t have to have a bad reaction every time they’re disappointed.

Lisa (07:26):

And then after you do your main teaching, perhaps you do this every day for a week, then you’ll want to every so often bring up mini lessons to remind the kids and talk about what to do next time an adult is not in the class. You can make this a short part of your morning meeting every day. You can always point out the matrix that you made if you have it on the wall in your morning meeting area You can use an anchor chart. You could have you and your adults act out a situation or even better in a small group, maybe an adult as a mini-lesson with the kids and then they do a little role play where they act it out.

Lisa (08:05):

Or maybe you have them fill out a little page, focusing on the social-emotional learning, and that it might be okay if someone’s out. Maybe they would draw a picture about what might happen when someone’s out, how you can be prepared for it. And if you’re not prepared for it.

Lisa (08:21):

After kids have been taught, then you might randomly put a situation in during your day where an adult is “absent” even if they’re there. Talk to the kids about what might be different in that situation. The designated absent adult might still be in the room, or you could have them step out of the room for a few minutes. But don’t try to trick your students into thinking that the adult is really absent if they aren’t. So I hope some of those ideas help you get thinking about how you might work on this with your students and help them be better prepared for when there is a big change to the schedule with an adult being out of the classroom. I would love to hear your thoughts. So please join us over in the Facebook group. It’s Help for Special Educators Podcast on Facebook. And I’d love to know what you think about this.

Lisa (09:16):

After you have been preparing your students to be ready when you or an adult will be gone from time to time, you can also look at your schedule and lesson plans. When I started teaching decades ago in general education, the idea was that you leave plans so a substitute can jump right in and do everything just like you would. That might’ve been easier when a sub was used to a certain grade level curriculum that the district used for general ed classes. However, most special ed classes don’t have a curriculum that meets the needs of all their students. In a perfect world, every single lesson is often individualized. I have other blog posts and podcasts episodes on this, but I will briefly say that when you do lesson planning for a substitute or when you know you might be missing staff members, don’t expect to do all the same lessons you would do when everyone is there. For some student populations that might work, but don’t expect that or think that that is the ultimate goal. (Yes. I mean, you perfectionists out there.).

Lisa (10:20):

If you have lots of grade levels, a high-class size, or kids that will act out when you’re gone, your goal should be to focus on routines and reviewing the concepts the kids have already learned. You want everyone to have a positive day and you want the substitute to come back in the future. So I would keep your rotation schedule the same, but put in review activities or games that will keep the kids engaged and occupied throughout the day.

Lisa (10:48):

Teacher is sick on couch wrapped in a blanket.

I also want to address the guilt I hear about from special ed teachers when they have to take a sick day. You should only feel guilty if you do something wrong, you have not done anything wrong if you’re sick and need to stay home, or if you need to stay home to care for a sick family member! (That’s why teachers are given a sick leave bank at the beginning of the year.)

Lisa (11:10):

Just like we don’t want sick kids to come to school, it’s the same for us teachers. If we’re legitimately sick, we need to stay home. However, that does bring up another point. When I really am sick I don’t want to spend hours making lesson plans. So I finally got smart. I did not try to make the perfect lesson plans so that a substitute could come in and do the same thing that I did. Instead, I took my emergency lesson plans that my administration required and I used those, but I just plugged in different, simple activities that could be used all year round. And then if I did have some time and we were doing some special seasonal things, then again, I could plug in a special activity here or there, but I didn’t have to plan out my whole day.

Lisa (11:59):

Once you have a schedule like this set up, not only are you going to have a copy of it at home, but have a copy somewhere in the class where all your staff can find it. And don’t forget to leave a copy where the sub can find it, even if you did turn in emergency lesson plans to the office… because with the times we’re in right now, it is likely that there might be a day when all of your staff is gone and you are gone, and it might only be the substitute and hopefully some substitute staff members. We are living in challenging times, but the more prepared you can be the better off the day will be for your students.

Lisa (12:38):

You cannot prepare for everything and there may be days where some bad things happen, but at least you can know that you did the best that you could. The last thing I’m going to say is that I know this information that I’ve given you is not easy. It might not be easy to come up with all these mini-lessons or matrix, or posters, or how to think through teaching this to your kids. So don’t try to do it all in a weekend, so it’s all ready to go on the next Monday. Take some time, work through it in your head, talk to your staff members, and then just do a little bit at a time with the goal of getting it more organized for next year. Once you figured out a system that works, it will be much easier down the road. So the extra time you’re putting in now is just investment for guilt-free time off in the future.

Lisa (13:35):

You can find links for everything in the show notes at and while you’re there, you should also sign up for my email list. You’ll get more exclusive content. When you get an email from me, as well as hearing about a lot of giveaways or free stuff that I give out, you’ll hear about new products in my Teachers Pay Teachers store or in my Boom Cards store, and what’s happening with the podcast. I send out an email a couple of times a month, if I’m lucky,… maybe more if there’s a sale or something special going on.

Lisa (14:18):

Now, when I start to get stressed or overwhelmed about school stuff, I find it helps to take a moment to slow down, stop and focus on my breathing. Sometimes I also might say the Serenity Prayer aloud or in my head. Here it is: God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference. I might also add a few of my own words. Here’s a sample for us special educators: Help us to listen and truly understand our students. Please give us words, actions, and solutions, which will help in difficult situations. May our classrooms be peaceful places where teachers, staff, and students learn and thrive. After that, I try to go out and find someone else to help because helping others keeps me from selfishly dwelling on my own problems. Thank you so much for listening. And I hope you’ve heard something helpful during this episode that you can implement in your teaching. Remember, you are amazing! What you do makes a difference, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Go find someone else to encourage because they probably need to be reminded that they are amazing, too!

(15:59): End

Check out other podcast episodes!

Sign up for my Teaching mailing list and get free math pages that you can use today to help your students move from counting objects to simple addition!

* indicates required