'Want the class eating out your hand? Shock and awe'

When the secret supply teacher meets a new class, he opts for one of three approaches: shock and awe, take no shit and laconic realism


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

During my long career as a teacher, I’ve experimented with a range of approaches to getting the best from a class. Teaching strategies will depend on the nature of the group and the particular skills or subject area being taught, of course. So what might work for a top set analysing the causes of the Wall Street crash won’t necessarily do for less-able students trying to learn how to conjugate irregular verbs in French. 

As a supply teacher, you don’t tend to get much choice over what or who you’re teaching, and, in most cases, the lesson itself is planned in advance, teaching strategies and all. Having said that, once you’re in front of a class, I think it’s fair enough for a supply teacher to tweak the lesson plan a little, if only because some teachers set cover work that just isn’t fit for purpose. Recently, I was left a box of tape measures, some springs and some graph paper, and given instructions by an over-ambitious science teacher to get his Year 7 class to perform some insanely complicated calculations using Hooke’s Law. We took the tape measures, dumped everything else, went outside and measured a bunch of random stuff. Everyone had a whale of a time. 

As a supply teacher, you’ve got to hit the ground running and get the class paying attention and doing what you ask them to do, all without the luxury of building a rapport over weeks or months. 

Over the past year, I’ve been experimenting with different approaches to take when faced with a new class, so as to yield the best results in the shortest time. I’ve whittled the different methods down to three. 

Shock and awe

The first method I refer to as the “shock and awe” approach. The idea here is to start the lesson at high intensity, launching into an excited rant about the work, not waiting for anyone to stop talking, just relying on the explosion of activity from the front of the classroom to quell any chatter (or possibly frighten them into thinking they’re being taught by a lunatic). Ideally, you’ll have some knowledge of the subject of the lesson to make this work. But I’ve happily given lengthy explanations of topics I’ve known almost nothing about: it’s very much a case of style over substance. The goal is not to give anyone a second to question who you are or why you’re there. Admittedly, this is a harder task (for me, at least) when introducing a worksheet of quadratic equations than it is entering into a lesson analysing The Wasteland but, with the right level of demented enthusiasm, you can have a class engaged and working before they know what’s hit them.

Take no shit

The second approach could be referred to as the “take no shit” method. Minimal time is spent outlining the work (90 per cent of the time it’s going to be a worksheet anyway, so just read the instructions at the top of the page, doofus!) brook no nonsense, and aim to test out the school’s behaviour policy and see how many kids you can get excluded from the room within the first five minutes. No smiling, no banter, no second chances. 

Laconic realist

The third approach I call the “laconic realist” approach. It goes like this:

“Good morning Year X. I’m your teacher for the next hour. My name is…actually, there’s no point me telling you my name because the chances are you’ll never see me again. Your regular teacher has set some work for you to do and you can do it or not do it. I’m certainly not going to make you. If you don’t want to do any work, then please try not to stop anyone else who does. If you want any help, just ask.”

At this point, I sit down and open a book. This tends to have a similar effect to method one, as the class sit in stunned silence, trying to work out what the hell’s going on. It’s a rare day when a teacher tells them that they have a choice about whether to work or not. I think they often suspect it’s a trick. But when they see that I mean it, the kids who were probably going to do the work anyway get down to work, and the ones who weren’t, don’t, but they tend to do it quietly. With nothing to rebel against, some of them even get bored and end up doing the work. 

I think Taoists have a term for this kind of action through non-action. It’s definitely come to be my favoured approach if I know I’m facing a tough crowd. No one gets thrown out of the class, I get to take it easy, and some work even gets done. For a supply teacher, that’s as good as it gets.

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

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