Blowing your cover

No one talks about cover to young teachers let alone trainee students. So it was in my first year that eventually my first cover lesson came along. As an NQT my first school looked after me very well, but once my 5th year (mode 3 CSE) left inevitably I did my bit.

Those of you who teach know there are cover lessons and cover lessons. Sometimes colleagues leave work or others set work which is detailed and comprehensive, the children are well briefed and the ‘substitute teacher’ can get on with their work. But there are also the “carry on with the where you got to” type lessons and those where you try and avert a near riot as the pupils exaggeratedly pleads “Sir, this isn’t fair Miss promised we would ….. today ” fill in blank with a glorious treat.

So it was. I saw my name on the cover board – Tuesday period 4 PE. OH NO. Of all lessons PE has to be one of the worst, no reflection on PE staff, but there is little chance of getting anything done as you supervise some sporty activity. This being summer, the gym was used for about 3 months for exams and this was ….tennis. I had no kit, I had no idea how to teach or coach tennis but my colleagues helped and whilst I might have got away with it wearing my lab coat umpiring cricket, I did my best to make the effort in the summer sun.

Imagine my disappointment and surprise the next week when again I saw Tuesday period 4 PE. To be fair the deputy apologised but I took the group out again and they were glad my presence meant they got their lesson. I was annoyed not to have packed my kit again but I ask you who gets a second cover for the same lesson.

If only…… you guessed the next week Tuesday period 4 PE, cover Mr Dexter. Well even patient, enthusiastic Mr Dexter was cross and so I asked the deputy if we could avoid PE and watch something in the TV room and then suddenly inspired recalled ….”its Wimbledon”.

Many of the children understood and so after the usual fiddling with leads/aerials and sound they watched Wimbledon….and this was a year after the famous John McEnroe “You cannot be serious” in 1981. So interest was maintained. I sat at the back and crouched over a small table started my marking and yes slightly pleased with myself.

It was about 5 minutes before the end when a strange sound went up from the class, not a hurrah, not a cheer, more a cross between the noises when someone drops their lunch on the floor in the canteen and your team miss a penalty. I sat up, looked over very confused. There wasn’t even any play, the players were resting between sets and the camera panned the crowd and a loan voice in the class piped up …” There Mr Dexter, look who is sitting on the second row.” Then with me thinking aloud “you cannot be serious” but yes sure enough the PE teacher was sat in row 2 enjoying Wimbledon perhaps not quite as much as this class. Professionals think what they might say or do… I had no chance for either the class left and the message was everywhere even without social media.

It turned out the teacher was a supply teacher covering one of my colleagues off with a broken leg….. we didn’t see her again in school, and I did no more covers all summer.

I loved my first school, colleagues were wonderful, kind and supportive and I learned so much from watching and talking with them, and most importantly I realised I really could teach and enjoy the job. BUT I also learnt there are some who aren’t like that, some who will break rules and later on I had to appreciate the accountability, performance and system measures necessary for a small minority … pity really but necessary.

I can honestly say no more than a dozen staff have I met during my career that I did not enjoy working with over those 36 years – the majority ( thousands) professional, creative, diligent and clever …with the odd exceptions

Oh and quite a different lesson – when pupils get hold of a juicy story – it travels at lightning speed in fact at unstoppable speed with or without the turbo of social media.

    “Tennis uses the language of life. Advantage, service, fault break, love – the basic elements of tennis are those of everyday existence, because every match is a life in miniature” Andre Agassi

    part 2 – from Teacher trainee to NQT*

    untitledL PlatesCongratulations and welcome to the profession. You’ve chosen a great job and hopefully you already know a good bit about your new school. There is a clue in the initials about this journey “new”.

    First the Good news

    You passed your PGCE, schools direct, teach first training with flying colours but you are not quite the finished article, in fact even after 36 years I never felt I was the finished article, this is teaching and learning and we never ever get there! However you do now know how a classroom works, you have been observed and met required standards. In fact you might feel you survived – no one rioted, discipline wasn’t as bad an issue as you thought it might be and deep down you did experience the sheer delight of pupils learning in your classroom. You have had interviews and got a job and now you get paid too.

