We all need to be away from class at one time or another. There are unplanned absences — most of us (unfortunately) get sick; family emergencies happen; pet rabbits die. One may not be able to leave detailed instructions for a substitute teacher; a nasty flu is not conducive to emailing a decent list of “to dos”. For your students, some of your absences will be more productive than others.
But other absences — conferences, school trips, appointments with your accountant or psychic — are booked in advance. What happens in these situations is the going concern. When we know that we’ll be away, we can put some thought into preparing a class that will benefit student learning and engagement, without looking like useless busy-work. To address this concern, I have adopted the economists’ wisdom. That is, human beings respond to incentives. (So do rats, if the incentive is a little pellet of rat food — or your lunch.) If we incentivize students with their “rat food” — marks — they will spend the period employed productively.
Hands-down, tests are the best, when I’m away from the nest. Who needs the subject teacher on a test day? That is so cool — we can be AWOL with no loss of instructional time. As long as the test is well-thought-out and clearly written, with data sheets, scantron cards and blank paper, a supply teacher or colleague can invigilate.
Here’s another idea: Give ’em an open-book, collaborative assignment that is due at the end of the period. When you tune in that hidden web-cam in your classroom (not!), you’ll see a bunch of busy beavers working together to earn a decent grade. If you want ‘em to work even harder, make the marks count as a bonus. Teenagers are funny like that — work that may not get done under normal circumstances will be submitted with gusto if it counts as a bonus.
Gotta love bonuses.