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My top 10 tips for relief teachers

Perhaps you’ve recently graduated from a teaching degree? Switching from classroom to relief teaching for a lifestyle choice? Coming back from maternity leave and wanting to get back into work again?

It can be daunting to know where to start when it comes to relief teaching as you try to get your head around everything.

I have been teaching for over ten years. I have taught in public and private schools, had my own class and taught multiple classes in a specialist role, and been a reliever. I know what it’s like from both sides – having to leave your class in the hands of a stranger and teaching for a day in a stranger’s class. I have recently come back after having my third baby and have enjoyed temporary relief teaching again.

Here are my top 10 tips for a successful day as a relief teacher:

1. Prep your paperwork

Getting your paperwork organised for temporary relief teaching will differ from area to area. Where I live, we require a current teacher registration, authority to teach, first aid, responding to abuse and neglect, and a Working With Children Check. We have an online profile that requires these certificates kept up to date and uploaded, along with our CV.

There is additional paperwork for payroll and superannuation (retirement). We have apps to get work that requires certificates to be uploaded. Some schools want to sight these upon arrival along with your driver’s license. It is a huge amount to get your head around and organise and can take some time to do so. Look into what is required for your region.

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I like to order a set of basic business cards from VistaPrint. I include my name, phone and email address, any specialist area of study and keep the back free to write my availability as this can change. I attach these to my CV ready to take to schools.

2. Visit schools in person

My top 10 tips for relief teachers

When seeking to get work as a relief teacher, there are a few ways to go about it. Some schools prefer communication to be online. If you can, however, it can be a great experience going out to schools in person. It is a brilliant networking opportunity as you demonstrate that you are keen and they can put a face to the name.

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When you meet the administration staff, be warm and friendly, and explain that you are looking to do relief work and would love the chance to work in their school. Give some context as to why you are relieving – are you a new graduate, moved districts, looking for a change or coming back from maternity leave?

They may introduce you to a member of leadership or the person in charge of booking relief teachers. Regardless of who you meet though, it is important to make a good first impression. The receptionist will pass on your paperwork and provide their opinion about what you’re like.

Will it take longer than emailing a bunch of schools? Of course. It will most likely pay off in the long run though as the personal approach can leave a lasting impression and lead to getting booked in advance for work or at the top of their list of preferred relievers.

Determine what area you want to work in, how far you are prepared to travel and how many schools you want to contact. Generally, you want to put your name out in a lot of schools, you’ll get work in some, and eventually become the favourite at a few choice schools. This reduces the exhaustion of having to go to a new school every day and schools like having the consistency of the same relief teacher for their students.

3. Prep your resources

My top 10 tips for relief teachers

In my experience, spending a little bit of time and money getting organised can help you feel excited in anticipation of your new role and ease any anxiety you might have. I think it is very important to come prepared as a reliever. This means presuming that there will not be work left for you.

If a classroom teacher comes down ill suddenly, they can’t be expected to have lessons ready for you. I have also gone to schools where I have been booked weeks in advance and had not so much as a visible timetable in sight, let alone a brief note. I have not known about assemblies (so arrived late), not been told about NIT lessons (a specialist teacher come to collect the class while we are deep in a lesson) or not known about other basic timetabling. While this can feel a bit disappointing (and at times stressful), it does mean I have the freedom to choose what lessons and activities I do with the class.

With this in mind, I make sure I bring a trolley full of resources and lessons ready to go, including whole-day plans of ideas. I can walk into a classroom and within five minutes, have the day organised. This helps me feel confident. It doesn’t phase me if I teach Japanese, PE, Science or general classroom, year ones or year sixes.

Spend time brainstorming fun lesson ideas, brain breaks and fitness games or do some research online. Over time you can refine these into a few key favourites that you use time and time again. If you come to work prepared to face anything, you will most likely have a successful day and be asked back. It greatly assists leadership when you are organised and self-sufficient.

Many teachers use a bag on wheels to save carrying lots of bags. I’ve heard it said that teaching is the only job where you steal things from home to take to work! Places like Amazon sell these for around $37 and they work well, except for in the rain (then I recommend either an enclosed sewing bag from Spotlight for around $120, or just a suitcase). I like to keep this in my office or the boot of my car, and then have a bag or two inside to help organise it.

I include a pencil case (mini bell for getting attention, pens, whiteboard marker), lanyard with a whistle (that you can attach keys to), hat (for yard duties), a teacher planner or notepad, books to read aloud (both picture books and funny chapter novels), hands-on resources (literacy and numeracy games), printable resources (that can be photocopied) and a USB (with lessons you can put on the interactive whiteboard). I’d also recommend some blank paper. This can be used for bookmaking (little books for kids to create and write stories in), maths, science or art.

Last year, I got so sick of writing my name on student work. I finally decided to order a personalised stamp from Teach It Co (not sponsored). It was $45 plus shipping but honestly worth every cent. It fits into my pencil case and makes marking books a dream. It is useful for the classroom teacher to see what work was completed when they were away and shows that the work was sighted. I wish that I had bought one of these when I first graduated. Do yourself a favour and consider buying one of these timesavers.