    Now the challengeL Plates

    1 Responsibilities

    Last year another teacher taught a class, and you “borrowed” them for a term or less. now you have them for a whole year or if Y10/Y12 maybe two years. You are responsible for their progress, achievement, and to an extent their behaviour and ambitions. You have to report stuff to your head of dept, to a head of year and to parents…….oh and also to …….pupils.

    2. You are the star not the extradownload

    Sometime last year, you were an ” extra pair of hands” for example with a tutor group. You are now in charge and……on your own, at least in the classroom, but certainly not in the school. So start acting like the Star not the extra.

    3 Welcome to Houston – Systems

    Your mentor or class teachISS_Flight_Control_Room_2006er helped out with questions that you had or issues that arose. Now you have to find them in other ways. There should still be a mentor and there should be a senior leader in charge of NQTs. Speak to them often. There should be a programme of support, get along, take notes listen, learn act. However systems can be complicated and schools have a habit of socialising them such that experienced teachers just seem to “know” what to do. So don’t be afraid to ask even the simplest of questions, however you might need to put aside time to get to grips with say ICT systems for management information, for reporting, for taking registers. Just ask, ask, ask. Pay attention at all those sessions on child protection, health and safety, data protection dealing with…. the school knows what it is doing training you, make sure you learn.

    4 Basics of preparation and practice

    Teacher plannerDuring teaching placement you had time in school to prepare lessons and maybe try out the odd activity such as a practical. You will wonder how to fit that in but preparation is the key. You do have a few lessons from last year under your belt but these are different children – your children and now you have more classes and (see above) more responsibility. As quickly as possible find out where dept resources, schemes of work etc reside, how to access them and work with experienced teachers on planning. As for practicing those activities, well that’s after school now methinks. Remember this will get easier but take a deep breath just now.

    5 Marking and feedback – you just knew they would be here

    Oh for the luxury of teaching practice with maybe 1 set of workbooks to mark each evening, now it seimageems non stop. You must work out a sustainable way for marking and feeding back. Guess what, that is just like the rest of us, so again ask, ask, ask. Don’t think you can spend 4/5 mins on every book for every class. BUT do not get behind, if you letting it slip, talk to your mentor. What is the school policy, mark every week, what do they mean by mark, and what are they marking? A lot of judgment rests on the quality of what is in a pupil’s book – mentors will look, other assessors, in due time Ofsted but perhaps more importantly parents and children. You can have a big impact here. Personally I am not a  scary kind of teacher but I get good behaviour in part by what I put in books, odd comments about the written work but odd comments about behaviour, contribution: ” well done today Ash, loved your answers, keep it up – though I think the homework could have had more detail” and reinforce that verbally. Just occasionally you are sat at home, finished prep for tomorrow and a bit overwhelmed with marking – then stop, get to bed and turn into school refreshed and be on top of classes, far better than everything marked but you tearful by lunch through lack of sleep.

    6 Background disruption – please No

    If your classes experience this, which some almost certainly will do, then do not despair, but please please please do not ignore. You are not rubbish but you need to tackle the pupils and the situations. Discuss strategies, get ideas and maybe watch the group with more experienced staff and tease out what they do and therefore what you need to learn. You are after all an NQT and the ‘new’ gives it away you have stuff to learn.

    7. Workload

    I do sometime say to our NQT pace yourself through the day. Maybe get a class to read silently for a while, maybe have a very straightforward activity. As a Chemist I wanted every lesson to be fairly spectacular and soon learned I would probably not be surviving the year. You can’t do a lesson like you prepared for your PGCE tutor to watch for every lesson. So learn to pace yourself but get a great lesson in every few days to ensure you remind yourself what a great job it is and that you can do it.

