Surviving a last-minute substitution class

Sometimes it's a good idea to let go off the maps and use your instincts

I’m pretty sure you are acquainted with this situation: It’s five minutes before lessons start and suddenly you receive a phone call – the dreaded phone call from a teacher saying that he or she won’t be able to get to school on time, or that something unforeseen has come up and they won’t be able to come to work at all. What do you do if you’ve got only five-minutes to “plan and prepare” a 90-minute lesson? Well, I can’t see a better opportunity for you to go dogme than this! Here’s a quick, and I hope useful, survivor’s guide to last-minute substitutions:

1. Change your mindset – look at the material from a different perspective – refrain from going straight to the grammar part. Take advantage of the fact that you didn’t have time to go over the whole unit and check just the topic of the lesson – the TOPIC of the lesson, not the grammar topic. Chances are you’ll end up covering the grammar point anyway if you can get students to discuss the topic. Remember: Language can indeed be conversation-driven!

2. Listen to the learners when you get to class – Don’t despair because you may not have enough time to do this or that activity. I don’t think anyone will ever blame you for not finishing the entire unit as it was planned – in this case, it hand’ t been planned at all, huh?! Start by having a conversation with them about their weekend, likes and dislikes, or favorite movies. If nothing, this will help you to gauge your students’ current linguistic performance and inform your teaching for the rest of the class. Listen to them and respond to both content and language. Focus on correct language as well as mistakes, but don’t point out mistakes bluntly. Use what your learners give you in this initial conversation to inform your teaching. Language teaching can be materials-light and user-generated!

3. Be there to help them develop, not to teach the present perfect – Let’s face it, if you don’t really know the material well, or if you haven’t taught the level before, chances are you won’t be able to do what the book says nor know what your learners are supposed to already know or not. Use what you’ve gotten from the initial conversation to have the examples you’ll need. If you remember the TOPIC of the lesson and are able to start a discussion on that, even better! You’ll be surprised to see how much of the unit you were able to cover simply by focusing on what comes up in class. Your teaching can be based on language that emerges in class.

Oh, but what if your students refuse to talk at first? This might make things a bit easier, believe it or not! If you keep your cool and try to remember your previous classes, you’re likely to remember something that will work as a conversation trigger. This is what you can do:

1. Get them to respond to language and content before pestering them for answers – If you’ve ever watched The Freedom Writers, you’ll remember an activity that Ms. G. did in class to get to know her students better and to help them get to know one another. One variation of that is getting your students to move around according to your commands. For instance, have them line up in front of you and ask them to simply move to the left or to the right depending on how they feel. The last time I had to substitute for a class, we were talking about abilities. I started by asking students to move to the right if their answer was “yes”, and to the left if their answer was “no”. Questions were very simple, “Do you like pizza?”, “Do you like comedy films?” and so on. Later on, I started adding “abilities” to it and asked them to step to the right if they could do what I said, and step to the left if they couldn’t do it. Until this stage, you should also be moving with them. It’s a good chance for them to learn something about you as well. Finally, I did some language assessment asking them to simply step left or right if the sentences were right or wrong. The sentences were such as, “She cans speak Japanese,” or “He can plays football”. Do not correct or explain anything at this moment. If you’re lucky, this will be a good warmer and they’ll be ready to move on to some talking. Get them to interact and use what you’ve learned from their mistakes in this first activity to lead their discussion to a point in which they’ll need to use it – then you may correct it! But remember to use language they’ve provided you with!

Phew! I hope extremely short survival kit is a tiny bit helpful if you’re ever in a situation like this. Any other tips for last-minute substitutions? 🙂

10 thoughts on “Surviving a last-minute substitution class

  1. Nice post, Rick. In fact, a lot of the original ‘dogme’ techniques grew out of my experience as a DoS in a large school in Cairo, where I often had to subsitute for an absent teacher at the last minute. The teachers were also rather bad at filling in their registers, so there was no way of knowing what they had been doing in their previous lessons. This often meant I simply had to ‘wing it’. But … necessity is the mother of invention!

    1. Hi Scott,

      Necessity is the mother of invention indeed! Well, at least something good came out of records which hadn’t been filled properly and all the buzz we get from having to substitute for a teacher with such short notice. 🙂

  2. Lovely post, Rick!
    Like Scott I once worked in a school where most of my teaching time was taken up teaching last minute lessons. They would usually go better where there was no plan, where I could go in as a blank sheet and the students could fill me as it were – over the years I collected a small group of favourite non-plans that I’ve since used with my regular classes too – I’ve written about a couple of them on my blog. Don’t know if you’ve seen them – I think we may have tweeted about one of them

    I hope you don’t mind me adding the links in here 🙂

    1. Hi Ceri,

      I guess once we move up the ladder, we’re more likely to have to teach these last minute lessons, huh?! 🙂 I also feel like you – more often than not, the lesson works beautifully.

      Many thanks for sharing the blog posts here! Mi casa es su casa! 🙂

    1. Hi David,

      Agreed! It’s always been good practice, and been around a lot longer than the word Dogme has been. However, I do appreciate the fact that Dogme has given some sort of validation for a practice that some teachers used to have in their classes, but were afraid to share. To be honest, listening to others is the skill that needs to be developed in any kind of social relationship, right?! There’s just one thing I feel like pointing out: unfortunately, we can’t rely on common sense alone. 🙂

      Many thanks for the comment! Look forward to chatting with you soon!

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