'In the last week of term, we are all supply teachers'

Letting the kids decide what’s going to happen in the last lessons of the term can have several positive outcomes, says the secret supply teacher


Coronavirus: Our job insecurity has been extended indefinitely, writes the secret supply teacher

“It feels like a week too far,” a colleague at the school where I’m currently working said to me this morning, as we began the last week of the summer term

Every teacher has sympathy with this feeling. In the final days before the long summer break, it’s a case of counting down the minutes until the kids leave the compound and the barbecue is fired up for the staff end-of-term party. It’s inevitable that, after weeks stuck in foetid, airless classrooms and coping with the psychological trauma of the exam period, the dying days of the year can tend to lack a little purpose.

It doesn’t have to be that way, though. The last week of term can be reimagined to be something joyous and worthwhile. Or, if that seems a little far-fetched, perhaps at least not a total waste of everyone’s time. 

Opinion: Summer: a time of late mornings and mixed emotions

Countdown: Five myths about the final days of term

Transition: Farewell to the kings and queens of the playground 

Conceding battlegrounds

The key is to recognise that the last week of the school year is not like the other weeks, and that any teachers who fool themselves into thinking it is will be in for a rough ride. 

One of the things I’ve had to learn pretty fast doing day-to-day supply is that, when the will of the class is moving one way, you need to quit fighting against it, know that you can’t win every battle, and try and get in front of the stampede to steer it in a direction that will work for everyone.

Worksheet wars

An example I come across far more frequently than you might imagine (or probably not, if you’ve ever worked a supply gig) is when the work an absent teacher has left for the class has already been done. It tends to go like this:

Me: Your teacher has set this lovely worksheet for you all and I know she’d be delighted if you could get it done even though she’s not here today.

Student: Sir, we’ve done this sheet before.

Me: (Internal thoughts: Bullshit. You haven’t even looked at it. Stop trying to cause me grief.) Are you sure? Perhaps it just looks similar to one you’ve done. 

Second student: No, we’ve definitely done this one. Look (thrusts scrappy page of exercise book under my nose with the worksheet completed and glued in).

(Rest of class agree and begin to whine.)

At this point, I could stamp a pedagogic foot and insist that they’re going to do it anyway, and that it’s revision. Or I can recognise that the collective will of the class has shifted. I’ve done both, but generally, shifting positions with them is the better option. If I make them do the worksheet again, everyone knows it’s a waste of time and at best we all carry on annoyed and frustrated. So sometimes I try this:

Me: OK, so what do you suggest we do for the next hour?

Cue shouts of “Sleep”, “Go home” “Watch [insert name of latest wildly inappropriate Netflix series]” etc. Until they see I’m serious, and then they start to come up with some suggestions. Some of them are even pretty good.

Tough sell

I think we should apply the same idea to the last few lessons of the year. It’s a tough sell for any teacher to plough on with the regular work regardless (and doubly so for the cover teacher). And, even if you do get anything done, you’ll probably find the resentment that accompanies it has such lasting impact that it makes the whole thing a bad call. 

Teachers who’ve been around the block a few times know this, and are willing to be a little more flexible for the last week of term (despite stern warnings from that killjoy in SLT who reminds staff that the “showing of videos is prohibited and there should be no deviation from regular teaching practices” – easy for you to say, hidden away in your office). 

It’s OK to play Kahoot!, watch an “educationally relevant” film or allow some informal chat about plans for the summer. It could be a chance to let the students make some decisions about their own learning. Throw out a few questions such as: “What have you learned this year?” (yes, of course some smartarse will shout “Nothing!”; ignore them), “What topics do you need to go over again?” and, for the self-assured and confident teacher: “How could I have taught things better?” 

We all need a break from the relentless, soul-destroying treadmill that school can become, and letting the kids decide what’s going to happen in the last lessons of the term can have several positive outcomes. Maybe they’ll use the time to consolidate some of the learning from the year just gone. Maybe they’ll have the chance to reflect and consider how they can be more effective learners next year. 

And, if nothing else, you won’t be saddled with the label of the teacher who forces everyone to work up to the final minute, because no one wants to be that guy.

The writer has recently taken up supply teaching after 20 years in a full-time teaching job

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