In one kind, the teacher knew in advance that he would be away and will have prepared a lesson plan, complete with materials and maybe a few notes about the class itself; students to keep an eye on, students with special needs … The other kind happens when the teacher’s absence is unplanned and there hasn’t been time to make any such preparations. Some schools and Language Centres have ‘ready-to-go’ lessons available for these occasions; useful of course but not always ideal and hardly ever remarkable.
During my various stints as a standby-teacher I learnt that that the best thing about jumping in to an already-established class was that it provided an opportunity for some real communication as the learners would (hopefully) be curious about this intruder, coming in out of the cold and threatening to disrupt the status quo. Who hasn’t seen those looks of ‘Who the …?’ or heard muttered concerns, usually along the lines of ‘I hope she knows we always have a 15 minute break at half past six’?
So, depending on the level and age group of the class, I found that one of the best activities to start off with was a ‘getting to know you’ one; the type you might do at the beginning of a new course - but this time with the ‘you’ being ‘me’. Here’s an example for a class of Intermediate teenagers. With some minor tweaking it should work for other ages and levels. It also offers valuable practice on ‘question forms’; something that can be problematic for all learners of English.
- Write your name on the board and draw a big question mark above it.
- Explain that you are going to give learners an opportunity to find out things about you.
- Put learners into small groups and explain that they have a limited time to write 5 questions that they’d like to ask you. Learners should write each question on a separate piece of paper. Sticky post-its are ideal for this because of the next step. Explain that you won’t answer any question that is either impolite or grammatically incorrect so they should think about the language they are using. They can check with friends in other groups or look up question forms in a grammar book or online. Give them a limited time for this. 5 - 10 minutes should be plenty.
- When they have finished, ask a member from each group to stick the questions up on the board or on a classroom wall so that everyone can see them. Then invite a member from each group up to the board to classify the questions. Explain that they should group similarly-themed questions together and if two or more questions are the same, they should discard one.
- Remove the questions and explain that you will answer some of them but you might choose not to answer others.
- Answer one of the questions without saying which one it is. Make a note of this question and number it (1). When you have answered, ask learners to write the corresponding question in their notebooks.
- Continue in this way until you have answered around 8 questions and learners have a list of questions in their notebooks.
- Ask learners to work in pairs, comparing the questions they have written and making changes as they wish.
- Write the 8 questions on the board for learners to self-check and make their own corrections.
Variation: If you are unhappy about sharing personal information in this way, simply invent all the answers and end the activity by telling the class that everything they have just heard is false!