Relief Teaching: Chalk & Small Talk!

Becoming an Effective Relief Teacher

In my first year of teaching, I have learnt that effective relief teachers:

  1. Work to develop positive relationships with students and staff
  2. Demonstrate sound classroom management skills, and
  3. Have a repertoire of instructional strategies and relief fill-in activities

In my experience, the development of strong relationships has underpinned my survival and increasing effectiveness as a relief teacher. They have helped me establish a positive reputation in a variety of schools (where I have regularly worked), and contributed to a significant reduction in my classroom management challenges in relief situations. 

Chalk & Talk!

Whenever I work in a school, I make an effort to talk and interact with staff and students. Staying in the class all day does nothing to raise students’ (and staff) awareness of your existence. As you meet and interact with students in informal playground settings, you become less of a stranger, and, well, in my case, known as the “funny guy in the cowboy hat”. This helps to break the ice when you eventually meet these students in formal classroom situations.


You generally need to teach a class 2-3 times before students start to accept you as the genuine article, and it can literally take several weeks to months working in a school to build respectful, trusting relationships with students.

These relationship-building efforts must be complemented by a firm and consistent classroom management approach, and careful observation & handling of your behaviourally challenging students. 

The development of positive, respectful relationships takes a considerable amount of time and effort, and is virtually impossible to do as an agency relief teacher. I have been on both sides of the fence, and have come to love the opportunities and variety afforded by my independent relief teaching practice.

A Relief Teacher’s Story: Working with “Troy”

When dealing with challenging students as a relief teacher, I make a point of identifying and remembering their hobbies, interests, and talents, and try to incorporate them into incidental conversations or classroom learning activities. Believe it or not, given time, this little strategy can work wonders.

I first met “Troy” in mid-2009, and one of my earliest memories of him is of his playing power-games with the Principal. He was very good at ignoring instructions, avoiding work, and arguing/fighting with a student with Asperger’s Syndrome. 

This student caused me (and the Principal) more than a few management headaches, but funnily enough, I liked him. I was always fair and consistent when managing his behaviour, and dealt with his attention/power-seeking behaviours in a calm, measured manner.

Through informal conversations, in and outside the classroom, I discovered Troy’s passion for building expensive model cars. While I’m not particularly fussed with cars, I made an effort to talk about & follow the progress of his latest creation whenever I taught him. 

Over time, Troy’s attitude towards me changed. He was increasingly happy to talk to me, and became more respectful in his speech and manner. He still demonstrated his attention-seeking behaviours, and I remained firm in my management approach. I’ll never forget the moment when he finally recognised my authority, but sadly, I was never to directly teach him again. Running into him several months later, I still remember his shocked and pleased expression when I asked about his model-making activities. Yes, I remembered! Sadly, like so many of my success-stories, he has since left the school.

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