The behaviour of students can be adversely affected when their regular teacher is absent. How can you be best prepared for such problems and what are the management issues that need to be addressed before such a situation arises?

There is a double edge to the problems that arise when providing staff cover for absent colleagues. First, there is the feeling of some anxiety when teachers realise that they are not well enough to be at work, or any other reason that compels them to be absent. Most teachers are aware that their absence will cause timetabling difficulties and that their place will have to be covered by a colleague or, in some cases, by supply staff. However, any member of staff forced by circumstances to be absent will feel supported if they have confidence in the systems that are in place to cover such eventualities.

Second, feelings of anxiety can arise from the practical difficulties that the loss of any non-contact time or change of normal timetable can generate when colleagues are absent from school. Nevertheless, staff absences still cause disruption and can mean that some staff are obliged to alter their normal (and prepared) workload ,finding themselves in an unfamiliar teaching situation, with possibly, unfamiliar pupils. Under these circumstances emotions can run high producing dramatic changes to the usual calm, controlled behaviour.

The causes of stress related to cover should be be anticipated, planned for and, where possible, alleviated for all those involved. Consider these stress points:

  1. Absent teachers, in addition to the anxiety caused by their illness, may be experiencing feelings of guilt about the problems their absence will cause.
  2. Staff members in charge of arranging cover may be experiencing feelings of frustration and trepidation, especially when they are delivering the news about the absence.
  3. Teachers having to provide cover may be feeling angry, picked on or under pressure as their planned timetable is unexpectedly disrupted.
  4. Students in the class being covered may be missing their regular teacher or worrying about how the rest of the class will respond, and, because of their anxiety, may resort to disruptive behaviour.

To manage these situations, use a three-step approach:

Plan, prepare and then have a consistent way of presenting the cover lesson.

Practical Tips

Step 1: Planning

  1. Staff should adhere to an agreed system of contacting the school as soon as they know that they will be absent.
  2. Nominate one staff member to take charge of cover arrangements (with a deputy available should that person themselves be absent).
  3. Try to create a no-blame environment that promotes a consistent and collective sense of responsibility within the whole staff group.
  4. A school-wide approach to behaviour management should be established, which allows a consistent response from all staff, but also allows a degree of individuality.

Step 2: Preparation

  1. The regular subject/class teacher’s behaviour rules, rewards and consequences should be well rehearsed and on display in the classroom.
  2. A seating plan helps to manage behaviour and is supportive to supply/cover teachers who may otherwise struggle with names.
  3. Lesson plans, resource lists and procedures should be available in the classroom.
  4. Good practice demands that the teaching environment is kept tidy and well prepared. A well-organised room is of great help for any teacher unexpectedly taking over another’s classroom.
  5. Teachers should spend a moment reflecting on generic approaches to behaviour management before they begin the cover lesson; they should also try to familiarise themselves with the school’s and classroom expectations and rules.
  6. A cover lesson is no different from any other lesson and should never be approached empty-handed. Teachers should ensure that they know where spare pens, pencils, paper and other resources are stored. Carry a collection of additional activities for those students who finish early or have credible excuses for not undertaking the set work. Teachers who are ill prepared can struggle to manage pupil behaviour and risk losing respect.

Step 3: Presentation

The manner in which a cover teacher delivers a lesson should have a positive effect on both the teacher’s and the students’ behaviour:

  1. Cover teachers should be clear about their expectations and what is required of the pupils, think about this before going into the classroom, so that you can then maintain mutual respect ensuring you remain in control in a calm and consistent manner.
  2. By presenting the lesson in a confident way, you can often dissuade and refocus those students who like to see how far they can bend the rules or push a new teacher.
  3. Make sure you know what is to be covered during the lesson, rather than asking the pupils.

Changes to routines, whether planned or unexpected, are unavoidable. Joint and agreed planning for such eventualities which include all staff, can help reduce anxiety levels. A supportive staff group accepting a collective responsibility will have a far more positive effect on difficult circumstances.

Pupils also need to be able to cope with change and learn how to manage their own behaviour when presented with a new environment or new member of staff. It is possible to use the opportunity to present strategies, enabling pupils to make good choices about their behaviour.

This e-bulletin issue was first published in May 2011

About the author: Dave Stott has 30 years’ teaching experience including seven years as a headteacher. He has worked in mainstream and special schools, and Local Authority behaviour support services. Dave is now a writer, consultant and trainer.