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How relief teachers can reduce anxiety for students

Many students experience anxiety when there is a relief teacher in the classroom. Their normal routine is disrupted. Expectations are different which tends to increase the noise level and behaviour problems. Students with Autism can find days with relief teachers especially hard. They struggle with the loss of control and routine. They find the noise and behaviour challenging to cope with.

As adults, we don’t enjoy change much either. We prefer to park in the same spot and sit at the same desk. We have our own routine and systems. We can control much of our environment and have some degree of choice about how we spend our days.

Change can throw us out of whack. It increases our anxiety. It makes us frustrated. It can make us feel disappointed. As we age, we build resilience. We cope with change better or at least can mask our feelings towards it. Those who cannot cope with change, often find ways to avoid it. We might stay in the same workplace or role for many years, live in the same house, attend the same church, play the same sport. We stay where it is safe, where we can thrive, where we won’t be caught out.

Children don’t have the luxury of this choice. They are at the mercy of those caring for them. Decisions and boundaries are made for them. As adults, we can forget how difficult childhood can be. School isn’t always the best time of our lives.

As a relief teacher, I love that I can make a difference. I may only be in a class for a lesson or a day, but I can have an impact. We have an impact whether we want to or not. We can make it a wonderful day for our students, engage them in meaningful learning tasks and have fun doing so. We can reduce the stress and anxiety that they feel.

It is important that we recognise that as relief teachers, we have an important job. It is valuable. The way we treat students is crucial. We don’t always see the impact of our behaviour on the child. Some students hold it together at school but have a meltdown at home.

My eldest once had a difficult day with a relief teacher. He seemed fine at pick up. We had a busy afternoon, preparing to host a family birthday. At bedtime, our son had a meltdown. It wasn’t just because it had been a busy day or a late night. After some time, he was able to communicate that he had had an awful day with the relief teacher. He was angry and upset. He didn’t feel heard. The teacher didn’t seem to care about them and didn’t like the class.

After some time, my son was still frustrated. It really bothered him. I suggested that maybe he could write a letter to his normal classroom teacher, telling her what happened. I thought that this would be a positive way to get out his anger and debrief on the day. My son agreed and furiously wrote down his thoughts. He expressed his views and feelings, pleading never to have her again. We gave it to his teacher the next day. She thanked him for it and said she was sorry it was such an awful day. Turns out, it wasn’t just him who had expressed that.

Simple tips for success

I’ve written previously about tips for relief teachers. Most teachers know and do these already. Here are a few tips for success:

  • Arrive early and come prepared for the day. This can mean we are less anxious ourselves and focus more on the students in our care.
  • Keep extra resources in the car in case the year level or role changes or you need extra lesson ideas.
  • Put your name and date on the board.
  • Write the routine for the day on the whiteboard or smartboard. Include each lesson, recess and lunch, brain breaks and fitness.
  • Keep your phone on silent or only answer it if it is really important. Avoid looking at your phone during lessons so to give your students your full attention and care.
  • Open the classroom on the first bell (if allowed) to give them enough time to unpack, chat and feel settled. Meet them at the door to be a friendly, welcoming face.
  • When the day starts, introduce yourself. Tell students that they know how the classroom operates so they are really in charge. They can help you run the day since it is their classroom.
  • Ask about special helpers or a star of the day. Follow the regular classroom routine as closely as possible, especially in Junior Primary. (They tend to take it very seriously.)
  • After taking the roll, refer to the routine for the day. Ask if there are any questions. Throughout the day, choose a student to tick off as each lesson is completed to give a sense of accomplishment. Let them know any changes to the day to help reduce anxiety.
  • Give them time to respond and ask questions. Allow enough time in the morning to set the feel for the day. Let students have a short chance to chat about the weekend or night before. Some may have something exciting to share while others might be having a bad day. It’s hard to focus on schoolwork if something else is going on.
  • Try to be calm and happy, set boundaries and set expectations for the day. Be consistent.
  • Talk about your family, interests, pets. Share a funny or embarrassing story. It makes us more relatable and human.
  • Explain that you are there to help them today and will do your best to keep the day as normal as possible.
  • Show that you care by asking questions, looking at their work, providing feedback, asking them about their weekend, which team they go for, what their plans are for the holidays, etc. Building positive relationships is key.
  • Include short breaks in the day such as fitness, walk and talk and movement breaks.
  • Provide extra breaks for those students who need it.
  • Use timers to give students warning before switching tasks.
  • At the end of the day, allow enough time for packing up. This makes it less stressful for both you and the students.
  • Write detailed notes for the teacher. This shows respect for the classroom teacher. It means that you pass on information about the day so the classroom teacher or leadership can follow up if necessary. It makes students accountable for their behaviour. If some are spoken to or receive a consequence, they are less likely to do the same for the next reliever. This helps to make the classroom a safe place and a calmer one for the other students.

