5 Lessons I learnt whilst working as a supply teacher

A few years ago, I made the decision to sign up to some local and not-so-local supply agencies. I’d been considering supply teaching for a little while, but some of my more experienced peers would occasionally warn me off supply teaching as a next career step. Supply teaching, depending on who you speak to, is usually wrought with a mixture of opinions. Some teachers describe supply teaching as the best experience they’ve ever had, while others discourage teachers from taking this step, almost as though becoming a supply teacher is a career ending, pit of doom. As a teacher, who has worked both as a supply and now as a permanent class teacher again, I would have to agree with the former. Leaving ‘regular’ teaching for a short while and becoming a supply teacher was one of the best teaching experiences I’ve had and I would recommend it to every teacher at some point in their career. Here’s some lessons that I learnt while supply teaching, what feels like many moons ago…

#Lesson 1: Set your own boundaries

Before you take the plunge, ask your peers and teacher-friends about the agencies they may have previously used. Some agencies definitely are better than others and will listen to your preferences above their profit margins. Once you become a supply teacher, you are effectively self-employed, so setting your boundaries from the beginning is vital for your own happiness and well-being. It’s tempting when you start out with supply teaching to take every job that is offered your way, irrespective of year group. However, it’s important to keep in mind that you can choose which year groups you would prefer to teach. Some supply teachers I have met would only ever teach Foundation Stage and would be given 4 to 5 days a week supply in these year groups across different schools. It is possible to work with the year groups that you enjoy best. This way, you’ll gain the most out of your supply teaching experience.

#Lesson 2: Expect the unexpected

Fortunately, the majority of classes I’ve taught, I was provided with detailed planning and enough material to cover the sessions. When I was starting out as a supply teacher, this was one of my biggest concerns i.e. being left with an unknown class in terms of their abilities with very little or nothing planned. As time wore on and I became more adept at going into different classrooms, adapting to little or no planning became second place. However, this can be quite a scary prospect for those of you who appreciate a set schedule. Most schools and most teachers will prepare a plan for the day. However, in the minority of cases, it’s a good idea to have some back-up lessons for your particular year groups. There’s nothing quite like welcoming 30 new faces into a class with a blank computer screen and nothing but time to fill until break…Even if you have a couple of lessons that you’re comfortable teaching, it’s a good idea to have them tucked away for a rainy day.

#Lesson 3: Prep the Sat-Nav and always arrive early

If you’re anything like me, you’d prefer to be in a new classroom ahead of time. Sometimes, however, timing can’t be avoided. If a supply agency has rung you last minute to fill in for a teacher who has called in sick, and you don’t mind making your way to the school slightly later than you would normally, the school will usually give you some time to set-up before diving into a lesson. For your average supply teaching day, these kind of stresses can be avoided by setting out early and arriving ahead of time so that if there are discrepancies or changes, they can be rectified before the children enter the school gates.

#Lesson 4: Not all schools are created equally

Working as a supply teacher was a real eye-opening experience into the way different schools were run. Some schools, I was met with polite, friendly members of staff who couldn’t do enough to make sure that I felt supported on that day. In these schools, teachers and teaching assistants would make pleasant conversation at lunchtime and generally make you feel like a valued teacher for the course of your day/s at their school. However, in other schools, you can feel the tension amongst staff and the general underlying stress in a staff room. In these schools, it’s almost as though the teachers don’t have the time to explain what needs to be done for a given day because they’re constantly rushed off their feet. During lunchtimes, it would probably be more beneficial to stay in your classroom because the other teachers don’t want to make eye contact, let alone enjoy a conversation. It’s a very different experience and sometimes can be the decider as to whether you’d want to return for another day. What these experiences have taught me, however, is how important a school’s culture is to overall motivation and cohesiveness of a staff. And perhaps more importantly, where I’d like to ultimately work as a teacher longer term.

#Lesson 5: Behaviour…

Bad behaviour is something that played on my mind before I began supply teaching. It was from my own experiences at school and the terrible torment that all of our supply teachers had to endure, that made me wonder whether I was in for a similar experience. Behaviour management had always been one of my strengths previously, but given that the respect was built on relationships and getting to know the children, supply teaching has to be a very different approach. Whereas you can build respect gradually with your class, you might only have a few moments at the beginning of the day to establish whether the day will go well or end in chaos. Fortunately, the majority of my experiences with behaviour in different schools have been positive. The children, no matter the age, know that you’re not their ‘normal’ teacher and are already probably thinking of ways they can push the boundaries slightly. However, there are always gems in the class who know all of the rules, especially where their peers should actually be sitting on the carpet. Very early in day, I establish the school rules and their own behaviour management system, and I make the children aware of the expectations as if it were my first day with my own class. Although I have only done this occasionally, if you’re feeling slightly concerned by behaviour, I would suggest some name tags to start the day with. At least when the child in the back row is poking and grabbing his friend’s hair in a little tussle, he is isn’t ‘the boy with the blonde hair’ and it always surprises children initially that you know their name when you’ve only been there for 5 minutes. I could continue to write on and on about behaviour management strategies I’ve gained through supply teaching, however the main lessons I’ve learnt are to start the day with expectations, always follow them up and stay firm (but friendly obviously) until some respect has been established.

Also, as a sidenote, there may occasionally be a time that you come across a class that is ‘the known class’ in the school for poor behaviour. You may have been thrown into the total deep end with very little support or hope of building a rapport in that day. My advice for especially tough classes would be, if you can teach the class and gain something from the day, then keep going. If it’s a total disaster, you have the right to walk away. It’s not something I would recommend regularly. However, it’s important that you feel safe, the children are safe and learning is actually happening. For example, I’ve walked into classroom with an older group of children, in a special measures school that suffered with poor behaviour. One of the first things I was told was ‘ah, and there’s little Jimmy. He’s had a good day today, he’s not thrown a chair at anyone.’ At the end of the day, it’s your choice.

Supply teaching can be a very rewarding experience. There’s lots more to be said on supply teaching in schools and how to get the best from your day. However, it’s an experience that has taught me a lot about adapting to different classrooms, the culture within different schools and working with lots of different people. You can choose your schedule and decide which days you’d like to teach which is an added bonus of supply teaching and it’s often a gateway into teaching at the right school for you.

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