How to keep a lid on supply class disruption

11th April 2014 at 01:00
Life as a cover teacher can sometimes feel like feeding time at the zoo, but this handy guide gives you the tools to tame the beasts

"Do you have Year 9 food technology after lunch?" asks a friendly teaching assistant.

I check my timetable. It turns out that I do.

"Oh," she says, eyes downcast. "I overheard the kids plotting what antics they were planning for your lesson. I thought I should warn you."

When you work as a supply teacher, these warnings are pretty common. Sometimes they are erroneous and you discover the staff were simply trying to wind you up, but generally such grim predictions turn out to be entirely accurate.

As a teacher without any of the benefits that full-time staff enjoy - the opportunity to build relationships with the children, senior leadership team attack dogs, prior knowledge of the class, seating plans and the rest - what can you do about it?

Well, you learn fast as a supply teacher. See these hurdles as impassable mountains and you won't last long. See them instead as small speed bumps - easily negotiated if you adopt the right strategies - and you'll find supply teaching can be incredibly rewarding. Over the course of many years, I have settled on the following basic framework to ensure supply success.

Don't believe the hype

If you go into the lesson believing that the 30 or so children can destroy you, they most certainly will. Students can smell fear. So ignore the warnings and give the class the benefit of the doubt. Assume that every student will work to the best of their ability - it's unlikely this assumption will prove correct but your high expectations will pay dividends. Also, have confidence in your ability to teach a new class, and act assertively even if you don't feel that way.

Wise up

Controlling the class can become even more difficult if students decide to adopt a false identity. Usually a sensible student will tell you who is who, but if not you can pinpoint their real names easily enough by simply checking their exercise books. Year photos are useful in some cases, but not all children will look like their picture.

Avoid unnecessary battles

Sometimes a teaching assistant will point out that the students are not in their assigned seats, but if you don't have a seating plan to correct it you have only a couple of options. You can reseat everyone according to the vague recollection of the teaching assistant, but this gains you very little and takes time; or you can tell the class that you reserve the right to move anyone if they are off task. By using the latter approach you can establish control without picking a pointless battle.

Establish early benchmarks

Once you have everyone's attention, quickly set out your top three rules for the lesson and, if you have time, write them on the board. Mine are: everyone must listen while the teacher is speaking; work to the best of your ability; and show good manners to everyone in the room.

Keep a record

Ask for two copies of the class register - one for attendance and the other to note down positive and negative behaviour. This way you have a record of which students played up and which worked hard to pass on to the usual class teacher.

Constantly monitor the class

Keep your eyes on everything - scan the room to ensure that you know what is happening. Praise good behaviour and nip bad behaviour in the bud before it can flower.

Patience is a necessity

When covering a lesson, you must set your tolerance levels extremely high. You don't have the time or the relationships to act like their normal teacher. That doesn't mean ignoring misbehaviour, it just means tempering your response slightly and letting small things go more often than the class teacher would. If you do have to act, it is best to take the student aside privately rather than deal with 29 potential supporters turning against you.

Ask for help

If you have not been able to settle a class after five to 10 minutes, get a student who has been acting more sensibly to go to reception and ask for support. Schools would rather you say that you need help than ignore the problem. Usually they will know the challenging classes and will not be surprised if you have to ask for assistance.

Be ready for the last 10 minutes

The end of a lesson is always disruptive, regardless of who is teaching, so take some time fillers for those last 10 minutes when a class can become restless - for example, I use critical-thinking games.

Report back

Don't be afraid to feed back to the class teacher and the school about your experience. Grumbling in private about a lack of support or poor preparation will solve nothing. Only by reporting back can you ensure that your fellow supply teachers have an easier time in the future.

Lois Parham is a supply teacher working in England

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