For most career teachers, that first lesson with a strange class in a strange school happens very infrequently — especially if they stay in the same school! For the supply teacher, it can be almost a daily occurrence.
I can remember my first lesson as if it were yesterday. It was in fact January 5th 1981. I’d had a call the night before from the head of school who knew me through some private tutoring I was doing with a handful of sixth form historians. He knew I’d never taught before in front of a class but asked me to help out for a few days nonetheless.
So there I was, in front of 35 year tens, not even knowing what they were supposed to be studying. One helpful lad said they were doing the American War of Independence, which I’d last studied when I was eleven. Luckily a few well-chosen movies I’d seen over the years and some general knowledge got me through, and we rapidly morphed into a very lively discussion on wars of liberation and the “hows and whys” of their origins. It must have worked because one of my ex-students reminded me of that very lesson only last week!
What I learnt that day was a very simple lesson and one every supply teacher should remember if they remember nothing else. When you meet a new class, you have to exceed their expectations, and one way of doing so is to ensure that your tool-bag of “stuff” is full to the brim with surprises, and that you are ready to deliver the moment you walk through that door, because it’s those opening seconds that can make or break the lesson.
Just one example from much later in my career. I took over as acting head of history in a school in north Wales where my predecessor was locked in the store room by students, and he literally fled the school that day, never to return. Sounds implausible? Well that was what I was told and I was very much on the alert.
I was supposed to be introducing a course on the Holocaust to this class of year tens, which was at least a subject I was very familiar with. So I stuck a matzo – a Jewish water biscuit eaten during the Passover – on the blackboard. For 45 minutes the class was obsessed and fascinated by this item blue-tacked to the blackboard. During this time, we built relationships, talked frankly about their interests and concerns and agreed on a contract of behaviour –while all the time they couldn’t get away from what they called the cracker on the board.
And then I explained…………….
I still have the crumbs in my tool-bag!
Peter Cobrin entered teaching by accident in 1981 to provide cover for a few days and stayed at the same school for 15 years first as a teacher of history and politics, then head of department and de facto head of sixth form. Later in his career he was a lead adviser in the Building Schools for the Future programme and now he is a key member of the First Class Education family, focusing on innovation and special projects.