Setting Cover Work: Advice to teachers and school leaders

After taking a career break to look after my daughter, I’ve dipped my toe back into the tides of post-pandemic classroom teaching by becoming an agency supply teacher (are we really post-pandemic? A thought for another day!) Combining what I already knew from my years as a cards-in teacher, and what I’m learning as a supply teacher, here’s some advice from the trenches.

I cannot imagine that any teacher has managed to get through the last two years without needing to set cover – either for themselves or a colleague – at some point. And I’m sure there have been occasions in any teacher’s career where you’ve returned from illness, a course, or compassionate leave to be horrified by how little your classes have got through, how scant the notes from the cover teacher are (whether that’s a colleague or agency supply).

Most teachers also know the dread of having to cover a colleague during their free lessons. Covering 9E, Period 5, on a windy Friday in a subject you’re not familiar with, and with nothing but a page reference to a textbook there aren’t enough copies of, is probably the closest thing to hell most teachers will ever encounter. So, put yourself in those shoes and set the cover you would like to have to teach. Something with minimal teacher input and not too challenging/no new content, and most importantly enough work for all the students to be occupied for the whole lesson.

As someone who has experienced almost all facets of cover, except for being a cover supervisor, I’ve got some ideas that might help to ensure that students continue to make some progress while you are away. Of course, no cover teacher, regardless of their experience will have the same knowledge of the students or where you’re up to, but we are often experienced teachers with good behaviour management skills, and good teaching skills, so it’s helpful to think of your professional colleagues in this way.

The gold standard, from the perspective of an agency supply teacher, is to come into a school with clear procedures and routines, with clearly encoded and consistently enforced expectations of behaviour and sanctions. Even if your school is a bit more lax when it comes to behaviour, as a classroom teacher you will be helping your colleagues (and your students!) by having these displayed prominently in your classroom.

Excellent Practice: Plan ahead for absence

I once worked in a school where, for lots of reasons, needing cover was frequent. Setting cover is onerous, especially when you’re ill. We attempted to resolve some of this by planning ahead.

Have a booklet or a textbook, that is used by the whole department, that is exclusively used for cover lessons. This is particularly useful in times of unexpected absence, where you are unable to set cover. It helps if you introduce the students to the booklet, explain it, and have a system where they record the tasks and the dates the work is covered. These should be kept in your classroom or near your desk, clearly labelled to assist colleagues and the supply teacher. We created them from scratch, which was unnecessary. Look in your book-room for textbooks you no longer use, buy a package from, your whole department will benefit.

If you know exactly what you want your students to get on with, perhaps they are half way through a topic or have an imminent assessment, or you’ve had time to prepare the cover in advance, here are some simple things you can do to support your students, the cover teacher and ultimately, yourself.

Setting cover tasks: The Golden Rules

  1. Never assume the teacher covering will have access to your computing systems, and avoid relying on technology unless you know (i.e. have arranged in advance)  a colleague will be able to set it up.
  2. Provide an extra copy of whatever the students are working on for the cover teacher. Textbook, worksheets, extracts/novels etc.
  3. Provide spares of previously handed out worksheets or booklets– I guarantee you at least one student will have forgotten their work
  4. Use clear, simple, imperative language that can be easily copied onto the board or projected.
  5. Number the tasks.
  6. Provide an estimate of how long each one might take.
  7. Set more work than you think you need. Avoid giving vague instructions like: ‘Finish incomplete tasks in your book.’
  8. Provide a seating plan, preferably with photos. As a class teacher I found it helpful to have a clearly labelled folder of seating plans. If you don’t have a seating plan, say so!
  9. List the names of students who may need additional support, or who have accommodations in place (e.g. a microphone for the teacher to wear).
  10. Leave somewhere for feedback to be given, if you want it.
  11. Finally, a friendly note can go a long way! A simple ‘Thank you for covering’ is appreciated.

A note to leaders:

Cover lesson proformas are usually unnecessary. While all of this information can be helpful to be consistently presented, it’s not necessary and often adds an element of stress to the class teacher or their colleague when setting cover. If you want to apply the advice given here into a policy or proforma, please consult with your colleagues. Ask them what would help with setting cover. What would make it easier? Give departments a budget for cover work, and time to think ahead and plan, rather that applying policies in a knee-jerk or reactive way.

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