First Step - Teaching outside your subject - Hitting the right notes

1st May 2009 at 01:00
Minimise the anxiety of teaching outside your subject by breathing correctly, using mind maps and remembering that you have all the necessary skills

Even if you're finally getting to grips with the early starts, the endless report writing and the ins and outs of the curriculum, being asked to do last-minute cover for another teacher will take you away from your comfort zone. As long as you don't panic, this won't be such a scary experience.

According to the Training and Development Agency for schools, cover supervision should not involve subject teaching for primary or secondary NQTs and experienced teachers. Pupils should ideally work on pre-arranged exercises set by the original class teacher but, in reality, cover work may not have been set if the original teacher is off unexpectedly and managing behaviour will be difficult if the class doesn't have specific work to do.

Mike Lamb is an NQT at Hurstpierpoint College in West Sussex, where each teacher makes themselves available for cover a couple of periods each week. "I probably don't have to do it, but it is expected," says Mr Lamb. "Generally though, it's well organised and there will be a lesson plan I can follow."

It's important to remember that the groundwork you have done in other lessons and throughout the school will have paid off when it comes to doing cover. Although you might not know much about the subject, Mr Lamb says that your reputation in the school precedes you and this can be an advantage.

"I know a lot of the pupils by leading extra-curricular activities as well as my own lessons," he says, "and because the pupils see me as an established teacher, I haven't had a problem with it."

If you're a PE teacher having to cover French, or a music teacher trying to get to grips with chemistry, you might not feel equipped to take on a class, but there are general tools to get you through any situation. "You know that you have enough information to set the kids up and then the rest is independent learning on their part," he says. "For example, you can get them to debate things in a small group or start by asking: `What did you do in the last lesson?' to get them talking and to give yourself a bit of background."

Elizabeth Holmes, author of FAQs for NQTs and The NQT Handbook agrees: "It's important for NQTs to remember that even if they don't feel confident covering lessons outside their subject area, they are still competent teachers," she says. "They may have limited subject knowledge, but they are familiar with the generic skills that support learning; skills such as speaking and listening, critical thinking, writing and emotional awareness."

Helen Whitten, an expert in cognitive behavioural therapy, recommends using mind maps to remind yourself of all the facts that you have about this subject. "As soon as you think of something, it will all come flooding back through memory associations - and it doesn't take long."

No matter how confident you are in teaching your own subject and no matter how extensive the lesson plan, it's often the last-minute nature of providing cover that can potentially be so stressful. But there are ways to minimise the anxiety. According to Ms Whitten, taking a few minutes to compose yourself will work wonders on your inner mindset: "Think to yourself - `how do I feel when I do know what I'm talking about' - then ask what physical aspects will communicate this," she says.

Pupils are aware of their teacher's emotional state and it's important to try and communicate confidence and authority, no matter how worried you are deep down. "By breathing in the upper chest rather than diaphragm (which we do when we're nervous), your voice goes a bit funny and the muscles in your throat area tighten. Your voice sounds higher and there's not enough oxygen to speak confidently," says Ms Whitten. She advises taking just three breaths, "we always say in for seven, out for 11 - to send oxygen to the brain and lungs," which will project your voice to appear more confident.

According to Louise Everist, a graduate training programme teacher who works at St John's Primary School in Walsall Wood, providing cover is a great experience and one that she's glad of: "At first you're petrified and you feel like you've been thrown in at the deep end. But it makes you a better teacher," she says. Remember that you have all the skills at your disposal and you'll be swimming

Next week: Working with special needs pupils


- Start the lesson by asking: "What did you cover in your last lesson?" to bring you up-to-date.

- Spend a few minutes writing a mind map to remind yourself of what you do know.

- Act like you're confident and you will exude more authority.

- Have faith in your competence as a teacher, regardless of the subject.

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