About 11 months ago, I came to live in London, for new experiences and adventures. To live in the country of my father’s youth, and have more opportunities to see my family and friends here. To fund this, I’ve been working as a supply teacher, mostly in secondary schools, and all in the western half of the city. On occasion, the agency who get me work have even required me to head out to Surrey and Berkshire.
Supply teacher, cover teacher, casual relief teacher, emergency teacher. There are various names for the job, but our experiences all tend to be similar. And unfortunately, sometimes the negative experiences significantly outweigh the positive ones. And these need to be shared.
If you are a classroom teacher (of any subject), please glance through the following advice for days when your classes will inevitably be taken by someone else. There are some problematic practices that I want to address. (And while I’m sure many of you will find these obvious, there are plenty of teachers who don’t follow these)
For a school to create a culture of truly positive student behaviour, it must include effective classes with cover/supply teachers. Otherwise these classes become an utter waste of time.
The following come from my own experiences, and discussions with other supply teachers. As stated, most of my experience is in secondary schools, however these are also applicable to primary.
Please note: do not assume that because a supply teacher doesn’t know your students, that we don’t care about them, and genuinely want to help. In an average school, with 6 periods, we could see 150+ different students in a day, every day. But we care about each one. We are teachers, just as you are, and our job is to help get the best out of your students when you’re unable to be there. We will rejoice at the achievements of students we’ve just met. And we’ll take home new baggage every day.
1. Work left MUST BE EITHER RELEVANT OR FUN. Do not leave work that does not relate to what your students are studying, or that they’ve already done, or is too advanced.
If the work is relevant, then YOU MUST CHECK IT. Do not expect a supply teacher to mark one day’s work which you can then put aside. We’re not lazy, we’ll mark things if you really need us to, of course. But students learn very quickly when a particular teacher’s cover work is irrelevant and never marked (or only marked by the supply teacher and never checked by you) and we have a hell of a job trying to get them to settle to work they consider a waste of time. Then we waste time on discipline instead of being able to teach, get to know the students and help them with the work, and this creates a negative environment for your class. Students must be taught that they are still accountable for their work with a different teacher. Senior students (who have large pieces of work) generally understand this, which is partly why they tend to be much easier to get along with.
If you do not intend to mark cover work, or teach a highly specialised subject that can only be led by an expert, or are just unable to be there at the last minute, leave something FUN. A playful creative task, or a video related to your subject. This way the students won’t mind doing something that won’t be checked, because it will engage them. But note: don’t leave exactly the same type of thing each time! Plan cover lessons as well as you would your own. Honestly, there are many times I wished the teacher had just let the students watch a video, and potentially learnt something in a relaxed environment, instead of leaving inappropriate, never-to-be-checked work in a room that ends up too noisy and stressful for all.
2. Some teachers do not leave written notes, and are present at the beginning of a class to explain the work. In theory, I generally don’t mind this approach, as it shows the students that the class teacher considers the work important.
What we do mind, however, is when the teacher leaves it til a few minutes after the bell to enter the room – by which point the students are seated and the cover teacher is searching high and low for some instructions, then asking students what they did last time in order to try and make something up.
Please understand that this uncertainty shows the students that the cover teacher has no authority or prior understanding of that class, and seriously undermines our position. Cover teaching requires a good deal of bluff when there is no advance notice of the work – using our existing knowledge of a subject, or trying to quickly read ahead to introduce the work and show the students that we are capable of leading the class. Not to mention instantly trying to decipher students’ personalities and behaviour. When you leave us to flounder, the students see that we are not in control of the situation; we are not leading. And students need to have confidence in their teacher, someone they can look to for help and advice.
Also, if you are thus prone to leaving verbal instructions for your class, please DO NOT DECIDE THE WORK ON THE SPOT! Flicking through a textbook umming and ahing in front of your students will NOT inspire them to see the work as relevant, or imagine that you care much.
3. Don’t tell the students what they’ll be doing in your absence THEN WRITE SOMETHING DIFFERENT IN YOUR NOTES. Unless of course you’ve just changed your mind. That’s fine. So mention this in your notes. True examples: notes say continue with subject workbook, students say they’re allowed to do another subject’s work instead. Notes say answer questions in the textbook, students say they’re supposed to continue watching a movie. Way to make us look like fools.
4. Ensure that you leave plenty of work. Too much. True example: asking Yr 10 English students to write a 250-word reflection based on news articles collected for homework is not nearly enough for a 50-minute class. Because when a rowdy student assures me that he’ll be able to do it all in the last 20 minutes, it might actually be true. 250 words is less than one page. And when students finish the work waaay before the bell and ask ‘What do we do now?’ it’s nice to have an answer that *I haven’t made up on the spot*.
5. Please leave DETAILED notes, where necessary. This is most important with specialist subjects, even ICT. Play it safe and assume the cover teacher doesn’t know your subject. Notes that are too brief can lead to too many questions from students about what work is to be done that the cover teacher simply cannot answer (there again destabilising our position as a leader). Try to predict what questions might be raised. Where possible and appropriate, write notes that go step-by-step through the work.
The best cover notes are those that could be followed by a student teacher, or even a non-teacher: clear, ordered, and with appropriate detail. This means we spend minimal time reading them before the class can begin their work.
6. Please help your students to believe that you care about them. I have had numerous students complain to me about their class teacher, and state that he/she doesn’t care about them. I’ve even been asked ‘Miss, why do you care so much?’ after speaking to two other students about their behaviour-monitoring reports.
This may seem like I’m making a big deal out of this, when you think ‘yes, but I almost never miss classes’. Please remember that your students may miss plenty of other classes – enough to witness patterns, and develop negative behaviours.
We are not babysitters – we are also not crowd controllers. We are teachers who should expect exactly the same type of behaviour as any other teacher in the school, and not the pervasive belief among students that when there’s a cover teacher the work doesn’t matter (which is too often true), and they can do what they like.
~ L.Q. ~