There are two sides to the problem of staff cover – the emotional upset you experience when you realise you are not well enough to be at work, and the practical difficulties your absence generates

Your’s sick and you realise you cannot go into work. Or there’s a family or personal issue. You know only too well that your absence will cause timetable problems and that your place will have to be covered by a colleague or supply staff.

It would not be appropriate in this article to discuss the pros and cons of deciding if you are able to be at work or not, other than to say that if you are genuinely not well, then work is the last place you should be. It is important for all staff to feel confident and supportive of the systems in place to provide cover for absent staff. The other side of the problem relates to the practical difficulties and to the emotional turmoil that loss of ‘non-contact’ time can generate. I realise that primary school colleagues may feel a sense of indignation at this point. A well-known comment from primary school staff is: ‘We don’t have non-contact time!’ Nevertheless, staff absence will still cause disruption to the timetable and, even in primary schools, will mean that some staff will have to alter their normal (and prepared) workload.

With all this emotional upset, it is clear that it is all too easy for the behaviour of both staff and pupils to be adversely affected. Consider the following points.

  • If you are the teacher who is ill at home, you already feel ill, and you could be suffering all kinds of guilty thoughts about the problems your absence is causing.
  • If you are in charge of arranging cover you may be experiencing feelings of frustration, and trepidation (especially when you are delivering the bad news!).
  • If you are the teacher whose timetable is being disrupted to provide cover, you may be feeling angry, picked on, or under pressure as something needs to be put on hold.
  • If you are a student in the lesson being covered you may be missing your regular teacher, worried about how the rest of the class will respond or even be the one who gets into trouble due to your behaviour.

Practical Tips

There are many management issues that should be addressed in the workplace that can alleviate causes of stress related to ‘cover’.

  • Adhere to agreed systems of contacting school as soon as possible.
  • Have a nominated person in charge of cover arrangements.
  • Create a no-blame environment which promotes a consistent and collective sense of responsibility within the whole staff group.
  • Take a school-wide approach to behaviour management that allows a consistent response from all staff, whilst allowing a certain degree of individuality.

Whilst the above tips are useful as a management guide, they are not specific enough to aid behaviour management during the actual cover lesson.

How to help colleagues who are covering for you

Taking steps to prepare for times when you are not present can be very helpful.

  • Your behaviour rules, rewards and consequences should be well rehearsed and be on display in the classroom.
  • A seating plan certainly helps to manage behaviour and is a great boon to supply teachers who struggle with names, etc.
  • Always make sure that your lesson plans, resource list, etc, are available in your classroom, and not just in your notebook, or on the back seat of your car!
  • It’s always good practice to leave your room tidy and well prepared. You never know, it might not be you coming in to teach in that area in the morning!

Covering a lesson for a colleague

If it does fall to you to provide cover, just when you thought you could catch up on that marking/preparation, please do not go in with the ‘You might do that with Mr… but you’ve got me today!’ attitude. You are making things difficult for yourself before you start.

There are several pointers worth remembering which will have a positive effect on both your behaviour and that of the students.

  • Remind yourself of generic approaches to behaviour before you begin the cover lesson, the school-wide expectations and rules.
  • Make sure you don’t go into the lesson ’empty handed’. Spare pens, pencils and knowledge of where the paper is stored is a good tip. A collection of ‘extra’ activities is always handy for those students who finish early or have credible excuses for not undertaking the set work.
  • Be clear about your expectations.
  • Present yourself as confident and consistent. We all know that a ‘specialism’ of many students is to test how far they can bend the rules or which buttons to press to have the greatest effect.

Don’t feel guilty if you really cannot be in your normal place of work, but also don’t feel upset, angry or anxious about providing cover for an absent colleague.

Find out more:

Articles on behaviour management
Behaviour management publications
> Back to the Behaviour Matters index page

This e-bulletin issue was first published in September 2007

About the author: Dave Stott is the author of Behaviour Matters. He has nearly 30 years’ teaching experience including seven years at headteacher level. Dave has worked in mainstream and special schools and Local Authority Behaviour Support Services, and is now a successful consultant and trainer.