At a severely practical level, it will save you a lot of hassle if you have a few "party pieces" to hand, to trot out when required.
In higher education, if a lecturer is away the class is usually simply cancelled. With luck there may be advance warning on the VLE or a noticeboard, or there may simply be a scrawled note on the room door. Sometimes, there is not even that.
In other forms of post-compulsory education, cancellation of classes is less cavalier.
When I was the warden of a campus, responsible for whatever happened out of hours, I got a phone call one evening from a very apologetic evening-class lecturer. "I'm very sorry to trouble you," he said, "but I am not going to be able to take my Italian class this evening. I wonder if you could go over to the room and put a note on the door?" I agreed, but enquired about the problem; had his car broken down, perhaps? "No," he replied, "I've just got in from work to find my wife dead on the kitchen floor—I rang you at once!" Shock induces strange priorities.
When I worked in further education (community college) we frequently got "yellow perils" in our pigeon-holes; orders to "cover" for colleagues who could not take their class. Sometimes, if the scheme of work was available, or the students were working on a project, it was just a matter of putting your head through the door and asking them to get on with it in the library. But sometimes you needed to go in and teach them something.
The challenge of the "one-off", which is the same whether you are covering for an absence, or delivering a keynote address at a prestigious conference, is very much the same:
- You have to define what you can teach—or more precisely what the "students" can learn—within a single session.
- You have to introduce, develop, and close a topic within a single session.
- You know nothing of the audience, in terms of their prior knowledge or approaches to learning, or familiarity with approaches to teaching.
- Your only feedback—if any—will probably be from the lecturer you stood in for, which is unlikely to be very detailed. If you do a "one-off" for another organisation as a consultant, you will receive a polite "thank you" regardless of how brilliant/disastrous the session was, and you will either be invited back, or not. Regardless, it will not be detailed. And you will not have much opportunity, beyond the session, to assess learning.
So there is more of a "performance" element to such a session than usual, although it is of course important that it should not swamp the content.
Choosing the topic
This is clearly an opportunity to do a session on something which interests you, but your enthusiasm for Amish quilts or the ground-breaking musical innovation of the Temperance Seven may not go down too well. Choose something which applies across a fair range of courses if possible, and comes at least within the "Could learn" sector of the scheme of work. (Most colleagues will not thank you for barging in with some "Must learn" stuff, if they are just away for a session or two. It can play havoc with their schemes of work.)
Something of the order of:
- How to reference in the Harvard system
- Transactional Analysis as an approach to communication
- How to design a presentation in PowerPoint™
- The significance of branding in current business practice
(adjusted to the required level) are informal ideas which can easily plug in to prior experience rather than formal knowledge, which lend themselves to exercises and discussion or practice, can be moved up or down the academic scale as required (the Harvard example is perhaps more academic), and about which you can teach—and the students can learn—something useful in an hour or so. You can no doubt think of similar examples in your broad disciplinary area.
Designing the Session
- Always try to include at least one exercise for several good reasons and at least one not so good one:
- Good: it encourages participation and engagement.
- Good: it gives you and students feedback about whether they have understood or even learned.
- Not so good: although you have to prepare the exercise, all you have to do while it is going on is to monitor it.
- Focus on the close: there should be something worthwhile for the students to take away, not just a lecture which rambles on and goes nowhere...
Have a grab-and-go package to hand, containing:
- OHTs or the presentation file on disc or similar
- Master copies of handouts and exercises to copy (at the last minute, of course).
- Any other necessary kit.
This only works for a single session, but at least it buys you some time to work out how to slot in when you have to cover for a colleague's more prolonged absence.