| August 28, 2015 | 0 Comments

How to be a (pretty good) locum

By Lara van Lelyveld

I have filled several locum posts, and each one has brought a set of challenges that I could only have partly foreseen.

I have made many mistakes, including using teachers’ particular mugs, sitting in their chairs, missing staff meetings, forgetting to sign reports and misreading the timetable.

The nature of being a locum – a shortened time at each particular school and the awareness of your ‘apartness’ – each error feels critical.

I’ve interviewed present and past colleagues, present students and managers, asking them all the same question: “What makes a good locum?” Reading the staff handbook is not sufficient preparation for filling a gap. The goal of any locum appointment is to ensure the smoothest possible transition for the classes. Their confidence in the subject, themselves and the school needs to be maintained – or, in the case of emergency appointments, quickly established.

Quick: triangulate your position!

For a locum, one of the most important initial steps is getting to grips with the discipline system and your particular school’s code of conduct. Each school’s system is different; as locums, we need to be prepared to adapt quickly and fully to whatever is required of us in this area. It is a good idea to ask three or four different teachers to explain the system to you, as sometimes (for better or worse) what is actually practised by individual teachers differs from what management expects, and can be quite different from what is written down. I’ve had some success with a ‘triangulation’ of sorts – somewhere in between what the handbook says, what your colleagues say and what management prefers, lies the answer.

Filling in for a whole term

If you are in the enviable position of being a locum who will temporarily stand in for a permanent staff member who will return, then it is possible to (almost) guarantee a great locum term. A colleague about to go on maternity leave will surely have photocopied all the work for her classes next term. The locum has been appointed, briefed and all that she needs to do next term is maintain some kind of order in the classroom, keep morale high, and hand out and assess work and behaviour. Planning and a careful handover from the permanent teacher to the locum are the most obvious ways in which to ensure the class has the best possible experience. This preparation also allows the permanent teacher to do what they need to during their term away, confident that they will return to an up-to-date class.

Even with the best planning, as locums we do need to cut ourselves some slack. The classes will likely have a strong relationship with their teacher and you, as the interloper, are not guaranteed a warm response. Try not to take it personally – although I have, from time to time, succumbed to the need to hide beneath my desk and have a little weep into my tea.

Emergency procedures

If you are being asked to fill a position for which you do not feel completely qualified (e.g. I’ve had to teach geography before with no background or experience in this subject), make sure that you are not creating unrealistic expectations of yourself. Speak candidly with both the head of department and the person you are replacing and ask them what their expectations are.

In terms of what you do while working as a locum, make sure that everything – from moderation to filing – is self-explanatory. After having worked hard to have a positive and productive classroom for three months, it would be a pity to have your good impression ruined by leaving behind a pile of filing hidden at the bottom of the cupboard.

If you are in the rather more complex situation of being an ‘emergency’ locum – someone asked to step into the breach when the permanent teacher is either unable or unwilling to continue in the classroom – then, aside from a dose of herbal calming drops, these are some of the hints that I’ve found useful. First, cut yourself (even more) slack. Of all the transitions to be made, this is the most treacherous. Sometimes, the only information you’ll be given is ‘things went wrong’. Discretion, while admirable, can sometimes be a bit of an inhibitor, so keep your eyes open for the gap and fill it. There will doubtlessly be things that the previous teacher did not do – make sure that these get done. This is one of the easiest ways to build up confidence. I have had to stand in for a teacher who was renowned for their disorganisation. In the first week with their class, I made a special effort to show them how organised I was (seating charts, prepared lessons and careful records of task submission) and this helped them feel more secure.

Although this next tip is usually a good idea, it is particularly good when you’re an emergency appointment: ask your classes where they are in the curriculum. Unless the school has serious disciplinary issues, this is a pretty reliable method of finding things out. It also allows you to see if there is information that you need to go over. According to the records, they might have covered the French Revolution, but they have no idea who Robespierre is… You’ll know that it is then time for some revision!

Avoid attachment

Filling these gaps and increasing morale in the classroom will make for happier students, but do not allow yourself to be seduced by favourable comparisons with the departed teacher. When I’ve stepped into the breach because a teacher has been ill or disinterested or incapacitated in some way, it is easy to shine in comparison. Teachers can be rather starved for praise, and it is so tempting to give into the adoration your class is offering. That way madness lies – well, if not madness, certainly a precariously bloated ego.

Emotionally, think of yourself as Mary Poppins – present and engaged, but only for the time required. I’ve grown much attached to students as a locum, and this has both advantages and disadvantages. When I interviewed my present class, asking them what helped them adapt to both myself and other locum teachers they’ve had, their response was unanimous: “Taking an interest in us.” Even if you’re just there for a term, learn their names and pay attention to their strengths and weaknesses. By showing the class that you’re prepared to invest in them, your chances of a positive and productive classroom environment increase significantly. The best locums are those who are an actively supportive presence, rather than merely a placeholder.

Good luck to all the brave locums!

Being a locum requires constant vigilance and particularly high levels of perception. We need to balance so many different issues, some of which we won’t be told about but will only find out about when things fall apart. It’s a challenging position, but one that can be so rewarding. Good luck to all of us locums!

Category: Spring 2015

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