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Lesson plans and sympathy

Be prepared for when illness strikes in your staffroom, writes Susan Young

With the cold and flu season upon us, all team leaders should be thinking about how they will deal with the difficulties of teacher absences caused by sickness.

When a teacher is off sick for the day, it helps if the team has an agreed means of managing the immediate problem - do you expect teachers to phone with details of work set, or do they use email, for instance? A clear procedure is essential. The process of getting the work to classes is something everyone in the team can help with. One way might be for a person to take responsibility for Year 7 classes, another Year 8, and so on. A more robust system would be to pair up staff so that if one is away, the partner takes responsibility. This helps the team to develop and sustain shared management.

When a teacher is away for three or four days you will have to manage a supply teacher. With luck the person will be a specialist, but probably will not. This is where the benefits of the schemes of work will become clear: setting out lesson-by-lesson objectives, including resources and pupil activities, will make it easier to adapt a lesson plan for a non-specialist or someone unfamiliar with the subject requirements.

For the long term, it's useful to think of a case history. Mr Green had been absent from school for two weeks. He'd had a bout of flu and his doctor signed him off. When the sick note elapsed he still didn't feel ready to come back and said he felt unable to cope with the demands of his full-time job. His doctor signed him off for a further week and Mr Green thought he'd be back at school after that. It quickly became apparent that he was finding the prospect of a return to school increasingly problematic; would he ever have the confidence to return? Sound familiar?

One of the most challenging problems is when a teacher is absent for a long time, particularly when the illness is depression or a stress reaction. Sometimes people can end up losing their confidence, or may be off with physical problems that turn into psychological ones.

The time to take action is sooner rather than later; it's easier to undo arrangements when someone does return, rather than rescue a situation some weeks or months down the line. Talking to the deputy head about how the timetable can be changed to manage the most vulnerable classes is one useful strategy. Having schemes of work is even more important, but other strategies such as team teaching (you may have a reliable supply teacher who lacks the confidence to deliver the subject to the required level) can ensure that classes are taught during this uncertain period. Whatever you decide, it is important to use the team to manage the problem, otherwise the team leader may end up becoming unwell as a result.

People sometimes find returning difficult because they feel embarrassed or nervous about being with their colleagues again. Teaching requires huge amounts of self-confidence - as well as energy - and when we lose it, some find it difficult to regain. Keeping in regular contact benefits us all. Talking to absent teachers about school helps them to feel part of it. Be sensitive.

What about when absent colleagues return? Briefing notes about the work that's been done will help. Talking to the teacher about why they were absent, if they are recovered and how their classes were covered is a sensible and friendly tactic. Talking to the team about how to react when a colleague returns from long-term sick leave benefits all and helps sustain the team dynamic.

Coping with absence is one of the more difficult aspects of the team leader's work. Developing effective systems and being proactive can smooth difficulties and, paradoxically, help to cut absence levels. This reduces the impact on pupils and eases the burden on everyone - including the absent teacher.

Susan Tranter is deputy head at Matthew Arnold secondary school, Oxford

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