TPS2: Covering a class (substitute teacher)

#2 in the Teaching Problem –> Solution Series

The Problem: How do I manage a class I don’t know that I am covering for just one lesson?

The classic substitute teacher scenario. It ought to be a well understood process, but it’s often still a challenge.


The main considerations are a) maintaining positive learning environment and b) supporting continuity  with the learning process. 

Learning Environment: 

  • Adopt an assertive demeanour, owning the space and reinforcing well-understood school expectations and routines.  Reaffirm good, supportive behaviour. Thanks everyone, that’s great; thanks for your quick response, that’s appreciated.
  • Make it immediately clear that you’ll follow through and insist on things like people listening while you are talking.  Use a recognised signal for attention ( see Walkthrus Signal, Pause, Insist) and use Positive Framing extensively – firmly assertive but not confrontational.  Let’s have everyone looking and listening thanks.
  • Get on the front foot with names:  access the system-generated seating plan or ask a student to quickly make you a plan.  Then use the plan to support you in calling student with their names as early possible. 
  • During independent work, supervise actively.. circulate and check that students are on task. Don’t sit at the teacher’s desk unless everyone is fully engaged in a task and you have time to look ahead at resources etc.
  • Emphasise general scanning and whole-class monitoring over one-to-one support.   Where helpful, reinforce the positives; Well done to these tables – lots of excellent hard work going on.
  • Make sure you know and are ready to use the school behaviour system and the on-call protocol if necessary. Refer to the name of known figures like the Head of Department – showing that you know who is who in the system.
  • Use choices and consequences – ie before issuing sanctions, make it clear that students can choose to meet expectations. You can stay here and focus on the task that Ms Smith set you, or you work over here near the front.
  • Don’t suffer. If you are getting a hard time, it’s not normal or acceptable. Call someone; use the system. Identify individual students causing problems and avoid lumping people together or any collective or hyperbolic language for example about ‘the class being out of control’; identify specific actions as far as you can. Keep it in perspective.

Support continuity with learning

Ideally you will have been set cover work or there is a well-understood protocol for tasks to be done in case of staff absence – (it’s a different ball game if you have to generate the cover work but let’s assume that’s not the case here. The task is then to communicate the work to students and supervise them as they complete it.  

  • Read out the instructions and then ask one or more students to check back what they’ve understood, clarifying as needed.
  • As the lesson progresses, engage students in process checks – making sure they know what to do by asking students to run through it  – and progress checks – identifying where they are in work at key intervals so that the time doesn’t just drift and their efforts don’t flag. 
  • It can be useful to air some of the key ideas or go through some answers to break up what otherwise might be a full lesson of heads down silent working.  Have a mid lesson review and invite some students – cold called using the seating plan – to summarise what they’ve been doing or to explain some of their answers.  

It’s fairly obvious that if you are covering a lesson in your own subject or one you know, you can provide more spontaneous support and instructional input. However, try to honour the cover work that is set because this helps the regular teacher to return and pick things up again.

Generating Work

This is less than ideal but, if you are covering a lesson totally cold, and you cannot get any support by sending a message to the appropriate coordinator,  there are a number of back-up options: 

  • Where this is part of school culture, abandon the idea of continuity and ask students to read their personal reading books for the whole period.   Make it reading lesson. You may want to ask some students to share what they’ve been reading or to discuss aspects of a shared class text if that is an option.
  • If students don’t carry their own reading books, seek out and distribute a subject textbook or reading resource and ask students to read and make notes – summary points – and answer questions.  Devise questions or look for them in the textbook.  
  • Ask students to review prior learning: The task can be framed as ‘imagine a student has missed the last three weeks of school.  Make them a summary sheet – capturing the key ideas.’ Or students can write quiz questions and self-quiz or engage in paired quizzing after a period.
  • Ask students to select a piece of recent written work in their books and engage them in redrafting it.  You can turn the whole lesson into a DIRT period – directed improvement and reflection time – where they correct and improve previous work.

Other options if conditions allow:

  • As part of a lesson try to run a class discussion about what they have been learning recently in that class or an a current affairs issue.  You can treat it as a hinterland insert into the curriculum. It only needs to be a part of the lesson – and will depend on how well they’ve responded so far and your confidence with them. Running the room for a class discussion allows you to feel more teacherly, provided that you are fully in control of behaviour and can keep the level of focus and participation high.


  1. Thank you for this article.

    I have recently taken over as having an overview of cover.

    Would it be possible, crediting you and showing how to access your work, to use the bulk of this article in a staff bulletin?

    Kind regards

    Chay Bell Assistant Headteacher

    Liked by 1 person

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