A relief teacher’s guide to a happy class With many teacher graduates struggling to find full-time positions, even in subjects for which there are supposedly shortages, relief teaching is a popular option in the interim. Scientist-turned-teacher, PAUL DACOMBE-BIRD, shares what he has learned on the day relief circuit.

Having completed my graduate diploma I expected to be employed on a permanent, full-time basis in teaching secondary science, given the advertised shortage of teachers in our field. Such was not the case and I have subsequently been on the day-relief circuit. This has been an interesting and varied experience giving me valuable time in schools. One of the biggest differences between day-relief teaching and longer term work that I discovered was that every day is an entirely new experience and my personal flexibility was tested continually.

“Mister, are you our teacher today?”

“Are you a real teacher?”

“Are you a [insert subject for the class you have in front of you] teacher?”

These are the sorts of questions flung at a relieving teacher. Given that you’re now standing in someone else’s place, what do you need to do next?

Be yourself. If you haven’t met this group of students before consider telling them something about yourself. If you are naturally shy and reserved, you could share this information too. Become a person for them, rather than an unknown quantity.

Compliment the regular teacher to the class. Show that you know something about the class’s regular teacher and comment (honestly) about how well that person has done to get the class to the level they are. Good learners must be taught by good teachers. Caring teachers leave good work for relievers and helpful comments about their students. I’ve found it useful to acknowledge that fact.

Show an interest. Particularly with a new class I move around the room to take the roll. This gives me some valuable one to one time by going round the class asking each student to identify him or herself directly. I’ll be looking for something to compliment about the student or find something out that will give a connection other than just school, class and subject.

Learn about what they know. Almost invariably you will have some work to supervise the class with. If you are in your own subject, the temptation would be to conduct your own lecture on the topic, which might not be wise. Perhaps, knowing something about the likely progression of the unit, this would be a good time to ask the class to ‘teach the teacher’. Given that you then know a bit more about their understanding this may help you link into the work provided and move them through it.

Suggest techniques. If you have a reasonably broad education, you will probably have a range of techniques for solving some of the problems which may be presented as starter activities or non-textbook work. Share your ideas and get some back. Even simple ‘pastime’ activities such as wordfind demonstrate pattern-seeking techniques within language which, once explained, can improve student success. Other simple skills such as reading all the way through instructions (twice) can be a useful starting point for some students and using mind-mapping for notes or cover pages for topics, which can later serve as summaries.

Recognise good work and effort. Be sure to note down the students who are doing well during your session. You might tell them at the start that you will do this because their regular teacher will want to know. I was surprised at how effective stars, stickers, stamps and positive notes in books were in encouraging secondary students. Promising them something positive and having a clear idea of what ‘quality’ work will look like has been very useful for me.

Be resourceful. You may find it useful to carry a small pack of supplies around with you. Mine includes: whistle, small bell, coloured felt pens, spare biros, HB pencils, sharpener, glue stick, vivid marker, Blu-tack, spare refill and extra whiteboard markers. Rather than attempt to be a mobile stationer, I’m keen to remove as many obstacles to co-operation as possible. Many classrooms do have a stock of resources, but about an equal number do not, so make the probability work in your favour.

I also carry around a few magic tricks or illusions which are easy enough to demonstrate and serve to attract attention. If necessary I can illustrate to the students how they work. This doesn’t involve much of a layout and can be quite amusing. Most illusions teach valuable lessons on observation and how the brain interprets information.

Professional notes. What would you like to know about your class from a stranger? You’ll be interested that they were well-behaved and respectful to your replacement and that they managed to keep on track with their work. You’d probably want to know that your relief had attended to any particular student needs and why. Identify the students who did well and tried hard. “Good Class” often just doesn’t say enough.

I like to make sure to note when I have used a particular teaching technique in the class, especially if it appeared novel to the students and the effect it might have had on their learning either positive or negative. Direct instruction is my most commonly used technique, simply because it requires little set up time, but I have experimented with popcorn reading, reading for meaning and small group work.

Enjoy the experience. You might learn as much about yourself in one period with 10MAQ as you thought you had already learned in a lifetime. Consider it a ‘large panel’ job interview with the added bonus that you already have the job! You will have made a difference in each student’s life just by caring enough to enter the classroom. It’s great fun when ‘your’ students recognise and acknowledge you in passing or say that they hope you’re taking one of their classes on a particular day.

Lessons learned

  • Be yourself
  • Edify other staff
  • Show personal interest
  • Learn about students’ knowledge
  • Suggest techniques
  • Be resourceful
  • Leave professional notes
  • Enjoy the experience

Paul Dacombe-Bird graduated from Victoria University in 1980 and worked in biochemistry and industrial chemistry for several years, and has worked for both private industry and government departments. He studied for his teaching diploma online through Victoria in 2011.


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