If you’re anything like me, you’re probably sick to death of people outside the profession telling teachers how to teach. If everyone’s an expert, then the craft is debased into non-existence. That’s why it’s always exciting when someone who know education from the top and bottom offers their guidance.
Teacher Booker were honoured to be joined by Tom Bennett, behaviour management mogul and award-winning writer, for a wide-ranging discussion on the behaviour management challenges faced by supply teachers. Amid the broad spectrum of topics covered, Tom had some marvellous and practicable advice for supply teachers going into schools. For those keen to gorge on more Bennett goodness, the full interview will be out very soon, so hold tight.
Teacher Booker: I’d agree that supply teachers definitely need a toolkit with them. What’s your main behaviour advice for them?
Tom: Gosh, that’s a big topic! I could say a hundred things, but I’ll focus on things that supply teachers can do themselves with little help.
Some supply teachers I know work with a few schools they know well. There should be more of this. Either way, supply teachers need to read the behaviour policy of schools they’re going into. That’ll have the key info – policy on sanctions, rewards, detentions, who to report things to. If you do that then you can at least start to borrow features of the school’s culture to use in your behaviour management- especially if you can start phrasing things in the language of the school that can have a particular impact.
The second thing is to know the name of someone senior in school who deals with challenging behaviour. That way, when an incident crops up you can say ‘Look I’m going to pass this onto Mrs. X’. Students will be shocked that you know who that is and that they’re the person to go to. Its not foolproof, but it helps.
Of course, you’ve got to use Mrs. X too. Use her as your surrogate line manager for the day, passing along any concerns that you have so they can help you.
Geographically, you need to make sure that there’s someone, somewhere, on your corridor to help you out. It’s a good idea to arrive early to wherever you’re going to teach, pop your head into the classroom next door and introduce yourself to the teacher in there. Ask them to pop their head in after a few minutes, ask them if you can send any students over to them if you need help. These little things seem small but help a lot. These are very human cues that help you embed yourself in the culture that you’re in. This helps a lot as you don’t need to think on your feet, you know where you’re sending people and what you’re doing and where you might need to go for help. I sometimes advise supply teachers to have a permanent member of staff whose nearby and available come in and help them get everyone sat down and settled. Starting the lesson with you, if they don’t mind, gives you a strong basis to get students working as soon as possible
The fourth thing is quite tricky for supply teachers, but I always emphasise its power to all the teachers I train – building and embedding strong routines. ‘This is how we do things’. If we don’t describe the culture of the classroom, the kids will decide it for themselves. If you’re very lucky they’ll decide the right one, but likely as not it won’t be the optimal culture for students to learn in. As a new face in a school I begin building a relationship with students for a few days or few weeks or longer, beginning by saying ‘My name is Mr Bennett, this is how we’re going to do things, it’s for your benefit and mine as well’. I’ll sometimes spend an hour or so doing that. Of course, supply teachers can’t do that, so they need to compress that speech down to a few minutes.
That’s helped a lot if you arrive to the classroom a few minutes early. You don’t want to be that teacher who arrive a few minutes late asking the students ‘Is this 9F’s classroom?’. That way you can be confident in yourself. Of course, circumstances might not permit this, but it’s good to try.
Always ask for seating plans. A lot of classes have them anyway so they’re good to get out as soon as you can. If that’s the case, get the students sat down where they’re supposed to be, get the books out and use the books to check their names. Stand at the door, make eye contact with every pupil that comes in the classroom. Not in a rude way, just to greet them as they come in. Try and ignore the inevitable questions you’ll be peppered with – ‘are you a supply teacher?!’, ‘where’s Mr Wythenshaw?’ etc. – and just tell them that they’re going to work today and to get on with it. If there is no seating plan, get the students to the back of the room and sit them down boy/girl. It’s a trick as old as the hills, but you’ve shown them in one fell move that this is your room. Telling them where to sit, after all, is a perfectly reasonable thing to do.
To reiterate, make sure you communicate to the students, in a black hole-esque super compressed way, that the room has rules and you expect them to work. And you will be following it up if they don’t – “Listen guys, this school has got loads of great rules, we’re here to work hard and I’m here to help you, we can do all of that if we stick to the rules and crack on…I expect this work to be done’.
One line that works well is ‘Let’s not waste time today’ – even kids can plug into the idea that wasting time is bad. Get them started on the work, talk it through with them. If it’s a subject you don’t know much about maybe you can get them to tell you what they already know. It’s tough when you get given a class to cover in a subject that’s not your own, but you can turn it into an interesting opportunity.
Once you’ve got the kids settled, make sure the work is visible, your expectations have been clear and they have what they need to complete the work. I’d recommend every single supply teacher has a bag of paper and pens ready to go – just to make sure students have no excuse whatsoever to get on with work. I’d also say that if there’s any, however minor, infractions of school’s rules – e.g. they shouted out more than you’d liked – you mark it down and you follow it up. If you think it’s worth a detention, then give them a detention. I understand that lots of supply teachers want to shoot off at the end of the day, but, there is a two-way street whereby I don’t think it’s unreasonable to ask a supply teacher to stay behind for 15 minutes at the end of the day to do a short chat with some pupils who haven’t met their expectations. What’s even better is when you have senior leadership help out with this. If the students know you’re desperate to get away or that you aren’t bothered, you’ve lost.
I’ve seen some supply teachers who will simply sit through lessons with terrible behaviour counting down the minutes, thinking that they’re just there to babysit so none of it really matters. I get that, I’m sympathetic, but I wouldn’t endorse it as an activity. Once the kids see you don’t care, you’ll never get any work out of them. And you’re making it a lot more difficult for the school.
If you want to be a wandering musician of a teacher, which is fine, then you need to take some professionalism with you. I’d never denigrate supply teachers because I’ve seen some that are astonishingly good at being versatile and working with different students. But if you don’t communicate early on that this lesson matters, then kids will switch off and think it’s a free lesson where you’ll be fighting them.
Thanks to Tom for his fantastic advice, providing robust guidance to short and long-term supply teachers alike. In line with Tom’s suggestions, Teacher Booker make sure all of our teachers are able to read a school’s behaviour policy before embarking on a day there. Equally, we screen candidates to make sure they demonstrate good competency in knowledge of many of the behaviour management techniques outlined above. All in service to the idea that a day with a supply teacher shouldn’t be a lost day of learning for students.