    8. Extra curricular

    I thin0913-23k these activities are vital ( see this post) but you are an NQT with lots of years ahead of you and so only do what you can manage. At one interview I was asked by the chair of governors if I would help on a ski trip and an overseas trip. I really wanted the job and as this next sentence came out my mouth I thought I was kissing good-bye to the job but I said: “It seems to me the school needs  lessons well prepared, classes well taught, work marked and pupils prepared for public exams, and the labs tidied up to be interesting learning environments; as we have just had a baby I can’t see me getting away for skiing but once the day-to-day is sorted of course I will do my bit.” In all honesty I got up ready tp  leave but I did get the job and the deputy said that was exactly right for the school. Do something , maybe the odd bus or dinner duty, show willing, maybe something you really wanted to do as you were thinking of teaching like playing your flute in the orchestra but just dip your toes in. No one will thank you for taking the football team but not marking books or forgetting to order equipment until late.

    9 Other wonderful people in a school

    I’ve mentioned staff but now learn to love the support staff, people who photocopy for you, caretakers, ICT wizards, office staff who will always try to help, if appropriate lab technicians too. They will have seen a lot of new teachers like you, and whilst not necessarily knowing how you are doing they do know the pitfalls and if you can pass the time of day with them, appreciate them you will get lots of support just where you need it.


    10 Rhythm

    Schools have their own diary or calendar and it brings a rhythm to the school. of course this is based around holidays ( half terms, start of year etc) , seasons (winter/exams) and then parents’ evenings and reporting. You need to try to watch out for this. Many an NQT overlooked or wasn’t told that “next week we need the assessment data completing, so hope you have done the test”. You haven’t or there is a work audit due and the work you needed to do for that will hijack  something else you had planned. Try to read beyond the dates and look over each year group and identify when the pressure points will be and work with others to minimise those pressures

    11 Standards

    I’ve never been sure about the “don’t smile until Christmas” malarkey but you must set out from the word go your expectations. You must keep to rules, you must in a sense do as the “collective wisdom “ suggests – otherwise there is trouble around the corner. So set high expectations of behaviour, of work ethic in your classroom, of standards of work, of standards of dress – including your own. Pupils actually like all that and will conform, they like to know where the lines are but they will try and cross them – someone will definitely not do homework so what will you do, exactly what will you do when that happens? You may not know but please don;’t say “Someone not doing homework, well that really was a massive surprise!”

    12 Feedback and Self confidence

    Get lots, the more the merrier. before you plan tomorrow reflect on today. My NQT notes I reread for this post and I discovered my plans were more brief than my reflections and I remember what a great resource that proved in my second and third year – ah yes, that didn’t quite work; ah no, that practical didn’t really illustrate the learning objective etc. However the most valuable is that from staff observing you AND you finding some time to observe them. These aspects should steadily build your confidence and help you grow into the role and you will see next year looks possible and manageable and you know what you can do better. You will make it through and be even better next year.

    New teachers bring bags of enthusiasm and new ideas and new ways of doing things, we really love people like you – if you can learn some of the traditions in your school to get the best out of children and marry the two you will be just fine – but exhausted.


    There is a lot of advice on blogs and in the TES and if on twitter via @Ukedchat animaged #NQTChat . The TES supplement  “new teachers” published September 18th is a good read too. Meanwhile make sure you join a teacher union they often have lots of very useful stuff for NQTs.  Here is a good article from the Guardian too.

    Some blogs

    From @theheadsoffice 

    and @lisa7pettifer

    and @teachaholicblog

    Some books|

    Making every lesson count: six principles to support great teaching and learning by  Shaun Allison and Andy Tharby

    Classroom behaviour: a practical guide to effective teaching,behaviour management and colleague support by Bill Rogers

    Teaching in UK Secondary Schools – a PGCE, School Direct and NQT Starter Guide for that Long Road Ahead  by Hari Indran

    Teaching in UK Secondary Schools: Being Organised from September through till Christmas: by Hari Indran

    There  is a very good guide from the NUT


    7YBA Teacher

    [Like all set liststhis one may change by those annoying SLT i.e. me; Mainly if you reply or tweet me anything forgotten.]

