Ways to leave your cover
I spent a good ten years of my career working as a Head of English and, without a doubt, one of the most time-consuming parts of the job was setting cover. Inevitably, colleagues are ill from time to time, but the current situation means that absence is a far greater challenge than ever and setting cover has become a daily necessity in many schools.
With this in mind, I have put together some tips (sadly not 50, but I could not resist the pun) on how to set cover that is both quick and easy for the class teacher or head of department, but also worthwhile for those students that are left without their regular teacher.
by Vicky Gardiner-Earl, Head of English
Make your presence felt
Even the very best of our students get a glimmer in their eye when they see someone they do not know appear at the front of the room. Immediately, you, their beloved teacher, are forgotten amidst plans to spend the session avoiding doing any learning. Rarely will our students connect you with the stranger in front of them and the work that this stranger is asking them to complete.
To combat this use a slide that addresses your students. Write them a note. Explain that you are sorry not to be there today, but you have set work for them so that they do not fall behind. If you are setting a cover lesson for someone else: be their proxy.
When our students link the work they have been given with the teacher that they know and trust, they are much more likely to take the work seriously and complete it to a standard that means their lesson has been worthwhile.
Make it relevant
Arthur Shimamura, a professor of psychology, did extensive research around memory and cognitive science. Shimamura developed the MARGE whole brain model of learning that outlines optimal conditions for our students to learn most effectively. Shimura suggests that the first thing we must do is motivate our students to learn. ‘How can I do that when I am ill?’ you may ask. Firstly, set work that is relevant. If your students have been working hard on a specific text or topic, setting cover that is not related to this (despite your careful thinking that it will make life easier) is likely to appear irrelevant and result in students disengaging with their work. Secondly, as you would in a normal lesson, include a slide that shows your students the bigger picture. Why should they invest in this learning?
A cover lesson is not the time to start something new. Even if it is the next lesson on the scheme of learning. When we think about the principles of cognitive load theory, we know that we need to optimise our students’ intrinsic load whilst reducing extraneous load. A new person trying to explain something new is simply too much for our students. They will become cognitively overloaded almost immediately and the lesson will become a challenge, in every sense, for both students and cover teacher.
Instead, ensure that your cover lesson is an opportunity to consolidate work that they have done already. A cover lesson is an excellent opportunity for some retrieval practice. Retrieval practice can come in many forms from brain dumps that can be checked with a knowledge organiser to self-quizzing and there are lots of resources out there to help with this.
The GCSEPod Check and Challenge quizzes are a great tool as they also come with a Pod that is linked to the content if students (and cover teacher) are not sure of the answers. However, if you can’t get students online, Kate Jones (author of Retrieval Practice: research and resources for every classroom) has created a number of templates that could be used to support a great cover lesson that is consolidating learning so far.
The last thing that any teacher needs on their return to work is a pile of marking. So, any cover needs to be something that is either self-assessed or marked for you. Not only does this give the students a really clear picture of how well they have done, but it also means that when the teacher returns they too can see clearly any gaps in their students’ learning and allows them to plan responsively.
Luckily, you followed some great advice and set retrieval practice style cover! This means that the quizzes are either very easy for students to self-mark (as long as you left the answers for the cover teacher) or you have used online quizzes that mark themselves.
Another advantage of the Check and Challenge from GCSEPod is that they also generate a bank of data that shows you individual student errors and common class misconceptions.
Either way, both students and teachers can very clearly see the progress that has been made and what their next steps should be.
Setting cover is not something that is usually done in optimal conditions. We are either feeling under the weather when we arewriting our cover lessons or they are set by someone (like a Head of Department) who is trying to juggle lots of different jobs at once. The majority of the above can be done in advance. So, when designing a scheme of learning, it is great practice to have a folder of resources that can be used in case of cover. This might simply be a number of templates that can be used for retrieval practice and a knowledge organiser for each topic. If you don’t need them for cover, they double up as excellent revision resources.
Even if you are in the situation where you don’t currently have a handy GCSEPod subscription or even your own versions of these resources, they are usually widely available from the generous educators out there. Get yourself on Twitter or your subject specific Facebook groups. Teachers are resourceful and generous folk who are always happy to help one another. Remember a wise man once said: ‘Help will always be given to those who ask for it.’ (A. Dumbledore)
Without a doubt these are challenging times for all educational professionals and the pandemic has made staff absence something that looms large in every school. We are all working hard to ensure that it does not impact on our students’ learning and progress and with a few tweaks and a little organisation we can be ready to provide the best learning experiences possible so that staff can focus on getting well safe in the knowledge that, in their absence, their students are being well provided for.
Vicky Gardiner-Earl has almost 20 years of experience as a teacher of English in a range of Secondary schools. She has worked as both a Middle and Senior Leader and is currently leading Teaching and Learning across a large Multi Academy Trust. Vicky is passionate about addressing inequality through education and loves exploring how practice can be shaped and developed by the very best educational research.
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