As a graduate teacher, that first step into a classroom full of unfamiliar faces can be daunting. But if you’re a casual relief teacher (CRT), it’s part and parcel of the job. CRTs are full of great advice on how to hit the ground running – so we asked three of our passionate members for their best advice on how to make a positive impact from the outset.
Staying flexible and connected
“It’s all about confidence, warmth and connection,” says Louise Cass. “If the children feel the connection, then you are on the right track and quality learning will occur.
“Taking the time to share a little bit about yourself makes you feel genuine to them. My Italian greyhound, Basil – he always gets a go.”
Encouraging students to model good leadership is another handy tip. “I make them feel proud of their choices and highlight what they’re doing that’s special,” Louise adds. “It has to be celebrated.”
When faced with a disruptive student, she says it’s all about responding accordingly. “You have to be firm, but not confronting. Be calm and measured in your response. And when you engage, do so with an element of caution, because you need to consider what’s going to work best for you, for them, and for the class.”
“Flexibility is essential. Be prepared to modify and adjust your approach.”
Louise believes flexibility is the key when it comes to coping in the classroom. “Flexibility is essential. Be prepared to modify and adjust your approach. And take guidance from one of the most important people in your class – your education support officer – if you have one. Because they’re going to have a wealth of knowledge you can watch and learn from.”
Louise says that joining the union and seeking out social media groups focused on teaching has helped her stay connected and engaged in continual learning, which supports her in her role. She is also keen on maintaining one of the major lessons learned in lockdown.
“I do a lot of mindfulness and gratitude activities with students,” she says. “We’ve learned the importance of social connection, and of educators taking time in their day to check in on students’ wellbeing.”
Focus on the little things
Doing a little homework on the school you’re headed to goes a long way, advises Andrew Watkins. “What might work at one school won’t necessarily work at another.”
Spending some time researching the school’s outlook and approach to education is a great idea. But sometimes all the homework in the world will go out the window when you step into a classroom – and that’s OK too, he adds.
“Not everything goes to plan,” Andrew says. “You might spend ages preparing an activity, but it just doesn’t go the way you thought it would. The ability to change and transition to something different is really important.
“Then there are times when students are way more engaged than you expected. So you have to go, ‘OK, maybe we’ll spend a bit more time looking at this’ and it turns into a whole lesson.”
“Creating a positive environment is the name of the game.”
Creating a positive environment geared towards education being exciting is the name of the game. And, like Louise, Andrew says building rapport can be a helpful tool to ensure your day runs more smoothly.
“Really focus in on the little things. If somebody’s putting in the effort, acknowledging that and being very consistent will mean other students want the same kind of attention.”
He also suggests that finding out more about what interests a disruptive student can head off some of their more challenging behaviour. “But if that behaviour is severe enough, it’s also important to know what the school policy is, because obviously you do have a duty of care.”
Connections are essential when it comes to settling into the staffroom, too. “If you barrack for the same footy team, or you’re both into surfing, that will help you make a connection with someone and you can move on from there. It’s definitely about finding those one or two workmates with a common thread.”
“Do not be afraid to ask for help.”
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Walk in with a smile
“I always go in with a positive attitude,” says long-time CRT Mary-Anne Pontikis. “I walk in with a smile, and I’m prepared for things to maybe go the right way, or maybe go the wrong, or just a different, way.”
It’s all about being prepared for whatever may come – and, first up, that requires a good night’s sleep, she says. “Whether they are in Prep or in Grade 6, the kids just know if you’re tired and you’ve been burning the candle at both ends. Guaranteed, that will be the day that everything goes wrong. There will be someone vomiting, or angry parents ringing about something.”
Teaching is a collegiate profession and if you’re struggling, for whatever reason, the best approach is to reach out to a colleague, says Mary-Anne. “It’s not a sign of weakness. We have to support one another and not be afraid to ask for help.”
While times have moved on since the days of handing around the lolly jar for good behaviour, Mary-Anne agrees with Andrew and Louise on the power of finding ways to recognise an individual student’s efforts. “If the school has a ‘student of the week’ award handed out at assembly, I will make sure that any deserving child is acknowledged.”
But keep an open mind on students flagged for being troublesome too, she says. “A child that may be well behaved for one person may or may not be so good for another – and the reverse can happen as well – so you should always avoid labelling a student.”
The best words of advice she ever received were from a former principal. “She said to me, ‘If you mind, dear, it matters. If you don’t mind, it doesn’t.’ And I’ve always remembered that.
“It’s about caring for students because, as a teacher, I always care. I follow things up because it really matters to me. In this profession, you have to have a lot of empathy.”