Cover lessons – this much I’ve learned…

Due to a combination of timetabling and staff absence caused by the pandemic, in the last 6 months I’ve taken more cover classes than I probably have in my whole career. Initially, I was excited by the opportunity to get out and about in the school, meeting staff and pupils. I marvelled at how much of my own work I could get done during all this time ‘covering’ classes. Then I became frustrated by how little I was actually achieving each week whilst sat in various different rooms around the school.

But then I realised that I quite enjoy the experience of being in different subjects and learning new things, so over the last few weeks I’ve tried to flip my mindset to one which recognises the potential impact a cover teacher can have. For some young people, this interaction with a substitute teacher, despite only being for a short time, will be hugely influential. Seeing this role as crucial to not only the daily logistical running of the school, but also in providing safety and security for our pupils to learn effectively when they face disruption to teaching.

Here are my thoughts on how to survive and thrive as a cover teacher.

Consistent high standards

It might not be your classroom, or your usual pupils, but all the more reason to lean into the consistency of whole school expectations. Please don’t assume that because it’s a ‘cover lesson’ anything goes. Burying your head at your computer, while ignoring the chaos unfolding in front of you does nothing to help you or the class teacher on their return. Ensuring learners are clear from the very beginning of the lesson of what you expect – high standards of work, uniform, no mobile phones, excellent behaviour – will all set the tone for the lesson. You role is vital in creating the culture of the school. If pupils think things slip when they don’t have their normal teacher very quickly they will push the boundaries and the next cover teacher will have a harder time. We’re all in this together. It’s not a case of trying to win favour by letting pupils sit and do nothing. Pupils will ultimately have respect for the teacher who ensures a calm, safe and respectful learning environment.

Never assume you’ll get your own work done.

If you were timetabled a class to teach in your own subject, you wouldn’t be getting on with marking while they worked away in silence. You would be teaching. Explaining. Modelling. Questioning. Checking for understanding. So do the same in a cover lesson. Now you might not be an expert in the subject, in fact some of it especially in senior school might be incredibly complex. However use the pupils expertise and get them to teach you what the know. Try not to become frustrated about what you ‘could’ be spending this time doing. Instead, focus on how to get the best from the learners. What support and encouragement can you give them to help them succeed?

You get what you give

I always feel far more satisfied leaving a cover lesson when I’ve engaged with the young people, learned some new names and felt useful. You might not have been the subject expert their own teacher is, however if you’ve made an effort to support their learning, the chances are they’ve made more progress than they would have had you got on with your own work. I’ve surprised myself by writing out maths examples on the white board to help pupils stuck with factors. Although I do have an A in Higher maths, I struggled to remember how it all worked, but together we got there. Your uncertainty can be a great stimulus to question young people – ‘Where should this be?’ ‘Why?’ ‘What happens if I do this?’ Forcing then to explain their reasoning and justification. Setting work and then explaining that we will go over it together is a good way to encourage pupil accountability as they know you might call upon them to explain. The more you give to the pupils, the more you’ll get out of them and the lesson.

If it’s too complicated to explain, it’s probably too complicated to leave as cover work.

I’m sure we’ve all been there. Trying to type up cover work to leave for an imminent absence. Sometimes I’ve got myself tied in knots trying to write out instructions and explanations of what pupils should do. Yes you might be keen that pupils move on with the work as you had planned, but think about what is best for them. And the teacher covering the class. Teaching new content, or lessons which require lots of equipment or organisation are generally not the best cover lessons. Instead, retrieval practice, reviewing material which has already been covered or practising a technique which has already been taught, tend to be simple yet effective as lessons to be lead by a non-subject specialist. The other benefit of this type of lesson is that because content is being reviewed, there should be a relatively high success rate. Not only is this improving learners understanding but it is also helping to motivate them as they begin to build confidence in their success.

Improvise

Unfortunately sometimes there requires an element of improvisation. Having some great Ted talks, iPlayer documentaries or team building games can be handy to have up your sleeve. Hopefully you won’t ever have to call upon them, but it helps you feel in control and prepared in case the need presents itself. I remember as a pupil, a guidance teacher stood in for my regular maths teacher one day and did a brilliant ad-hoc lesson on aspirations for the future. She got us all to discuss and write down our 10 hopes for the future. I stuck that piece of paper on my pinboard in my bedroom until I was at least twenty and it became ingrained as a kind of daily reminder of my ‘why?’ I’ll never forget that lesson with Ms Owens – something so simple can have a profound effect on young people.

Be prepared

Some pencils, rubbers and paper are handy to take with you, just in case. You probably won’t need them, but again you can feel confident that you don’t have to get stressed trying to find simple things in a room you don’t know, while pupils procrastinate getting themselves started. It’s these transition points that can set the tone for the lesson, so allowing for minimal fuss and disruption at the start really helps to ensure a focussed and productive start to the task. Another handy thing to make sure you have a note of is a phone list. I have mine stuck into the front of my planner so that I’m always able to make a call if needed. Again you probably won’t need to, but it will help you to feel confident to know you have it at your finger tips if you need it.

As everyone working in schools knows, when teaching staff are absent, it has huge implications. In one day, secondary teachers may impact 100 pupils through the course of 6 periods. Therefore this absence is felt far more in a school than the absence of a member of SLT who may have minimal teaching contact. For the pupils of this teacher, the disruption and anxiety caused by the change of routine, lack of familiarity and uncertainty can be hugely daunting. This is particularly pertinent during these difficult Covid times. However ensuring consistency, whole school routine and shared culture can go a long way to support these pupils effectively during cover lessons. Yes it would be nice to get some stuff done. But ultimately what difference will it make to the learners in front of you?

In your next cover lesson, embrace the learning. Look out for those struggling with the change of routine. And do your best to support the young people. I guarantee you will feel more fulfilled than spending the period constantly telling pupils to be quiet and stressing about how little you have achieved.

Have a good week everyone.

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