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Check your wardrobe for suitable teaching outfits, and consider going into the shops if you need a few new items. Op shops (otherwise known as thrift stores) can be great for this and you can often find brand-name bargains. I prefer shopping at the smaller shops run by volunteers that have low prices and donate money to charity, but for those in a rush, Savers is a good option (massive stores, and clothing well-organised into sizes).

4. Get organised the night before

Whatever you can get sorted the night before will help you feel organised and ready to go the next day. It will mean you won’t have to get up so early which is a huge win for me! I suggest taking a few minutes to prep your gear, depending on the class or classes that you’ll be teaching.

If you are not sure, pack some general items that can be used across different year levels. Check that you have everything you need, including your paperwork in your bag (I recommend keeping these in here at all times). Look up directions to the school and calculate when you need to leave.

Prepare your snacks and lunch, including some powered coffee or hot chocolate sachets or your favourite tea bag, get your outfit and shoes ready and have your alarm on. Allow some time if you can to relax before bed – think of an episode or two of your favourite show, a chapter of your book or a hot shower.

5. On the day

Get up early. Dress to impress. If you feel good about yourself, you will appear more confident. It can set you up for success. I once did a temporary relief day at a new school. The principal mentioned that when he first saw me arrive in the carpark, he thought to himself, ‘she’ll get snapped up quick.’ Wrong or right, we do get judged on our appearance and how we present ourselves.

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If you’re not sure of the dress code, err on the side of caution. Dress more formally and you can always dial it down the next time you visit if need be. I recommend no jeans, leggings or tights (unless you have a skirt over the top) and avoid sneakers and slip-on shoes.

Go for smart pants, a nice top, and a blazer or jacket. Bring a warm, waterproof jacket in cool weather in case you are outside on yard duty or running fitness. Wear your name badge, lanyard and wristwatch (think outside duties, moving around the school, lessons, no phones in class). Leave with plenty of time, allowing for traffic.

6. When you arrive

My top 10 tips for relief teachers

As a relief teacher, I recommend aiming to arrive at the school at 8 am. This allows enough time to familiarise yourself with the school and your classroom and will help to reduce any anxiety. Take out your bag with some basic resources that you will definitely use for the day, but have some extra resources in your boot in case you need more or if you are assigned to a different class than you first thought.

Find the front office, introduce yourself and hand over any paperwork that they need to sight. Ask where you need to sign in (this is a record of who is at the school and ensures you get paid). Check how they take the roll – if it is a paper version or online, and if so, do you have a login code for the laptop.

Ask a staff member to direct you to your classroom, or if you are releasing different staff members, where you can put your gear. Once you find your room, turn on the lights, heater or air-con, open the blinds and unpack your bag.

Find a spot to put it, and make sure your valuables are out of view. Look on the teacher’s desk for any notes that they may have left (otherwise, find the timetable or planner, ask the teacher next door, or ring the office in case notes were sent there). Check for duties. If you don’t have one or are not sure, look at notes, look at the timetable, or ring the office. If they don’t have one for you, offer to take one. Let’s be honest – no one likes doing duties.

However, if you are prepared to ask to do them, it will reduce the workload for other teachers and show admin and leadership staff that you are hardworking and dedicated. Same for any NIT (non-instructional time) where the class is taken a specialist teacher for a subject like Japanese or P.E. Ask the office which class they would like you to take during this time.

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If there is a plan left for you, either jot down any notes or ideas next to it or quickly write a plan in your notebook, day planner or a piece of paper on a clipboard. Include in this what time each lesson starts, when eating time is, recess and lunch breaks, when to pack up for dismissal and final bell.

If there is no plan, do your best to stick to the timetable, or think literacy first, numeracy after recess, art and fitness after lunch. On the board, write your name, change the date and write the plan for the day. Take a few minutes to glance through the relief teaching folder to look for important student information (think allergies, behaviour, things to be aware of).

In the remaining couple of minutes, walk to the staffroom, put your lunch in the fridge, visit the bathroom (it can be a long time before the first break) and grab a coffee to take back with you. Find where the yard duty bag and vest are hiding, and perhaps put them near your hat and sunnies.

7. When the bell rings

When the bell rings for students to come inside, stand at the door and greet them. Smile and say, ‘hi, I’m your teacher today.’ Some students will visibly groan and roll their eyes, slump their shoulders and swagger into class. Others will complain that they had a relief teacher yesterday too. Some will appear excited and ask for your name, what football team you barrack for and enquire whether you like doing fitness.

Some classes have reading time in the mornings, free play, or literacy activities, while others sit down on the floor straight away. Allow a few minutes for them to get organised and then ask them to sit on the floor ready for the roll. Introduce yourself and tell them what they can call you. Tell them a little bit about yourself – your family, what you like to do for fun, where you have taught before. Tell a funny story from when you were younger. Talk about a time when you were travelling or when you were at school. Tell a story about your own children. Doing so helps break the ice. It makes you more human somehow.

