A great spectre haunts teaching – the spectre of challenging behaviour. It’s a terribly powerful force, leaving many terrified of their own classrooms and spooking many out of the profession entirely. Yet many insist the problem is trivial and that proper lesson planning and arbitrary CPD can ward against it.

Some disagree and believe more direct solutions are necessary to exorcise this ghost. Chief among them is Tom Bennett, the nation’s most esteemed guru in behaviour management. His blog has steered countless teachers through some of the toughest times in their career – myself included. His erudite but accessible style of writing, coupled with his many years of experience as a classroom teacher in challenging schools, has made him a prominent voice on the subject. Along the way he has also cultivated strong views on other areas of education – including how school leaders can build cultures that promote good behaviour as well as the relationship between educational research and classroom practice.

Of late Tom has found himself running the globetrotting ResearchEd conference as well as advising the government on behaviour management. His independent review published earlier on this year for the Department of Education, “Building a Culture”, was based on thorough research into 250 schools up and down the country as well as input from a pantheon of experts. It has rapidly become a foundational text for school leaders and policymakers on how to build organisational cultures that promote strong behaviour for learning.

We were honoured to be joined by Tom for a lengthy discussion of how school leaders can support cover teachers with behaviour management. As our conversation was extensive – and most educators’ free time is not – we’ve opted to distil his main wisdom down into an executive summary detailed below. For those who fancy more depth, the full interview will be out in the next couple of weeks. Consider this a tantalising sample.

Teacher Booker: Even people outside of the profession are aware that supply teachers often have a tough time with behaviour. And this isn’t just problematic for supply teachers. It’s disruptive to the whole routine and rhythm of a school. How can school leaders support supply teachers with this issue?

Tom: There’s a lot to say on the topic, but here are some critical things I think most schools should be able to do to help manage supply situations:

Planning in advance 

“Arranging supply shouldn’t be like a scene from a Hollywood film where the cops are under fire and yelling into their radios that they need backup. Sometimes it will be, but it should be the case as much as possible that schools plan in advance when they are going to need cover and plan who they will have in. Discussing with these inbound cover teachers what they will need to do in advance is a good idea to make sure everyone is on the same page ready for the day itself”

Start the day right 

“When a cover teacher comes in, they should arrive early and be met by someone senior at the school. They get a short briefing about how things are done around there and are given a copy of the school rules, routines, shown where the work is and shown who to contact in case of any issues and how to contact them.

Behaviour policies are available online and guiding supply teachers to read these before coming in is a good idea. All of this allows the teacher to use features of the school’s culture in their behaviour management- especially if they can start phrasing things in the language the school typically uses, this can have particular impact”

“If a student doesn’t attend a detention with a cover teacher, this should be treated with equal seriousness as if they had missed one with a full-time member of staff.”

Provide Proper Work

“Supply teachers are usually coming into situations that are more challenging that normal and schools don’t help them by often providing cover work that is inexcusably poor. We’ve all seen plenty of this in schools as teachers – cover lessons for art where students are told to draw round their hand; cover lessons for English where students are set to write a poem about how they’re feeling that day. Kids aren’t stupid – they can see this is all holding cell stuff and will react accordingly. Every school should have a system that snaps into place such that the person setting cover knows where students are at in the scheme of work or curriculum and have resources or a textbook for that area that can be used to set work that will enrich and extend their knowledge. Most subjects should be able to do that.”

Build a culture of teachers supporting supply staff

“Leaders should encourage departments to have their own support mechanisms for supply teachers coming in. School departments are often run quite close together, so they should try and co-ordinate assistance to supply teachers by planning things like ‘OK there’s a supply in room 6 today, let’s make sure someone checks in on them three times, or checks in with them at lunchtime’ etc. Rather than blocking them out, teachers should try and support them where they can, for example helping them keep behind any disruptive students and the like. This extends to senior leadership as well – checking in on them during the day, but also supporting with keeping students behind, following up incidents. If a student doesn’t attend a detention with a cover teacher, this should be treated with equal seriousness as if they had missed one with a full-time member of staff.”

“Schools need to believe that there’s more to cover than just triage, more than just a statutory duty to keep them occupied for 45 minutes”

SLT can help out too 

“The key thing for school leaders is to lead, to make it possible for teachers to teach. That’s their core role.  At the same time, I think its tremendously important for all levels of leadership to have teaching tasks. Covering a lesson is one of the best things that a head teacher or member of SLT can do. It’s showing that other members of staff that teaching is important, that covering lessons is important. It’s showing that they’re part of the team in addition to their leadership duties. It also requires school leaders to make sure their own behaviour management is strong. I’ve sadly been in many schools where school leaders themselves often have quite poor behaviour management and struggle with challenging classes. That can be a really eye-opening experience.”

Maintain the same expectations for cover lessons 

“It remains the case in many schools that cover lessons are treated, implicitly or sometimes explicitly, as non-lessons. This is terribly sad – for students and teachers – because it communicates to them that those lessons don’t matter. Of course no learning is going to get done under those circumstances. Schools need to believe in having supply teachers in. They need to believe that there’s more to it than just triage, more than just a statutory duty to keep them occupied for 45 minutes. I remember going to a school, Passmore School in Essex, and I walked into a lesson where students were diligently working. The teacher in the room told me she was a supply teacher. But because the students knew what was expected of them there was no issue! That should be the aim for all schools.”

Thanks to Tom for his fantastic, practical advice. For those whose appetite is sufficiently whetted, the full interview is coming soon, so hold fast. In line with Tom’s guidance, Teacher Booker ensure all our school clients are able to make an informed decision about what teachers to bring in for supply work, select them personally in advance and co-ordinate the best way to make sure the whole day goes off as best it can. We also link cover teachers to school’s behaviour policies when they accept a job. All in service to the idea that a day with a supply teacher shouldn’t be a day of lost learning.

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