The great unplanned lesson: Part 1

Written by: Gerry Mallaghan | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

You arrive at school and unforeseen circumstances mean that you’re covering a lesson in a subject you know little about – and with no preparation time. In the first of two articles, Gerry Mallaghan offers advice and quick activity ideas to help you survive...

When I started teaching some 13 years ago, my day often started with a visit to the staffroom to see if I had a slip of paper attached to my locker door.

This slip was to inform you of the details of the cover lesson you had been allocated that day, in place of your non-contact marking and planning time.

Such things are of course a thing of the past. Since the introduction of “rarely cover”, teachers are only used to cover lessons when unforeseen circumstances arise. However, at some point in your career, for whatever reason, you will find yourself in a situation that requires you to quickly plan a lesson – often for a subject you know little or nothing about – in the five minutes it takes you to walk to the classroom.

If you are lucky, you will be asked to teach a lesson on a subject that you have some experience of. However, with rarely cover meaning you should only be asked to cover a lesson because of an emergency, you could face any subject.

In my personal experience, I have found myself covering all sort of lessons. Often I would be teaching a lesson on a subject that was not my specialism, on an unknown topic and with no idea of what resources, if any, would be available.

Over the next two articles, I am going to offer you some advice and examples of activities that you can use to put together a lesson when asked to do an emergency cover.

The unplanned lesson

So, you have just been told you need to go to room W, to cover a lesson for teacher X, who is teaching subject Y, to a year Z class.

Your first question should be “is there any work set?”. Hopefully a colleague in the relevant department will be in the process of organising some work.

However, for the purposes of this article, let’s assume there is nothing arranged and you are on your own. Your first job is to make sure you have a pen, at least one piece of A4 paper and if possible a whiteboard marker.

Your goals in the first five minutes are to settle the class, identify a topic for the lesson, confirm the resources available, as well as get a list of the students’ names and, if possible, where they are sitting.

To get things started you will need an opening activity that you can implement immediately upon entering the room. As I said earlier, the assumption is that you have not received any information regarding which topic the students should be working on, beyond the subject name. This means you need an activity that needs no resources, no preparation time and will work without you knowing the lesson topic.

This activity will allow you to get the students focused and provide you with some time to get organised. In this time you need to work out the topic for the lesson and what resources, if any, are on offer in the room.

At the same time, you should use the pen and A4 paper you brought to sketch a plan of the room and get the students to write down their full names generating a seating plan and register.

So, some examples of activities that you can use are listed below. These all require no subject knowledge and no preparation time.

Starter activities – no resources

The following ideas require no resources whatsoever.

  • In groups or pairs, get the students to produce a 60-second presentation on what they learned in the previous lesson.
  • Get students individually to decide on what they think the five most important key words were from the previous lesson. They can then share ideas in pairs, then small groups and then as a class until a consensus is reached by the group.
  • Pair students off and allow each of them one minute to explain to the other person what they learned last lesson. You can then get the students to feedback about what their partner learned to the class allowing you to get an idea of what happened in their last lesson. Again you can build the group size up until all students agree on the prior learning.
  • Ask the students to make a list of the five most important skills they need to be successful in the subject and explain why they selected these skills. You can also do the same activity but focused on pieces of information rather than skills needed.
  • Get the students to stand up. Pick one of the students who starts the activity by saying a key word. The student then has to nominate another student who has to say a linking word. You keep this process going until one of the students cannot think of a word. This student must sit down and the student who nominated them must select a different person to answer. You keep this process going until only one student is left standing.
  • Set students into groups of three. One student acts as an umpire and the other two students act as players. The players take turns at naming key words on a topic. When a player blanks or pauses they lose that point. The umpire’s decision is final and they also keep the score. You can use the scoring system in tennis (love, 15, 30, 40, game) or play first to four points. Students then rotate roles and play again. You can have groups of four with two student umpires.
  • Ask the students to come up with an answer to the question: “If an alien asked you to describe the subject you were learning how would you describe it to them?” Remind the students that aliens do not speak the same language.

Starter activities – pen and paper

The following activities will require something for students to write on and write with.

  • Get the students to sketch a picture or diagram to show what the topic of the last lesson was. You can extend this to a short story board of three images.
  • Get the students to write down five questions relating to the previous lesson. Students can then exchange books/paper and answer each other’s questions. You can also incorporate some literacy skills, getting the students to check for basic punctuation.
  • Get the students to create a word chain linking 10 different words and or terms that relate to the previous lesson or topic.
  • Set the students the challenge of writing the longest sentence possible using as many key words as they can from the previous lesson.
  • Get the students to write a list of the most common mistakes students make in the subject when being assessed and how to avoid them.
  • Get the students to make a list of 10 true/false questions. You can then get students to exchange questions with other individuals or groups.

Starter activities – students’ books

These ideas and activities will require students to have their own note books or folders.

  • Get the students to carry out a review of their own or somebody else’s notebook and or folder. Students can check for basic spelling punctuation and grammar. You can also get the students to write one comment on each book they review explaining how the book could be improved.
  • Get the students to go back to a previous piece of work and make five changes to improve that piece of work.
  • Get the students to find old questions in their book that they got wrong and retry the questions.
  • Get the students to search through their book for a key word beginning with the letter A, then B, then C and continue until the complete the alphabet.
  • Get the students to work in pairs and turn their book/folder over page by page making comparisons. When they find a difference, they need to discuss why it occurred and decide if any changes are needed. The students need to make a list of the differences they find, the changes they made to their work or the reason they did not make any changes.
  • Get the students to use their books or folders to identify the topics they understand and the topics they are less sure about. Students then must find somebody to explain a topic to or find somebody who can explain a topic to them.


With a little luck, five minutes after you walk into the classroom you should have: a class that is settled and working, identified what teaching resources are available in the room (e.g. textbooks), a seating plan. You should also have been able to identify a topic for the lesson or come to the realisation that you don’t have a lesson topic.
You now have approximately five-minutes to plan the rest of the lesson’s activities. In my next article – due to publish on March 15 – I will give you some further suggestions and ideas that will help you to build the rest of the lesson.

  • Gerry Mallaghan is an experienced teacher of 13 years, currently working at Lutterworth College in Leicestershire. You can read his previous articles for SecEd via


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