Stress-free standby

By Matt Adams and Ethan Mansur

Covering a lesson for another teacher, particularly at the last minute, can be challenging and stressful for a number of reasons:

  • You don’t know the students
  • You don’t know the class routines
  • You don’t usually have much (or any) time to prepare
  • You may not know where the students are in the syllabus, or have the wrong information
  • You may not be familiar with the book/materials
  • You may not have all the necessary materials
  • You may not know the location

In this article, we’ll discuss how to deal with these difficulties.

You don’t know the students (and they don’t know you)

So get to know them! There is nothing wrong with a get-to-know you activity at the beginning of a standby lesson. Learning the students’ names is imperative. It’s respectful and makes you look professional. When you think about it, having a new teacher is intrinsically interesting to students and a goldmine for meaningful communication. Finally, introducing yourself is a high-stakes situation for most people, making (sensitive) error correction here particularly valuable.

A zero-preparation favourite of ours is interview the teacher. The students have a short, limited time to come up with as many questions as they can in pairs; then in groups they narrow questions down to 5 or 10. After responding, quiz the students on your answers. Pat yourself on the back: you have just given the students meaningful practice with questions forms and reported speech, two problematic areas for many students.

Then there is of course the matter of student expectations. You might be covering for the most professional, most dynamic teacher at your school – or the shoddiest. In either case, you may feel an implicit comparison between you and the regular teacher. Do your best to evaluate yourself based on your own performance. If you deliver a competent, professional lesson, you’ve done your job.

You don’t know the class routines

More obviously a problem for YL classes. If there is no (or limited) information available about the usual management of the class, then ask—if not the director of studies, then the students themselves. Young Learners in particular will have a strong sense of what the norms for their class are and will often be glad to explain exactly what you should be doing.

Having said that, you don’t want to be taken for a fool. Certain basic rules can be applied to most YL classes:

  • Be strict but fair. Make your expectations clear and draw attention to behaviour you want to reward.
  • Have students go to the bathroom before the lesson (not during).
  • Do activities that can be completed within the time available.
  • Know what you will ask fast finishers to do.
  • Give yourself enough time at the end of the lesson to clear up, especially if you are using another teacher’s classroom.
  • Have a no-materials game in mind if you finish up earlier than expected.

You don’t have much (or any) time to prepare

With adults or teens, you can give yourself a moment to take a deep breath by having the students do something in pairs or small groups – writing questions to grill you, for example! Use this time to look at the coursebook/materials and quickly decide what to do. It’s also a good idea to incorporate low-prep expansion activities into your repertoire, so that during a cover lesson you can make the most of the materials you have to hand without busting a gut. For instance, dictating questions or True-False statements before giving students a reading task can stimulate a range of close listening and receptive pronunciation skills, while delayed error correction will allow you (and your students) to address persistent errors.

You may not know where the students are in the syllabus

One sneaky way of finding out what the students did last lesson, and avoiding the dreaded “we already did this, teacher” moment, is to do a bit of review. Simply ask the students what they did last class. If it’s reading, have them skim it and quiz each other. For grammar, write a couple of gapped sentences/questions for your partner to complete. Vocabulary: cover and quiz. Revising is time well spent, and it’s something we teachers don’t do enough of. Also, this gives you bit more time to think about what to do in the lesson.

You may not be familiar with the book/materials

Most of the time the teacher or the director of studies will just tell you to do what’s next in the book; but sometimes what’s next looks completely unteachable, boring or requires a lot of thinking time by the teacher. One good solution is to always have a back-up. Keep a pet lesson or two in your backpack/locker that you can whip out at a moment’s notice.

The best kind of backup lesson is a speaking one that can work with various levels. Consider minimum/zero materials Task-Based-Learning lessons with a simple outcome like a presentation on a topic or important person. Stages to achieve this lesson aim can be as simple as list, compare, choose, prepare (with teacher input), then present, feedback. Even if you do end up teaching from the book, having a backup lesson will give you a valuable safety net.

On the other hand, standby lessons can be an excellent opportunity to gain familiarity with new materials; if you do have a little time to prepare, try and get to grips with at least part of whatever is new and figure out how you would go about teaching it. Don’t be afraid to ask for advice, or of making mistakes during the lesson; you are allowed to be rough around the edges, especially if you have very little time to prepare. Teach the best lesson you can, but don’t feel obliged to strive for perfection.

You may not have all the necessary materials

A dozen pencils or pens and some blank paper don’t weigh much, so it’s worth having some in your bag just in case. Back up board markers and/or chalk can be lifesavers. And don’t forget your backup lesson!

You may not know the location

There is no guarantee that the projector, computer, CD player, speakers, etc., will actually work, especially if you’re in an unfamiliar classroom. Therefore, avoid listening activities that rely upon them if you can. On the other hand, activities that make use of your own voice – dictation, dictogloss, live listenings and anecdotes – can be extremely valuable.

If you’re going offsite, plan to get there early. And don’t be afraid to ask directors of studies for help with logistics if you need it—that’s what they get paid for. It won’t make you look bad. In fact, it will make you look professional because you care about doing things properly.

Finishing up

The lesson does not end when you leave the classroom. While you may never see these particular students again, you still need to pass on what you did to their regular teacher – or to any other cover teacher – in a concise but meaningful way. Records should be made as soon as possible, while names and events are still clear in your mind; any follow-on work or issues that arose during the lesson should be clearly flagged, any variations from the plan of work you were given explained.

One final note. Covering a lesson for a fellow a teacher requires a certain degree of discretion. Obviously, you shouldn’t tell the students exactly why their teacher is absent. Or that he or she will be back next lesson—they may not. Also, you might accidentally discover something unflattering about another teacher. In this delicate situation, it’s best to hold your tongue in front of students. If it’s serious enough, notify management.

Covering classes will never be entirely stress-free, but if approached in the proper way, following a consistent procedure, it can give as much reward and opportunity to develop as teaching your own class.

Author's Bio: Matt Adams abandoned academia for love and teaching 12.5 years ago and has been winging it ever since. Until recently a teacher at IH Madrid, where he worked for 5.5 years, he has taught a wide range of groups – all too often at the last minute.
Author's Bio: Ethan Mansur has been a TEFL teacher off and on for the last 12 years, working mostly in Italy and Spain. He currently teaches at IH Madrid. Recently he completed an MA in Applied Linguistics and TESOL at the University of Leicester and is now happily dedicating his free time to his two beautiful children.