Substituting a lesson for another teacher

by Zhenya


If you are working as an EFL/ESL teacher for a language school (either full-time or part-time) you have probably been asked to cover for someone’s class at least once over the last month. Or twice. Or more? Well, you might also be a Director of Studies and you might have been actually asking other teachers to substitute for someone on holiday/vacation/conference, etc., etc. To me, it does not matter whether you are a teacher or a DoS when it comes to covering someone else’s lesson, it is often on a short notice, and in most cases you have a lot of other work to get done (including your own lessons to prepare and teach!)

In the language school I was working we did not have a substituting teacher position so it was often asking someone for a ‘favor’ to cover one lesson/evening/week… Sometimes you have a similar preparation because you also teach the same level of students and they are using the same coursebook, but oftentimes it is completely different from yours. If you add the fact that students in those groups are not super happy to see you (and find yourself answering questions about their own teacher instead of the warm-up activity you were searching for almost for the whole hour 🙂

There is one old quote I really like: if you can’t change the situation itself change your attitude to it. If we need to substitute this lesson tonight, let’s do it, just bearing in mind a couple of things:

  • planning a short (5 min?) ice-breaking activity (even as simple as ‘ask me three questions not about teaching’, or something similar)
  • asking students how they usually do this or that task (in groups or pairs? who makes the decisions? who writes on the board?) – it can open the communication between you and them and serve as ice-breaker, plus help them feel comfortable with you and your teaching style
  • mentioning your professional relationship with their teacher (‘She loves preparing for your classes’; she told me about that song activity you did together last week’) This works especially well if there are good relationships between you and the colleague. Another piece of wisdom here is that students will realize that teachers really care (and we do!) about their learning and will respond better to you as a substitute.


And finally, several thoughts why these substitution class can be helpful for the teachers who agree to do it:

  • it can become a wonderful professional challenge for an experienced colleague: will I be able to plan a lesson within 30 minutes? Will I be able to reach those students I meet for the first time?
  • It can be a great chance to learn more about new course books (or books you have never used before) by meeting new groups of students and teaching a lesson from those books
  • it can be an opportunity to experiment on something you are working with as a part of your professional development plan (or a conference presentation) and ‘test’ those new activities you designed
  • it can be a way to overcome your own fear of being not liked (well, to be honest, this is something I used to have as a new teacher)

Anything else for those who will have to run a lesson in a couple of hours? Are there any strategies/tips you can share?