    Some of the best things about being a teacher:

    You get to work with some great pupils. those who want to learn are in the majority, they are keen to hear from you, your knowledge and keen for you to help them understand, to apply knowledge and yes sure to pass exams. In secondary there is a massive variety of ability and also of ages. There is a huge difference between a y7 and a Y9 and a Y11 pupil. That is a major challenge. At the heart of the job, good relationships with your pupils, and an opportunity to open their minds, challenge their minds and do much the same for yourself.

    You get to work with some great teachers. People of wisdom about the school or about the job. Hey and you need to aim to be like that yourself one day. It is a profession full of intelligent and clever people, but the best are the witty ones! you will also get to work with great support staff, secretaries who understand you can’t speak to a parent just now, exams officers who sort your error, and ICT technicians who we call “superheroes”. Those many interactions are, in the best places full of witty banter.

    You get to share your subject. That means you share your passion, enthusiasms and you learn about your subject. It is difficult to teach a topic without mastering in so whatever subject you love you get to love it more.

    You get a specification or a curriculum to teach. You get some guidance from schemes of work ( which you can contribute to) and to try to fathom out the best way to deliver the objectives. Lots of colleagues will help you and also be willing to learn from you. You need to learn to make good use of resources

    You get to be creative./ OK, so there are Powerpoints and worksheets but there are also activities and practicals and a massive host of ideas. Some are in your school, some on the internet and some in your head. You can also contribute to that wonderful pool of resources. Hey and you get to share your humour.

    You have to look out for data. Yes, you have to mark books and assess work and get depressed about mock results. But mostly you use any data to help you engage with pupils and help them learn and improve. You do really assess for helping learning. In fact other data…forget it. You get to see the wood for the trees and the trees in the wood, individual pupils progressing and growing up, under your guidance.

    You probably get a pastoral role. Looking after a tutor group is another twist to the wonders in the job. Checking they attend, they have the correct kit and uniform and do their homeowrk. It might sound a routine but there is nothing better than helping youngsters in your tutor group. They have bad days or bad things happen, they have birthdays and good things to celebrate – you can be involved. They get pleased with a report, they get disciplined, they need someone keeping an eye.There will be some pupils who your involvement, helps keep them engaged and helps see them achieve. No one forgets a good tutor. You’ll meet them later in life, you will.

    Professional support. Well there is CPD and courses and INSET stuff but there are also subject associations, twitter, blogs, teachmeets. meeting colleagues in other schools hearing their moans snaffling their ideas.Though for some, nothing better than a conversation in the staffroom at the end of the day

    You get a career. You can move into all sorts of areas. You might get interested in SEND pupils, or EAL, or gifted pupils. You might get interested in careers advising, pastoral work, running a dept or in assessment and examining, or writing books, or educational research or teacher training…the list goes on. Develop your interests

    You get to do some extra curricular stuff. Maybe your own interest or a hobby well you can share it, even if it is a bit obscure, but it might also inspire someone at your school. The obvious, run a football team take the basketball, run the orchestra, organise the drama, help with the technical stuff. But there is also the yoyo club, the chess club, organising the charity fundraising…..nothing will go unnoticed, well it might be a Head or SLT ( it shouldnt) but it ont by the children neither their parents

    You get to work as part of a team. As a subject teacher you are in a dept, others to chat to about your subject, about your class, about their progress. Stimulating, challenging and usually supportive. If you want you to can learn a lot from this group. But you are also in a pastoral team. Watch and learn how well some staff deal with those apparently difficult or vulnerable pupils

    You get to work as an individual. Frankly when the classroom door closes despite observations or even cameras, you are the adult in charge of the learning. It’s your room, your timings, your decisions about following the plan or abandoning a bit. It’s where your reputaion is made and respect is created. You get to perform, to act, to entertain, to control, but most of all to teach, to inspire, to help children learn and progress and get a qualification and begin to become an autonomous, independent confident young person

    Magic moments i got that, ive understood that, Ive got this right, I can do this. A smile a look a decision to do your subject in options or post 16 or even in HE. A parent thanking you, a pupil thanking you. A pupil achieving their dream. Lots of ‘little lights’ going on, and many ‘Oh Agh” moments.

