"Life as a supply teacher is like encountering a new universe every day.”
One piece of advice that I remember most clearly from a wise mentor during my initial teacher education was to seek as much experience as you can from as wide a range of settings as possible. “No two schools are the same,” he said. “Explore as many as you can if you want to get an idea of the scope of the profession. Volunteer when you can, and work in a range of schools.” I followed his advice and clocked up experience across phases and school types which has proved to be invaluable to me in my blended career.
One way of gathering knowledge and experience in a range of settings is through supply teaching. This offers a unique path to a depth of understanding of education in this country that can be difficult to acquire through other routes.
Humanities teacher and host of the #antismalltalk podcast, Shuaib Khan, feels that supply teaching offers much to discover about yourself and your career. In 2019 he wrote on his shuaibwriteskhanthinks blog, “All schools are like their own planets and your own school can feel like your own little world. Life as a supply teacher is like encountering a new universe every day.”
It can be a tough gig, of that there is no doubt. As Khan writes, “Imagine waking up to a 7am call, getting ready, typing in the name of a school you never knew existed until that earlier phone call into your SatNav, spending a day in an unfamiliar building, working with students you don’t know, delivering largely undifferentiated lessons, unable to come to terms with the plethora of names and behaviour thrown your way.” But that doesn’t deter the many teachers who choose supply each day, including Khan.
There are many reasons for choosing supply. Gaining breadth of experience is one, but others also choose supply in order to reduce workload, or as a stop gap between jobs, as a way of avoiding staffroom politics, or as a way of finishing off a teaching career for a term or two. The flexibility and change it offers is hugely attractive to many, and the opportunity it gives to learn about the craft of teaching from a far wider pool of experience is immensely beneficial.
For teacher Stew Spaull from Kent, supply teaching chose him, rather than the other way round. He said, “Supply has been, perhaps, the best bit of my teaching career. I’ve only done it for a couple of months, but in that time, I’ve felt valued and welcomed. You don’t have to plan anything, and someone at the school – usually the cover supervisor or coordinator – tells you what you’re doing that day, furnishes you with a timetable and a map of the school, and lets you get on with doing your job. You get to see what it’s like in different schools, which is really useful if you’re thinking of returning to teaching full- or part-time as a staff member in a school. You can ask not to be sent back somewhere if you didn’t feel comfortable there.”
If you want to find out more about the schools in your area with a view to applying somewhere for a permanent job, supply is a great step to take. As Spaull said, “If there’s a great school, you can get a feel for the place and decide whether you would be a good fit. I am a science teacher, but as a supply teacher I did everything. It was interesting to experience the curriculum in other subjects. It’s useful in terms of epistemic insight; something I’m passionate about.”
For Shuaib Khan, the professional and personal development to be derived from supply teaching is clear. He said, “Supply teaching has taught me the need to be flexible and constantly adapt my pedagogy. There’s no role like it. It takes incredible courage to walk into a classroom full of young people you don’t even know to deliver lessons you had no input into planning. It is so tough, but a really excellent way of finding out if the job is right for you.”
Supply time in your career – five key points
- Make the choice… there are many reasons for doing supply teaching, but it really helps if it is something you have chosen. If circumstance has led you to supply teaching, view it as a phenomenal learning experience!
- Use supply as a CPD tool… all teaching experience can add to your skills and knowledge in the profession. Acknowledge the development you are gaining from your supply experience and use it to your advantage.
- Build relationships… in particular with schools you work in regularly and the children you teach.
- Reflect… on what your time on supply is teaching you.
- Be aware… of how your supply experience can successfully feature in your blended career.
Find your next supply role
Eteach works exclusively with schools across the UK to provide supply teachers and teaching assistants. Whether you’re looking for a temporary or flexible placement position, Eteach can help.
The day-to-day supply team operates in the South East, London and Wales, but may also be able to match you with a school outside of these areas that suits your needs via the Eteach agency service.
About the author
After graduating with a degree in Politics and International Relations from the University of Reading, Elizabeth Holmes completed her PGCE at the Institute of Education, University of London. She then taught humanities and social sciences in schools in London, Oxfordshire and West Sussex, where she ran the history department in a challenging comprehensive. Elizabeth specialises in education but also writes on many other issues and themes. As well as her regular blogs for Eteach and FEjobs, her books have been published by a variety of publishers and translated around the world. Elizabeth has also taught on education courses in HE and presented at national and international conferences.