Challenges

Days as a reliever can be incredibly challenging. Sometimes it can feel like it’s us against them. The behaviour is horrendous and there are too many students to send out. They won’t engage and everything is difficult. They are chatty and it feels impossible to quieten them down.

I’ve been there and it’s hard. It can be truly awful. I used to take any job that would come up. I would drive to any school and take any class. I was young and enthusiastic. I was pretty naive. I developed good behaviour management skills and learned how to form positive relationships quickly.

It was also exhausting. I cried a lot. It wore me down. I no longer drive so far. I think before I say yes. I am more picky about the sites I work in. I still work in some challenging schools provided I am supported by leadership.

Words are important

The way you speak about yourself and your role is important. It often mirrors how you see yourself and in turn, how others see you.

You are not just a relief teacher. You are a relief teacher. You are taking the place of the classroom teacher for the day. That is an incredible privilege and responsibility. Be mindful of the words you use to describe your role. You can make a difference, not just for the students but the families they go home to.

Tips for classroom teachers

If you have a planned absence, it is helpful to let the students know. This eliminates the shock factor. Explain that you have an appointment or report writing day. Remind them of your expectations and how this remains the same regardless of who is teaching. Mention that you will be following up on any behavioural issues when you get back.

It is inevitable that some days you will need a relief teacher at the last minute. You can’t help being sick or needing to care for one of your children. These things happen. There are some things you can do to set your class up for success when you aren’t there.

A TRT folder is helpful for relievers. It can take a bit of work to put together but ideally it will reduce issues arising from the day. This can simply be adapted when needed or when you change year levels. Most contain a class list, relevant student information (behaviour issues, allergies, photos), buddy class information, timetable with yard duties and NIT, bell times, TRT password. Some classrooms have a page of labelled photos and name badges. A few lesson ideas and printables can be helpfully placed at the back of the folder as a backup.

Whilst this isn’t an expectation of every school, I do think it can be very valuable. It sets the relief teacher up for success and helps equip them for the day. This in turn, can help alleviate anxiety for students.

On one particular relief day, the students had a special TRT workbook to use. All work for the day was completed in this book. Students found it easier to be organised. I knew that I was responsible for marking the work in here and the classroom teacher was not responsible. Genius.

Words are important

Just as it matters how relievers refer to themselves, it also matters how other staff talk to them. Schools are busy places and most people mean well. I have worked as a full time classroom teacher, NIT teacher and reliever so have experienced this from both sides.

Instead of: “Who are you today?”

Try, “Which teacher are you in for today?“Which classroom are you in?” “What role do you have today?”

It’s far more polite and kind. It demonstrates that the reliever is a person and they are not somebody else for the day. I love the term, ‘visiting teacher.’ This is respectful. This is not dissimilar to referring to SSOs (School Service Officers) as Co-Educators.

It can be useful to explain or remind students that visiting teachers are qualified just like regular members of staff. We have all studied at university and graduated with the same degree. This can be new information for some students.

Further Reading and Resources

Want to learn more? Here are some resources that might be helpful.

Class Cover: Essential skills for relief teachers

Teacher for a Day: ideas and resources

Department of Education: Supporting children and students with anxiety

Twinkl: Classroom strategies to reduce anxiety

Health Direct: Anxiety in children

Raising Children Network: Anxiety, worries and fears in children

Emerging Minds: Supporting a child with anxiety

Beyond Blue: Signs and symptoms of anxiety

The Royal Children’s Hospital Melbourne: Anxiety in primary school-aged children

Kids Health: Anxiety disorders

NHS: Anxiety in children

Relief teaching is an important job. You can help set the tone for the day. You can see strengths in students and be an encouragement to them. You can make time for fitness when their normal teacher might not get to. You can provide a calm environment to learn. You can help ease their worries. You can fully focus on the students in front of you without having to worry about assessments and data and reports.

Know that you are not just a relief teacher.

Know that you can make a difference.

Thoughts? I’d love to hear in the comments below or connect with you over on Instagram or Facebook.

Melanie Wegener

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