Life happens and, for different reasons, you may find yourself teaching a course you were not planning to do. At least not starting right now. Fear not, as long as you have solid knowledge in the subject area and have a general understanding of the educational system you work within, you will be fine. My experience is based on the Cambridge IGCSE/A Level programme but it applies to other systems as well.
Where do I start?
The Syllabus, of the course.
The crucial document and the elegant introduction to pretty much any course type. It offers an outline of the course’s components, objectives, and general flow of the course. Might include specific topics or focus on skills, but, in any case, this is the main document, the holy text, if you will.
Once you learned the basics, it’s time to look a little bit deeper. Check what is available for the course, but the Teacher’s guidebook is a source one can’t overlook. Many courses also offer a Scheme of Work, though in my experience they were not that helpful since they offer only a fraction of what needs to be covered and the approach does not always match my approach and teaching style. In any case, have a look, you may find it incredibly helpful.
Focus on grading
Now it’s time to see the Mark Scheme along with past papers to have some understanding of how the objectives are approached, how the points are distributed and some general principles of grading.
Now, the hidden gems
If I need to quickly understand the course requirements in depth, this is the one and one way I would use: EXAMINER REPORTS.
After every exam session, the Principal Examiner provides a report where paper by paper (and often question by question) they give feedback explaining what went well and where the issues occurred. While the syllabus will give the structure and the mark scheme points and descriptors for levels (especially in languages and social sciences), the examiner reports will tell you all the details of how to achieve those high results. I guarantee, there will be lots of details you won’t find in other materials.
When reading the report pay attention to the wording. When they say “strong candidates do this” – take a note, that’s the high-level expectation; “weaker candidates do that” – take a note and warn your students that this is not a great idea at all. “Some candidates still do…” – make sure that your students don’t.
Start with the latest reports available and go further in time. If the syllabus changed crucially at some point, note when it happened so you don’t get outdated advice.
How about the coursebook?
This is something for you to decide. I prefer getting a clear understanding of the course before I approach the coursebook. Unfortunately, they are not always perfect and you should be ready to supplement the lessons with your materials or consider other publishers.
In any case, have a very clear understanding of what you are looking at and looking for to have a critical look at the coursebook. If you trust it 100%, the overall level of teaching and expectations may be enough for a C but not an A.
Sample responses: friend or foe?
Many (students) love checking high-level sample responses to guide them. My advice is to be clear about the course requirements, marking and details you get from the examiner reports before you look at sample responses. Use them as you marking standardisation and double-check your understanding of the assessment. Be cautious as sometimes the marking is pretty lenient and it can confuse your students. Also, do not give sample responses first thing in class: students knowingly or subconsciously will try to copy the structure of the response. Unfortunately, blindly copying the structure is another form of plagiarism and with very few responses officially published, it won’t pass unnoticed by the examiner.
Ask for help
If you are lucky to know an experienced teacher for the course, don’t think twice and ask for advice and help. To fully understand the course you have to teach it for at least one year, get the official results and (most likely) learn from it and adjust your expectations. Till it’s done in practice everything is just a theoretical consideration and many details can be falling through the cracks. It can be also hard to be realistic about the amount of time different topics/components take in class so a second opinion is more than welcome.