Supply teaching: The element of surprise

Written by: John Dabell | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

In a new series supporting supply teachers, SecEd is offering advice across a range of issues. Here, John Dabell looks at what techniques supply teachers might adopt in the classroom to give them an edge

Supply teaching isn’t about seeking beauty, chasing serendipity and uncovering the poetic. Mostly it’s about “survival” and making sure that students are fully engaged in their learning and they enjoy the time they share with you.

Supply teachers have a demanding job, no-one can refute that. Sometimes it can be a walk in the park but it is far from easy to walk into a school you don’t know and teach 30 students you know nothing about which include a heady mix of EAL, Pupil Premium, SEN and refugee arrivals.

It is like we are on the ropes as soon as the bell rings. But we also have the upper hand because we have a special ingredient: the element of surprise.

Children don’t know who we are and what we are “like”, so we have golden opportunities to wow them, take them by surprise, widen their eyes, do something different and capture their interest like a Venus fly trap. Every teacher should be aiming to do something surprising everyday but covering a class enables us to supply memorable moments and we are well-placed to make an impact and seize the day with the unexpected and oxygenate learning.

Surprises help us to arrest children’s attention so they stop in their tracks. Something novel and something fresh can breathe new life into a class and it is what all great teachers do anyway. Presenting a different way of doing something or sharing a new strategy can often get a class listening instantly and “on your side”. A surprise can hook, make an association, make a connection and make someone’s day.

It can help to reinforce a concept, it could help to derail thinking or take it on a completely different track to make new connections or it could help turn something upside down and even inside out.

Rapid response

Being a “supply” teaches us lots of things including having low expectations of a school but high expectations of the children. It comes as no surprise that lesson plans may not have been left or if they have then they tend to be sketchy, inadequate or just a sticky note on page 56 of a Teacher Guide with the instruction, “follow this page”.

Picking up someone else’s lesson “plans” can be a nightmare as what you are given are very often just one-off activities, mopping up or finishing or something to “keep them busy”. If you are lucky, really lucky, then you’ll find a “sub tub” in class. This is something every class should have – a container of supply work just in case a regular teacher can’t make it into school (this is rarer than hen’s teeth).

The secret therefore is the six Ps: Prior Planning and Preparation Prevents Poor Performance. There is room for another P here too! What every supply teacher will always have is a bank of tried and tested and generic “rapid response” lesson plans that can be used with any year group. What they will also have are surprises up their sleeves to feed into a lesson, to add extra value, to add a twist.

Four surprises

They come in all shapes and sizes, but surprises are one of four things: music, props, images and ourselves. They can all be used for maximum effect to engage children emotionally and make learning “stuff” meaningful and memorable.

Don’t confuse surprises with a popularity contest or a circus act. Creating magic moments in a lesson aren’t just so you can look good and be liked, they are principally to profit the learning experience but the spin-off is that they can make our life easier.

Surprise 1: Music

Playing music can to help enhance a lesson because it possesses neural firepower and it has a powerful effect on learning. Music can radically change the mood and atmosphere of a class in a second and can prime the mind for learning. You could play music when pupils come into a lesson or at key points in a lesson to change direction. By carefully selecting music you can make an ordinary lesson extraordinary.

Music can be used as a backdrop, to rejuvenate, to demonstrate, to neutralise, to pacify and to add warmth.

Music is a potent ally because it engages emotions, it can help with abstract reasoning and brain-work, cut out distractions and structure thoughts for learning. So whether you go for gospel, classical, jazz or hip-hop, think about music as a brain trigger, involve children inside the sounds and lyrics so they can feel uplifted and inspired to work smarter, not harder.

Surprise 2: Props

All teachers need a bag of tricks, a suitcase of curios and a pile of props to supplement their lessons. Unusual artefacts and objects can flabbergast, entertain and educate and we should utilise them to power home a point, illustrate an idea or make a concept stick. Reliable servants of surprise can be magic tricks but these have to link to learning. For example, using cards and coins in maths can illustrate various concepts.

Depending on how brave you feel, you could wear a crazy wig, don a fun tie, put on a pair of crazy glasses and dress up like Spiderman. If this isn’t for you then you could choose an interesting and mysterious object or be super-creative with plain ordinary bog-standard objects like a bunch of keys.

One of my absolute fail-safe props that always “does the trick” is to use a living puppet, the sort that have moving mouths and look a bit like Muppets. These are exceptionally effective “side-kicks” and perfect for getting attention across all ages – I have used them from key stages 1 to 4.

Puppets can be used in any subject for introducing a topic, offering commentaries, thoughts and opinions, disagreeing, challenging children’s ideas and being unpredictable. I frequently use two puppets at a time called Ant and Dec and they act as teachers in their own right by bringing a lesson to life and saying some surprising things!

Surprise 3: Images

Still or moving images can “press shift” in the minds of learners and act as vivid surprises to power interest, boost motivation and increase self-confidence.

As photos, pictures, illustrations, cartoons and video are “in your face” resources, they have a tattoo effect because they can grab attention, astonish, jolt and inspire wonder and leave permanent memory imprints.

The internet makes searching for images easy and they can slot into anything you teach. You can select unusual pictures in the news to discuss, you can select quirky pictures where children have to guess what something is or what might be happening, you can use real-life photos to kick-start learning conversations, exploit them as writing prompts or use cartoons and infographics to simplify tricky concepts.

Videos that “push the envelope” or challenge stereotypes are definitely worthwhile and you can find many great examples on sites like The Literacy Shed.

Surprise 4: Ourselves

The number one resource that we can use to really make a difference is a human resource – ourselves! We can choose to be present or have presence. The most effective teachers use their own teaching assets to make a difference using their voices, faces and bodies to dramatic effect.

Teaching has to include overstatement and amplification so our verbal and non-verbal behaviours need to be exaggerated so that children are stirred up and energised by who we are.

To make a lasting impression, read a story, give instructions and have discussions by talking “posh”, “cockney”, “robotic” or like a pirate. You can talk slow or fast, whisper, shout or even sing like an opera singer.

I’m not surprised

If you are a teacher that likes to do things differently and pull rabbits out of hat then surprises are your bread and butter. At the end of the day, learning has got to stand out and it has to be sticky. If surprises can give your teaching the Velcro quality then it is worth every ounce of effort.

When parents ask “what happened at school today?”, they normally don’t get much of a response. But if you can be the teacher of surprises then the chances are children will mention the music you played, the unusual object you showed them or the silly voice you used and link it and associate it with the concept you were teaching.

As supply teachers we have the opportunity to shake snowglobes and take pupils by surprise right from the outset. By being different and adopting a maverick streak we can set the tone for the day and “win” the minds of learners in any placement and “supply” things they won’t forget.

  • John Dabell is a teacher, teacher trainer and writer. He has been teaching for 20 years and is the author of 10 books. He also trained as an Ofsted inspector. Visit and read his previous best practice articles for SecEd via

Further information

Literacy Shed:

SecEd’s series of best practice articles for supply teachers will run until January. See below for links to specific previous articles and for all the articles published in this series so far – or to read future articles as they publish, visit


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