Establishing relationships quickly with pupils you don’t usually teach

Covering classes, working as a supply teacher, taking your turn on the lockdown rota – all mean having to get to grips with unfamiliar classes and pupils quickly. How can you smooth the process?

Author details

Adele Bates is a teacher, speaker, writer and educator for students with emotional and behavioural difficulties. She is a TEDx Speaker 2020 and forthcoming author of Miss, I don’t give a sh*t with Sage publishing. With over 17 years’...

I once arrived in September to a new timetable. By the Thursday of the first week I was slowly getting into the swing of it. Friday period 1 I sat down to my first PPA of the year when my HOD rushed over – Adele, why aren’t you with Year 7?! I got my timetable out; I was right, the year 7s were nowhere to be seen…

… But it turns out there’d been a mistake, and oh, can you start teaching them five minutes ago. I had no idea how many there would be, what I was supposed to teach them or who they were.

Many pupils are going to try and pull the wool over your eyes, but there are ways to avoid this and maybe even make the experience joyful

Supply teaching, NQTs, trainees, cover supervisors, Covid19 lockdown rotas and ‘oh, Sue’s away – can you just cover her year 9s period 4?’. Throughout our teaching careers there are many times that we will be required to cover classes and teach lessons that we may have had little or no time to prepare for.

Reality check: many pupils are going to try and pull the wool over your eyes (read the brilliant poem ‘The Supply Teacher’ by Allan Ahlberg in his compilation Please Mrs Butler), but there are ways to avoid this and maybe even make the experience joyful.

Read on for outlines some guidelines to establishing a relationship with pupils you don’t know – and quickly!

1. Get the lay of the land

There are signs you can pick up quickly. Who notices when you walk in the room? Who continues talking after they’ve seen you? These are the ones who’ll be testing the boundaries later.

You don’t need to react to these observations military style; use it as information for how you might like to proceed.

2. Be kind but firm

All the usual openings when meeting any new people can be useful. Smile, ask how pupils are, what they’ve been up to – the same way as you would get to know any stranger.

Yes, you will most likely have some work that you’ll need to get them to do, and it’s best that you do (supply teachers who just let pupils chat are rarely re-hired), but that doesn’t mean it has to be unpleasant for either party.

3. Recognise that you’re the guest in their space

This is subtle but can change the entire dynamic of a lesson. Imagine how you would act if you were in someone else’s living room, but you’d been asked to share a skill only you had. Most likely, you wouldn’t barge in, command the space, use everything you wanted and start.

More likely you would be respectful and ask questions. ‘Would you like me to take my shoes off? Is it OK to open the curtains?’

The same rules apply here. Work in collaboration with the pupils, respect that you are in their space sharing your skill. It will make them feel respected, and for some pupils with challenging backgrounds, it could also make them feel safe with you.

4. Seating plan

Most often the pupils will have a set seating plan. Stick to it. This gives the pupils continuity and sends a clear message that your expectations are similar to their usual teacher.

If you don’t have the seating plan (and I have done this so many times), say: ‘I’m about to get your seating plan up on the computer. So I suggest in the next 30 seconds while I’m sorting that out you go and sit in your normal place, just in case you forgot for a second. Mr Petrov has asked me to make a note. It’s amazing how many pupils will get up and move.

5. Manage expectations

Pupils may be disappointed that it’s not the science experiment/drama readthrough/art lesson they were expecting – and it might feel personal when they whinge and pull faces as you extract the textbooks from the 1980s.

Help them deal with the change; the simple ‘carrot’ method can work wonders in a short amount of time. Negotiate: they all finish page 2 and then they can play a game (of your choice), or you’ll read your latest poem/song/ funny anecdote with them. Remind them of the carrot throughout the lesson, along with timing deadlines.

6. Look out for pupils who find change difficult

For some pupils with autism, attachment issues, speech and language delays or other special needs, change can be particularly difficult.

If you haven’t been told beforehand who this could be, look out for signs of struggle, and remember that it may come out in a variety of behavioural ways. They may need reassurance or repetition of instructions to get used to the change.

Give pupils a chance to express and question about the change

Talk the whole class through the changes and model the adaption yourself. Use simple language and leave pauses to give time for digestion.

  • ‘I realise that I’m not what you were expecting today’ = acknowledgement of change.
  • ‘Ms Patel wasn’t expecting to be away, and hopefully she’ll be back soon’ = quelling worries pupils may have.
  • ‘I’ve spoken to Ms Patel and the other science teachers; this is the work we’ve been given to do instead today. I’m going to talk you through this now. Any questions before I do so?’ = give pupils a chance to express and question about the change, before going on to the work they need to focus on – otherwise they’re unlikely to be listening.

7. Don’t skip your stages

I was once asked at the last minute to cover a drama lesson with a class of primary school pupils (I usually teach secondary) – in Finland. Most of the pupils understood English, but not all. I don’t speak Finnish.

I slipped back into my ‘primary drama teaching’ mode from previous years but missed out a vital point. I forgot that these pupils hadn’t had six weeks of me teaching them how to ‘be’ in a drama lesson – my rules, the requirements, respect and so on. I’d thought, since I only had 90mins, that it would be a waste of time to go through it all in detail.

Big mistake.

Establishing those clear expectations and boundaries is paramount

Around 67mins of the lesson was a disaster. It turned out the pupils weren’t used to drama at all – the freedom of having their classroom to do drama in was too much. I was peeling them off the walls. I got them back eventually, but it took a lot of energy to re-steer that mast after I’d set out so badly.

Even if it takes half the lesson, establishing those clear expectations and boundaries is paramount – for your own sanity as much as the pupils’ learning.

8. New slate

For the pupils who are ‘known’ for their behaviour sometimes having a new teacher is an opportunity for them to experience something more positive.

Even if you’re told, as your hand is turning the doorknob, ‘oh watch out for Tyler, he ended up with the head three times last week’, meet all the pupils with a fresh eye, and get them onside early.

There will inevitably be little jobs that need doing – handing out books, making sure everyone has a ruler and so on. Give those tasks to the pupil(s) you sense are most likely to start larking about. Give them a responsibility, a distraction and most importantly – a reason for you to be able to say something positive to them.

You may be the first teacher who has been positive towards them for a while.

Last Updated: 
16 Apr 2020