We all love a good story. It might take a few minutes but if you can grasp their attention and build some rapport, your day will almost always be better for it.

They might like to ask you questions. Tell them your expectations for the day. Say that you are looking forward to having a wonderful day but it is dependent on their behaviour about how much fun they will have.

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Ask if there is normally a star of the day (or equivalent), as sometimes they help to take the roll. In junior primary classes, they sometimes help with the morning routine (day of the week, date, weather, notices etc). Once you have recorded who is present and absent and sent this to the office (or submitted it online), ask about lunch orders, library books, permission forms to be returned etc. Let them know what is happening for the day and what they can expect. Allow some time for questions.

8. Managing the day

Be firm but friendly. Have high expectations of behaviour and standards of work, be strict on noise level and when walking around the school as a class. If a lesson isn’t working, finish it sooner or change it up. Do your best to get through any work left by the classroom teacher but know that most will understand if you don’t get through it all.

Schedule in little brain breaks to get the students up and moving. This helps them to focus better and often makes for a more positive day. Read picture books to them or short stories if they are older children. They often love listening to stories about when you were younger, when you travelled or funny things your kids or grandkids do.

Have time for drawing, silent reading or relaxation after break times to help transition them into settled learning. Use countdown timers to help students know how long they have left to complete work or for packing up. Schedule subjects like literacy and numeracy in the morning when they have the most energy, and easier subjects after lunch when they are tired.

9. Before the final bell

You’ve almost made it! Ensure that the room is tidier than it was when you found it. Allow enough time to pack up the classroom. You can pretend you have seen a magic piece of rubbish and when someone picks it up, they can get a little prize.

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Sometimes I write jobs on slips of paper and give each student one, such as cleaning the whiteboard, adjusting the date for tomorrow, changing the timetable, organising the bookshelf, tidying pencil pots, sharpening pencils and wiping tables. Check if chairs go up or stay down for cleaners. End on a positive with a fun game for the last ten minutes – think silent ball, heads down thumbs up, Would you rather or I went to the shops. Fitness is a great way to finish off the day too. It can be used as a carrot throughout the day to help with managing behaviour and noise level.

10. Before you leave

When I had my own classroom, I really did miss my students when I was away. After spending huge amounts of time preparing work for relievers, it would make me so frustrated returning to a messy classroom and no note. I feel like this is a basic expectation and act of courtesy. I always appreciated finding a clean desk and detailed notes.

Make sure all work is marked and dated. Write a letter to the teacher thanking them for having you. Staple your business card to the top. Write that you hope they feel better soon, include any absences, list each lesson and what work the students completed. Mention any behaviour issues, helpful students or information to pass on.

Check that the teacher’s desk is tidy, there is no rubbish on the floor, the air-conditioner or heater is off, the computer/s are off, the iPads are charging, the blinds or curtains are closed, the lights are off and the door is locked. Grab your gear and sign out at the front office, thanking them for having you.

Final thoughts

I love temporary relief teaching. I love the flexibility that it brings.

It’s a lifestyle choice. I can do my work, make a positive difference in children’s lives, and go home. I don’t have to plan, assess, conduct parent-teacher interviews, write reports, check emails or attend staff meetings. I can leave home at 7:45 and be back home at 3:40 pm.

I can be present with my own children and have time to play with them. I can work on projects at night when I have energy because I’m not totally wrecked from my job, and don’t have any marking to do.

Relief teaching will differ in policies, procedures and pay depending on where you live. Some areas only use agencies for allocating work, so be sure to do your own research. It’s not a role for everyone. I am grateful that my husband has a permanent full-time job so we aren’t reliant on my wage to pay the bills. It can be difficult to secure loans such as a mortgage because banks see it as a liability.

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When you approach this role with good preparation, bring plenty of resources, make a solid first impression and manage your students well, you will feel successful. More often than not, this leads to more work and contract work if you want it.

I encourage you to be kind in the way that you talk about yourself and your role. You are not just a relief teacher. It’s easy to downplay our role because it can feel like it’s not as important as those who have a class of their own. Sometimes we add the ‘just’ because we feel like if we don’t, other people will. I’ve written an article about this here if you are interested.

If you haven’t already, join your local teaching group on Facebook for your city, state or area. If there isn’t a group, you could start one! These can be useful for learning tips and tricks relevant to you and your area.

If you are looking for some more ideas for making your relief teaching days successful, here’s a link to my Relief Teacher Starter Kit on Teachers Pay Teachers.

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All the best as you start your relief teaching journey. You’ll be great! You’ve got this.

I’d love to hear from you below or connect with you over on Instagram or Facebook.

Melanie Wegener

6 Responses

  1. Great article MoneySavvyMamma! I have been a Child Care Director for more than 10 years and early childhood teaching but I’m thinking about going back to relief teaching in schools in the second half of this year. These are great tips, so thank you! I’ll probably re visit this article!

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