Substitute teaching can be demanding. We asked Daniel Vincent, a teacher of English at the British Council in Madrid, how to plan and deliver these lessons with confidence.
What skills do substitute teachers need?
You need to be flexible and confident. You might have to teach a lesson with any age group and at any level, often with little warning.
You could find that your learners finished the previous lesson at an inconvenient place in their coursebook, or that they’re in the middle of a project you know nothing about. On these occasions, it may be best to jump ahead to the next section of the course book or to teach a stand-alone lesson.
If your learners are unhappy about the substitution, you may also need to be diplomatic. Acknowledge any discontent, and ensure that you say that your lesson builds on what they know, or is otherwise consistent with their needs. If learners complain about the change of teacher, politely refer them to a senior staff member.
How do you build rapport with learners in such a short time?
Spend a few minutes getting to know the learners in a substitution class. This sets a pleasant tone for the rest of your time together.
Tell your learners that you’d like to learn five or six things about each member of the class, but that they’re going to introduce a partner rather than themselves. Ask them to prepare by speaking to each other and learning five or six facts. Put them in pairs and allow a few minutes for them to prepare.
Help them by suggesting discussion topics or specific questions that they can ask one another, like:
- What is your name?
- Where do you live?
- What job do you do?
- What are you studying?
- Why are you studying English?
- What do you do in your free time?
- What did you do over the weekend?
- What is your favourite movie/book/city/social media app? Why?
- Tell me about a place that you really love. Why do you love it?
- Describe a funny, embarrassing or strange personal experience.
In my experience, learners respond well to this activity because it is communicative, and has a clear and immediate outcome. When it comes to the peer introductions, you can respond on a personal level. For example, if one of the learners describes their partner’s job, you can respond by asking the partner a question related to that job.
Spot-correct errors, but be careful not to over-correct. This can be off-putting for some learners. At the same time, note any common errors, which you can then review at the end of the activity.
Ask learners to work out the corrections in pairs. This has the added advantage of showing the class that you are carefully assessing their English, which in turn will help you to gain their trust.
What should substitute teachers expect from learners?
Learners tend to welcome a substitute teacher when the teaching centre has communicated the change. However, you may encounter some hostility.
I experienced some hostility from learners when I became the third substitute teacher for one particular group. The cold, silent reception the learners gave me strongly suggested that they were wary that the class would end up just another stop-gap lesson until a full-time teacher was found. I’d been warned by the senior staff that this might be the case.
To counter it, I acted as if I were going to be with them for the long-term and taught the class accordingly. I checked their homework from their last lesson and reviewed what they'd been previously studying. When a difficult grammatical question arose, I gave a quick explanation but assured them we would review it in more detail. Despite their initial hostility, this won them over.
Learners are in class to learn, not to be taught by a specific teacher. You’ll be in a much stronger position to handle a new and potentially unwelcoming group when they see that they’re learning something with you.
How do you manage substitute classes with young learners?
For me, unscheduled substitutions with primary-aged learners are challenging.
Be firm but fair from the start. Make it clear that during this class, you’re the one in charge, without being overbearing or unapproachable.
Have a couple of zero-preparation activities at the beginning of any lesson. This gives you a little time at the beginning of the lesson, and shows the learners that you have things under control.
One activity that works well is ‘Line Up, Move Down’.
Write several questions for learners to ask each other on the board, like:
- What’s your favourite sport?
- What time do you go to bed?
Have the learners form two lines facing one another. When you say ‘Go!’ each opposite-facing pair asks and answers the questions.
After a limited amount of time, say ‘Move down!’ The learners in one line have to shuffle one place to the right so that they are opposite a new partner. The learner at one end will need to fill the gap at the other end. The new pairs ask and answer the questions again. Repeat the procedure until everyone is back in their original place.
See if the learners remember their original partner's answers, as this allows learners to practice first, second and third-person grammatical points of view. For additional practice, consider asking learners, 'What is X's favourite sport?' or 'What time does X go to bed?'
If the learners are confident in their spelling ability, put them in groups of four or five to play ‘Catch-the-Tail’.
Form a circle and ask the first learner in the group to say a word, like 'juice'. The learner sitting clockwise to the first learner will have to say a word starting with the last letter of the previous word, like 'egg'. The learners should continue answering until one says a word that begins and ends with the same letter, such as 'sweets'. At this point, the direction of the learners answering should reverse and move in a counter-clockwise motion.
Can you recommend any low- or no-preparation activities that can be adapted to any age group or level?
The activity ‘Nice or Nasty?’ requires no preparation. Learners categorise items such as dogs, cats or vegetables as 'Nice' or 'Nasty'.
Ask learners to divide a page in their notebook into two columns, labelling one column ‘nice’ and the other ‘nasty’. Then you say a list of names, places, foods, sports and activities. The learners have to write each item down in the ‘nice’ column if they think it’s nice or in the ‘nasty’ column if they think it’s nasty.
In your list, try to include a number of items or people which will divide opinion, being sensitive to the culture and context. With adult learners, these topics work well:
- Sunday evening
- white chocolate
- romantic comedies
- public speaking
With young learners, you can use:
- school uniform
- shopping with parents
- Disney movies
- your brother or sister
When you’ve finished reading the list, ask learners to review their responses in pairs. Ask them to discuss why they put the different items where they did and how much each item has in common.
From experience, this activity not only generates a discussion that learners can have at any level, it also generates a lot of language. You can write phrases like ‘I put (nice/nasty) because...’, ‘I like or don't like X because...’, and ‘What about you?’ on the board to help beginners.
You can encourage higher level learners to use a wider variety of language by writing sentence stems such as ‘I find X very…’ or ‘If you ask me, he/she/it/they…’. At the end, ask a few individual learners to explain one or two of their choices.
You might also want to try ‘Ask Me Anything’ mini-presentations.
Give each learner a sheet of paper, and ask them to write something that they know a lot about (such as a sports team, a movie or a hobby). Instruct your learners to pass their paper around and write one topical question on each paper (such as 'How often do you play volleyball?').
Learners have to read each other’s questions to ensure that there are no repeated questions. Allow time for learners to develop a brief presentation based on the questions on their original pieces of paper.
Consider giving the first presentation yourself to demonstrate what you would like your learners to discuss. While they prepare, write some level-appropriate presentation language on the board, such as ‘Today, I’m going to talk about…’ or ‘Moving on…’