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The Experiences of a Flying Teacher from the Clouds of Education - Chapter 7

Having a Splendid Day Cover Teaching

You would be amazed how early a person can get up in the morning when they really make an effort. We all have different internal clocks, personal time zones and habits, but when you become a teacher in London your body learns to live with the misty haze and fog of 6:30 am – every day.

This particular time in the morning becomes such a part of you, that even when you do reach the weekends, your body diligently beckons you to open your eyes and rise to the same early tune. There is nothing you can do about it as it becomes so natural to you in time. I find this useful in so many ways. Firstly, you get more out of each day, especially when you discover one inspiring moment how much work and things you can do in a single complete morning. Secondly, and more importantly, this is the time you need to wake up in order to be a successful cover teacher.

Starting off in London as a cover teacher is no small task. Yes, responsibilities are at a minimum and there is no lesson planning involved. However, there are other aspects of this role which present certain challenges that must be embraced – the morning being one of them. There is one way to give yourself more time to sleep. Planning and preparation the night before is essential. That involves setting clothes aside that you will wear the next day. There may be the odd exception, but for the most part the days of casual jeans and shoes with your favourite comfy sweater are gone. You must look professional and respectable, and I wholeheartedly agree with the dress code. Not only will you look sharp and respectable every day, but you will feel more confident in your teaching, believe me.

Making yourself a lunch the night before is also vital. That way you have a meal ready at the stroke of lunch and, best of all, you save time and money. The portions here in quick eateries are not quite as generous as back home and the inflated costs in the inner city do not budge too much. In essence: prepare a lunch.

One last aspect of the morning that needs to be addressed is the actual phone call that you make to whatever agency you are a part of. This is a critical part that is also very important. Making this call forces you to be awake right away in order to sound decently groggy on the phone, while at the same time, lets the team know that you are ready and keen to go to work.

What makes it difficult is waiting for the call back to inform you that you have work for that particular morning. Yes, it is recommended you wait until 7:45 before you can hit the sheets again in silent slumber. However, 8:15 would be advisable. I cannot tell you how many times I got called much later for cover work. Schools sometimes get last minute notifications of teachers being absent, etc. It happens. Be prepared. Remember, don’t think that they won’t call you just because you know it is too late for you to make it to school on time for first period cover. Schools need someone for the whole day, until at least 3:30 or so. It does not trouble them that much to find a teacher in the school to cover your first period. It is the rest of the day that they are more interested in.

Cover teaching is very much a routine role, at least in the mornings preparing for your day. When you hit the streets to reach your nearest tube station on the way to your assignment that day, it all goes out the proverbial window. You quickly learn about, what I call, the pace in London. It is brisk. It strikes you immediately when you leave your flat. The people have a sort of, stern focus, in their demeanor. Their faces are transfixed in thought as they race down the streets to the local tube station and work beyond. They are thinking about the job they must do that morning, the leisurely activities they will do after, what song to listen to from their iPods/smartphones, and the pressing of time - which coincidentally does not allow them to be tired in the mornings. Not ever. Coffee is close at hand and, if not, the pace of their walking combined with the chilling morning spurs them on to alert wakefulness. There is no droopy stroll for a Londoner in the mornings or after work, for that matter – Simply the sound of each rhythmic footfall echoing on the unwelcoming pavement.

As a teacher, you need to enter this rhythm in order to survive each day. There is no time for fatigue or laziness. You just get on with your day. The standards are set high, the challenge is great, and there is a certain grit to the people in the city and you will see it in your students as well. Focus and determination are essential here, and although daunting it may sound, there is no better experience for a new teacher out there. The opportunities abound in London.

You need to embrace it and hold firm. The students await you, as do all the great things that come with teaching in England's capital. There is still time to gather your thoughts though, the tube beckons.

One fascinating thing I found about the London Underground was the propensity for people to be silent in the train cars. It is like an unwritten code in the tube, for the most part. Londoners love to mind their own business, generally turning to their music or, more frequently, reading the daily news via newspapers, The Evening Standard, etc.  I personally enjoy reading as well, so a semi-library atmosphere in a train that is filled to the brim with people is astounding!

