Setting ‘Cover’: How to plan effective cover work

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Many years ago, as an NQT, I ended up with a regular cover period on my timetable.  Every Thursday morning I would tentatively approach the cover list pinned to the staffroom notice board.  Most weeks I would discover that my period 5 would be spent with the Year 8 Urdu class – it is worth pointing out that this was in the days before cover supervisors and the ‘rarely cover’ agreement – and every Thursday I awoke praying that I would have somehow been magically gifted Urdu proficiency in my sleep.

Why do I begin today’s blog with this anecdote?  Because I have experience of being at the sharp end of trying to support young people in their learning from a position of total ignorance.  That year gave me an incredible insight into both the potential and the pitfalls of setting cover work for colleagues.  Setting effective cover is something teachers are generally expected to work out for themselves, but it is a skill that can and should be developed. 

The brevity trap

‘Year 9, Period 4 – Read pp. 33-34 of Green textbook and do the questions in the box’.

Most cover teachers in secondary schools encounter the ‘lesson’ they are to enact upon entering the classroom at the same time as the students.  The brief instruction taped to the desk with a stack of textbooks next to it can seem like a pragmatic solution, until the cover teacher arrives to discover a colleague snaffled the stack of textbooks during break and no one knows where they now are.  Similarly, ‘watch the video on Natural Hazards’ lessons are often a one-way ticket to classroom management challenges for cover teachers – what are the students to do as they watch the video?  Where are they to record that information?  What is the purpose of the activity so that the students can see how it is contributing to their work? And if the internet is down or the projector bulb breaks, what can the students do instead that still allows them to achieve that purpose?  In some situations, more is (definitely) more. 

The detail trap

Lesson plans provide an insight into the mind of the person writing them and are, as such, invariably idiosyncratic (even if on a standardised proforma).  If they are sufficiently detailed, to allow someone to follow every step of the thinking that has taken place, they can take a few minutes to read and digest – time that cover teachers usually don’t really have at the start of the lesson.  Some departments, often those who are used to non-specialists teaching the odd period of KS3, manage this more successfully and develop a pragmatic middle ground.  However, we need to recognise that even in these situations the approach to cover needs to be slightly different – particularly if the colleague covering is a teacher who should have been on a non-contact and may be trying (rightly or wrongly) to complete some other tasks at the same time.     

The balance

Setting cover, and writing the instructions for that cover, is a delicate balance.  The best cover lessons ‘look back’ and require students to work on consolidating knowledge they have already gained in previous lessons.  Looking back reduces the potential for misconceptions and confusion and means the time is more profitably spent as the students practise using their knowledge. 

To support the cover teacher it is really helpful to provide:

  • Context of the class – any key info which will really help them to manage the classroom e.g. highlighting students who may need extra support.
  • Outline of the key ‘takeaways’ students should have by the end of the lesson – helps to give the learning context and might support the cover teacher in knowing how best to redirect/ help students.
  • Tasks which can be completed independently, and which draw on prior learning.
  • Clear, succinct task instructions – including where these activities can be found (e.g. the name of the textbook), the order in which they should be completed, where the students should complete the tasks (e.g. in their exercise book/on paper) and how much they are expected to write (e.g. half a side of A4).  A copy of the relevant worksheet/ textbook page attached to your cover instructions can be helpful if resources go astray.
  • A list of alternative/ extra tasks – invariably there will always be students who get impossibly stuck and cannot be helped by another student, or those students who seem to finish incredibly quickly.  You need to provide a plan to support a cover teacher with absolutely no background in your subject to ‘adapt’ to these situations. 

I now look back on that Year 8 Urdu class with regret that I didn’t commit myself to picking up some rudimentary skill in the language.  I also regret that my go to, when students said they had finished or got stuck and couldn’t possibly do any more, was to suggest they copied out the text they were working on to ‘practise their writing skills’.  As a teacher enormously out of her comfort zone I was more concerned with the classroom management than the learning. If we want cover to be purposeful we need to plan for it to achieve this goal.

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