Substituted out of your comfort zone

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“Your comfort zone, where the magic happens” by Oklanica is licensed under CC BY 2.0

While I believe that reflecting on your teaching and learning experiences are crucial to every modern day teacher, specially those that believe in student-centered learning. I regularly reflect on my experiences as a teacher and as a student to help me better my methods and hopefully enhance the learning taking place.

During the final stages of completing my Masters in Education, I decided to take up a role in supply (or substitute teaching). While initially it was to make some extra cash next to my role as a research assistant, it turned out to be one of the turning points of my teaching career.

For those that are unaware, the supply teacher system in the UK usually operates through centers that school are comfortable with. Those centers employ a fleet of teachers and coordinate every morning where they will be sent to and for how long. One morning, I received a call at 7am asking me to be at a particular school, that I have never visited before. Upon arrival I went to check out my allocation and to my shock they had assigned me to teach 4 classes of Religious Education, in a Catholic school. For those of you that do not know or have not read my stuff before, I am an Egyptian muslim, bored and raised, and although I have a generic interest in theology and have read bits and bobs, I definitely did not feel ready to teach about another religion in a school that specializes in that. I asked at the reception if the allocations can be changed and explained my rationale, but they assured me that all the work was already set and that I should just get the students to do that work.

I had a free period before the 4 lessons that will follow so I used that time to sit in the staff room and review the work set by the teacher. He had set them a reading and worksheet to complete, which massively reminded me of how I was taught Religious studies in school. Unfortunately, my teacher in school used to give us phrases from the Quran to learn off by heart. Most of the time providing no real explanation to what these phrases mean, and without giving you any space to question. Questioning religion to them was a sin in itself, they did not understand that there is a difference of questioning to understand versus questioning to raise doubt. They also used to give us worksheets and fill in the blanks and so on. To this day, I still remember some of the phrases I learnt at school, and until recently, I did not fully understand their meaning, until I started taking a more academic approach to it. I thought to myself, I am only here for a day, what’s the worst that can happen in I try something new? There is no real harm that can occur and I highly doubt they will learn anymore by completing these worksheets.

I went online and started reading about how religion used to be taught or discussed during the days of the prophets and their disciples. Although at first glance it may appear to be all about war and invasion, but in reality there was a lot of discussion and questioning. I also started reading about the Greek philosophers and what they talked about and how they talked about it. It made sense in my mind, that philosophy and religion were very similar. Both can be interpreted differently by different people, both are a matter of belief an faith in a sense that they are not an evidence based subject. So I decided to do just that, I wrote the key goals or outcomes of the lesson and wrote one questions to get the ball rolling.

When the students entered and sat down, I asked them to read the question on the board and told them that the first to generate a reason or explanation or critique to the question or statement would be allowed to leave a couple of minutes early. One student’s hand shot up immeditaely and he responded. The rest of the class carried on in this fashion, I think I only spoke about 20-30 words in the lesson. But the students got so engaged with the discussion, it was brilliant. With five minutes to go, I asked the student to complete the worksheet their teacher had set for them so that they can be handed in. The students came up afterwards and still had questions for me about the topic. There are evaluation sheets handed to students to see what they thought of the substitute teacher, a quality assurance tool put in place by the schools and centers for supply teaching to ensure quality and whether to rehire someone or not.

The following morning I got a phone call from that school, asking if they can give my number to the teacher I was replacing, as he wanted to speak to me. I’ll be honest with you, I was a nervous, I was worried I had ruined this teacher’s schedule or whatever. Anyway, he called me and to my surprise he asked me what I had done with his students, because their scores on the worksheet were excellent and so were the evaluations. I started speaking to him about the methods I used. He told me that he had always wanted to do that, but was scared it wouldn’t translate into their academic setting, so in that sense, the marks from the worksheets would not be that good. He complemented me on trying this out and said that he will be trying to incorporate these methods in his own teaching.

From that moment onwards, I embraced being a supply teacher, I got to teach various subjects, across various ages, in different locations as well as being put in situations that are really outside of my comfort zone. This allowed me to express my creativity, think on my feet and always have a plan B. I would encourage any teacher to try that for a short period of time, even via lesson swapping with a colleague at work from a different year group or discipline. Try and place yourself in a situation that is outside of your norm, and document what you try and attempt to test if it had a positive or negative impact. Try different things in different settings, it will help you develop as a teacher, and documenting this will help the rest of us grow as teachers.


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