    You get support (usually). Support from colleagues from pupils, from parents and from your local community, the village the district, or if a faith school it might be a parish). Usually local people and businesses are supportive, they might employ your pupils or take them on work experience. Teachers get a good press ( try being a politician lawyer, estate agent or banker) we are trusted. Your view might actually count, in a classroom and community if not in whitehall.

    You get paid. The pay isnt so bad ( unless you live in London and/or want a lavish lifestyle) the pension is OK but might be deteriorating. The holidays are good but maybe not quite as they appear from outside the profession. Despite any moans most teachers enjoy going back to work.

    Hey there are drawbacks: you need stamina; despite all your effort a class gets you down; pupils can behave badly or sometime they behave well but just do not appreciate your effort (on the face of it). Leaders sometimes don’t help they interfere, then annoy, they rearrange things, they tell you off. Some parents…well perhaps the less said the better. Governments interfere..let’s say even less about that. Resources can be short in comparison to a neighbour school or another dept.

    You will have avery busy days. Very intense and lots of interactions but you will never be bored. There are no two days the same, and frankly no two lessons the same.

    It’s a great job, lots of us, old and young still #loveteaching

    If you wish for a glimpse, take a look at the easy to read stories of life at a school (Trinity, mine)


    Trinity Lower courtyard

    Thanks for all the tweets and messages and for version 1.1to the following


    Monday period 5 – A simple and profound lesson to learn

    If you are hoping for inspiration for teaching your Monday period 5 jump to the end. My Monday period 5 is my worst lesson. If you are an ex pupil reading this, I do apologise, I can explain. If you are a present student get off this blog and back to the work I set you. When preparing for my week, sorting assemblies, pastoral work for the teams I lead and critical admin or UCAS ref then marking and lesson prep etc invariably there was not enough time. I am a professional, so usually got Monday 1 and 2 and even 3 or 4 sorted but 5…it got left, drafted but left. After all I am SLT I have non contact and so that lesson could be polished in my free. What free? Why have I never ever learnt that my free on Monday got hijacked, maybe cover, maybe someone needing to talk – a sixth former wishing to quit, drop a subject, change subject, or a teacher…… with bothers, with worries….but I never learnt and end up with my meagre prep and the 10 m walk to the lab as I get to Monday period 5. Apologies all round. Thanks timetabler this year first ever no class Monday 5.

    BUT one thing got me through, it was always on my mind, or in my mind, in fact in my soul and it goes back to my very first school and the end of my first year of teaching. However I recall it today because it is the school holiday.

    Yesterday I arrived in Eastbourne or as my Dad would have said the seaside. As I took an evening stroll, I thought of my Dad and many happy seaside weeks as a kid and one profound ritual. As soon as we arrived we had to go to the beach. Whatever time of day, whatever needed doing, before any bag was unpacked, we all had to go to the beach and paddle in the sea. Just paddle in the brine, Dad thought it was good for us but it was a significant moment it meant the holiday had really started. I did that here in 2014 after arriving and I thought of my Dad, and his ritual is now mine and the holiday has started. Then as I strolled the sea front I though of other significant moments and rituals and I remembered a profound moment that still inspires me the teacher.