Through the occasional murmur of passengers, many teachers choose to mark exercise books while on their way to school. However, as a cover teacher, other options present themselves as well, especially since many times it will be your first time travelling to a particular school.

Once you have shaken off the cobwebs of an early morning rising – packed lunch held firmly in your hand, bag filled with your passport, CRB (police check document), favourite pen and back-up lesson plans – most cover teachers do different things while on their way to school. I always checked the address of the school I was going to and planned my exact route once I got out of the tube. That way you do not waste any time when you emerge from the Underground. Even though the particular recruiting agency customarily sends you a text message with the location of your school, always have your mini A-Z (a detailed map of the city in a tiny pocket book) ready with the route to your school planned out. Allow yourself plenty of time in the mornings but, remember, it’s okay if you don’t arrive at 8:15 or 8:30 exactly. Classes normally start around 9am and, again, remember: They are grateful that you can come in and cover for one or more of their teachers.

Mentally preparing yourself is also important, especially when you are first starting out. You are going to a school you have never been to, going to teach students you have never met before and trying, at the same time, to navigate your way around different school policies, classrooms and systems already in place.

Take a deep breath, don’t panic.

Once you have reached the school, remember that Reception, Register and staff have a system in place. They have all requested cover teachers before. Reception (The office) will always ask for your work visa (passport) and CRB for inspection and casually, usually with a smile, hand you the list of rooms and subjects you will be teaching that day, accentuated with a flourishing, “Good luck!” You may even get a quick tour of the school if you are early enough. These greatly help!

What follows is a marathon of sorts. You speedily head over to your first class, which probably is not a subject of your specialty. Maybe music. Or perhaps Science. Be ready for it as most of the time you will cover for multiple teachers, not just one. Versatility is key.

Once you get to your first class, usually a stack of texts and exercise books will await you with a set of instructions, learning objectives and what the teacher generally wants you to accomplish that period. A class list is also usually provided so that you can do the register (attendance). I recommend you always wait at the door of the classroom to welcome your students. It projects a welcoming, responsible presence on your part.

The day more or less will proceed how you want it to. By that, I mean your approach. Students will give you a hard time certain days. You might not accomplish everything their regular teacher wanted you to do with them. Fortunately, most teachers recognize this and will not give the students a titanic series of tasks to finish in one single period that is usually 50 minutes long. Your pupils will be disruptive sometimes, they may take advantage of the fact that you are a cover teacher and pull out every distracting technique in the book. Think for a second when this happens. You probably invented half the tricks they are using and let’s face it: We have all given supply teachers a hard time in the past when we were in school.

These are the days that you have to just do your best, not take it personally, and let any negative, stressful experiences wash off your shoulders. Tomorrow is another day. They are kids after all and, believe me, you will meet plenty of bright, inspiring students willing to put in the effort and passion in their classwork that will remind you why you decided to become a teacher.

Another thing to consider: Students in the UK find North American accents fascinating. They are enamored by North American culture and music and their initial questions, once they get over the excitement that they have a cover teacher that day, will revolve around these topics. Questions about favourite artists, cities in America or Canada you have travelled to and what celebrities you like. It’s all natural, teenage questions. Don’t take yourself too seriously when these inquiries come flying at you. Use it to your advantage.

When the final bell strikes to end the day’s toils and you emerge from the school that had consumed the last 7 hours of your life, you may feel exhausted, or fulfilled, or even upset. A mixture of emotions will always surface, especially at the start. Don’t ever feel dejected. Your skills will improve, your confidence will grow with each passing day. Until then, you should always reflect. What did you do well? What could you improve on? Always look to be better every day. With patience, experience and conscientious reflection, you can become an even better teacher in due time.

The tube awaits, yet again, as do the many fascinations of majestic London, waiting for you to explore.


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