You can do it in a half-arsed way, or you can do it right. In either case, the students will know exactly which option you’ve chosen within about five seconds. I’m talking about taking cover lessons.
Nobody loves cover. People who say they do are usually being interviewed for management positions. Cover is a necessary evil, and if you’re worth your pigeon hole you’ll accept it with stoicism as part of contributing to the greater good – like paying your taxes.
Classes seem to respond to the news with joy in inverse proportion to the misery felt by the cover teacher. If the teacher’s heart drops in their ribcage, then the kids will be punching the air and high-fiving. Why? Because it means it’s playtime. Because they know that, like in the horror film The Purge, the normal rules are suspended.
But if you look behind the mobbish yawps you will find more nuanced reactions. Half the kids hate cover lessons as much as the other half love them. They prefer order over disorder, guided industry over the life of Peter Pan’s Lost Boys. In fact, I’ll bet that more than half of students feel this way, but the louder voices drown out the squares. And when you think about it, our job is to be the squarest in the room.
Supply teachers live in this crucible: constantly scalded, constantly tested. Every lesson is the first and relationships are brittle and jagged. If the school culture is civil, lessons can be lovely. The teacher can slip right into an unfamiliar world and become part of the joy. Personally, I love teaching a subject outside my area just to see what the students do.
Here’s the half-arsed way for supply to happen: you find out you need to cover a lesson five minutes before it starts. There’s no agreed procedure so you scan the staffroom table, hoping that something has been left for you. Of course, there is nothing. The kids are already in the room when you get there, but you have to leave and ask for work from the teacher next door, who looks at you as if you’ve asked for a kidney.
They tell you the books are in the room or give you the world’s worst cover work: draw your hand; write a poem about Easter; revise for next lesson’s test. Or, most heinous of all: carry on with work from the previous lesson. When I hear that I want to set off the fire alarms.
Or it can be done right. You get told at the start of the day and there’s a designated place for work to be collected. You know the teacher’s name, the room and the learning objectives. You also know who’s who because there’s a seating plan. And, if you’re really lucky, it has the pupils’ faces on it. The head of department checks in with you before you go in, and then again halfway through the lesson, to make sure you’re comfortable.
All that’s left is for you to deliver the lesson – not just dump it in students’ laps and hope for the best but actually teach the stuff. And the start of doing that is believing that the lesson is your lesson, not some wart you have to burn off from your day. That’s when the kids will begin to see it isn’t just a cover lesson, it’s actually just a lesson.
Tom Bennett is a secondary teacher in East London, director of the ResearchED conference and the government’s school behaviour expert