    Back in the early 1980’s I had just completed my NQT year, woop woop. I had survived, I could teach, pupils could learn and most pupils even behaved themselves, some enjoyed my lessons, and I quite enjoyed the job. More importantly I learnt from great staff. Many of us might think the pressure of change under Gove or other recent SoS is worse than any other teacher has had to face. I am no Historian but the people who I was learning from were awesome staff. Some had started work just after the war – so stop and think of the changes from 1940’s to 1980’s not just in Education (qualifications, comprehensivisation, secondary moderns, the 11+, ROSLA, graduate teaching, corporal punishment, expansion of primaries, free milk (ohps) etc etc) but think how a grey 1950’s society transmogrified into swinging 60’s and these were the people managing pupils, teaching and learning throughout. I learnt so much. Miss D my Head of house who kept order, not just pupils but staff. Mr H in charge of special needs pupils: every single special needs youngster stood out, their manners, their impeccable behaviour, their progress, their employability, their reliability and willingness to help out even me and I didn’t even teach them. Mr L, another Head of house, formidable – he would never have needed a ‘cane’ that would be an affront but no one ever refused to change when he spoke to them, teacher pupil, even SLT! None of these were PGCE graduates all were wonderful teachers who got the best of results (in the full sense of the word). In my tutor group parents would ring me , the NQT and ask me to get their children dropped several sets just to have Miss D teach them (she never taught O Level!) I wanted to be a teacher to make a difference, to help young people learn my subject and to help them aspire, aim high, and there in my school these wise sages were doing that day in day out, and I was privileged to live with them and learn a few tricks from them.

    So my profound moment – the start of the summer term and endless invigilation, no lesson prep, no marking but walking the lanes of exam desks. My HoD and I had been busy deciding what to teach and how to teach ( sorry present generation, this was what the job used to be like) and he asked me a favour. Would I go to the Curriculum meeting for him, he was unable to attend – he had OK’d it but this was the meeting options were given out, we needed the list of those choosing (opting for) Chemistry. I went along scared, rightly so as the pastoral giants took their seats ( hey and they were their seats) and the departmental academics arrived, then deputies and the Head. Top of the agenda the lists: “take them away. let me know any major issues” said the deputy politely. Just a few minutes of silence and nodding heads as the lists were checked, a few sighs of relief from me as most had chosen a Science (only Maths and English were compulsory and that a school thing I recall). But then the moment I’ll never forget. The Head of PE Mr K was clearly sighing, tutting and not happy. The Heads of House never missed a detail.
    “Whats up Tony?”
    “Oh nothing really”.
    “No go on what is it?” Mr L didnt understand ‘nothing really’.
    “Well” said Mr K “you all know we are offering CSE PE for the first time and we have worked hard on the resources and curr plans but I look down this list and it’s ..well it’s just depressing.”
    “Why is that?” came a curious response from the Head of House.
    “Well, if you want an example, we have Jim Jarwood and he …….can’t even swim.”

    So as I watched carefully for the reaction, I passed sympathy to Mr K. My HoD and I wouldn’t like anyone pitching in for Chemistry who hadn’t shown some competence in Y9, and someone cack handed, dangerous or unable to sit still.. so what was the reaction:

    “Tony” said a smiling Head of House rather cutting the atmosphere
    “Yes Bill”
    “You’re a bloody PE teacher Tony, teach the lad to bloody well swim.
    Next item…….”


    I can’t remember anything else of the meeting but that moment struck into my soul, like my Dad’s holiday ritual. So whenever I am a bit uncertain about my lesson, or facing a cover in French I just remember those words. “Mr Dexter you’re a teacher, teach them.”

    Some questions to ponder;

    Q1 We often reflect on our lessons and pedagogy but what are the profound moments in schools which have influenced you?

    Q2 We might feel the political agenda hinders or even prevents the ambitions we had about being a teacher, does it really?

    Q3 The school machine is oiled by the quality of relationships, which people do you seek out for sage advice, and wisdom? Oh and one day will others find you doing that for them?

    For those like me working in a church school

    Ephesians 1:16
    I have not stopped giving thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers.

    James 3:13
    Who is wise and understanding among you? Let them show it by their good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom.

    Daniel 1:20
    In every matter of wisdom and understanding about which the king questioned them, he found them ten times better than all the magicians and enchanters in his whole kingdom.