Twinkl content writer, qualified English teacher and sometimes cover supervisor Paul Brand shares his blueprints for surviving cover lessons.
The hazy, indeterminate nature of cover lessons makes them a battleground from which nobody emerges with much credit, and I speak as someone who’s fought on all sides. Is there any solution to the age-old conflict that arises whenever the regular class teacher has to temporarily vacate their position of authority?
Let’s start with the kids. The eyes of even the brightest and best light up at the sight of a cover teacher trooping through the gates. Looking on a bright side of their own, regular teachers should take this as a compliment: pupils know that you are in charge of your classroom. The same cannot be said of a new recruit, and teenagers in particular relish the opportunity to play top dog. And these dogs have teeth – even in top sets in outstanding schools, I have witnessed kids bite. Beware the artillery that immature and unshackled minds are able to fashion!
Part of the problem is lack of stimulation; there is a widespread assumption that work set in cover lessons is mere filler and doesn’t actually count for anything. I was never a troublemaker in my own schooldays but would freely admit to going into relaxed mode whenever anybody with a visitor’s pass wrote the instructions on the whiteboard. So how do we make the content of cover lessons more meaningful to students? Over to the class teacher…
Command Sergeant Major
Some cover is easier to set than others. If the absence is planned in advance then you can lay the groundwork leading into an independent activity for which pupils are fully prepped; there can be no excuses if they fail to deliver in the lesson, although it’s a cast-iron certainty that there will still be some blank pages handed in so be prepared to sanction lackadaisical scholars accordingly. It’s also more straightforward finding meaningful and measurable activities for exam groups who have a more clearly vested interest in their outcomes.
Planning for KS3 from your sick-bed, on the other hand, can be a feverish nightmare! Ever returned to a bundle of cover work and not been able to figure out what exactly it was you asked them to do? It’s tempting to bin such dross but that only reinforces the viewpoint we’re battling against, that a cover lesson equates to a free period. In these instances, departments could step up by having a go-to set of resources that save individual teachers the ball-ache of having to think creatively at a time when every fibre of their body aches or when it’s a struggle to contain the contents of their stomach, let alone provide impromptu content for a five-period day. That’s also where Twinkl can step in. There’s a handful of standalone lessons specially designed with cover in mind. There’s also a wealth of worksheets that could be collated into specific class-targeted cover packs to last multiple lessons. Moreover, many have self-assessment material that prevents a pile of marking from stacking up during a period of convalescence.
Turning last, but not least, to those who deliver the lesson content that’s been either hastily or painstakingly crafted: the cover supervisor. You know that summertime feeling of half-excitement, half-dread that comes with opening a new classroom door to meet fresh faces waiting to be won over to your side? Imagine feeling that every day. Only the school corridors seem like a labyrinth and your knowledge of school policies is limited to a side of A4 thrust into your hand minutes earlier. You’re in opposition territory and, as established earlier, the kids know it. What would you want to help you through the hour-long battle ahead?
First and foremost, clear instructions and work that students can see the point of. Maths, Science, MFL and Humanities tend to rely on text books to do the teaching, English and the Arts rather less so, although the increased weighting given to SPaG lends itself to regular skills checks that could fill a plethora of cover lessons and help meet whole-school literacy targets. Again, Twinkl have got that covered.
Code of Conduct
The gist here is that we should be raising expectations but it’s also important to temper expectations in terms of how much help and encouragement a class might get from a cover supervisor. The job title indicates the limitations: supervising often feels like glorified babysitting in which the mission is to keep the peace rather than impart knowledge. As a qualified teacher I consider it my duty to cajole work from them by any means necessary but not all have received training in pedagogy and I’ve heard of other cover supervisors who put their feet up and read the paper. While being more coercive than most, with pupils also liable to down tools, I have to accept that if I were as strict as in my own classroom it would damage rapport and probably result in a backlash. In-house cover supervisors and frequent visitors have the distinct advantage of being able to build camaraderie and raise standards over time.
In short, ground can be gained with a change in the culture of cover work that is achievable if all sides buy into it. And you can always arm yourself to the hilt by buying into Twinkl.
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