Stepping into another teacher’s shoes is never easy. Rules and routines that have previously been negotiated, set up and followed can seem mysterious and intangible when they are not fully shared with you. Likewise, getting to know all you need to know about pupils in a very short space of time in order to teach them effectively is impossible without excellent on-site support. Such is the challenge of the thousands of supply teachers who serve our schools admirably day after day.
Recent research by the NASUWT, the Supply Teachers Annual Survey of Experiences 2018, is a sobering read. While conditions of employment for supply teachers remain varied, one area of concern is the lack of information some supply teachers have about the role they need to perform.
There are many reasons why teachers choose supply teaching. While some would prefer to have a permanent job, others appreciate the greater flexibility that supply teaching gives them. Some, however, have experienced bullying by their previous employer, the negative effects of high stakes accountability and the damaging impact of excessive workload. Supply teaching is one way of staying in the profession but moving away from negative experiences of the past. But how can we improve this relationship between schools and the supply teachers they employ?
Jean-Louis Dutaut, supply teacher and co-editor of Flip the System UK (Routledge, 2017), is well aware of the challenges facing supply teachers on a daily basis. He explains, “Supply teaching is a tough game. You get used to the nerves of walking into a new school, sometimes on a daily basis, not knowing who or what you are going to teach. I've taught full-time for years and been a curriculum lead in FE as well as secondary. I've worked for years under Special Measures. Nothing requires a teacher's full performance skills more than daily supply. At least if you want to do it well.”
For Dutaut, the skills in question are not simply knowing the how of teaching. It is as much about the what, too: “General cover is perhaps the hardest in that regard. We have this cultural thing that means our expectation of supply teachers is low. This comes from the students, yes, but it also comes from the staff. This, I think, comes from putting pedagogy above curriculum for so long in our educational thinking. This has two correlates for supply teaching. First, there isn't a magic teacher's toolkit of pedagogical tips and tricks that can make up for a lack of curriculum knowledge. I'm never going to make up the gap in expertise that a properly qualified professional brings, but what you haven't got by way of knowledge, you can make up for with two key attitudes: honesty and curiosity.
“Second, the quality of work set varies greatly. How refreshing for me to go to a school this week that had in its policy that they "expect supply teachers to teach". The cover work was simple. Textbook, page numbers, key information about student needs. That's it. Broadly speaking, though, many schools have onerous policies for setting cover. Not only is this unfair to the teacher who is taking the absence and/or his or her colleagues, it actually does nothing to guarantee the quality of the work set. These policies only seem to exist in schools where the expectation of the supply teacher is low. The result is often cover work that looks like an all-singing, all-dancing 'Ofsted Outstanding' lesson, but which is undeliverable by someone who doesn't know the curriculum or the children.”
It isn’t just about skills, pedagogy and subject knowledge though. It’s about feeling like a valued member of staff; one who can contribute positively to the life of the school, and one who is included. It’s easy for schools to help supply teachers to feel valued. Tea and coffee supplies in the staffroom for supply teachers is a great start! But perhaps more importantly, the promotion of a collegiate atmosphere that is inclusive of supply teachers is essential.
“The hardest part,” Dutaut says, “is not having any colleagues. Like anyone, you may have a tough lesson. The difference is you have nobody to talk to about it who really cares. Yes, the best schools take that seriously and will follow up with the students if they've given you a hard time. But when I say nobody who really cares, I mean really cares about you. As a person. By and large, you don't get observed. You don't get asked to plan or to take any marking home (unless you're getting paid extra to do that). You really feel that distance the most in schools where the leadership culture is amiss - accountability-driven, top-down, onerous. Those schools where workload is at its worst and morale its lowest. As a supply teacher, I can tell you those are far more common than the other kind. It's a spectrum for sure, but the average is pretty far off centre.”
It is probably fair to say that most schools do not furnish their supply teachers with professional learning opportunities. For conscientious supply teachers there are many opportunities to develop your craft, for example at low cost conferences and teachmeets. ResearchED, the Cambridgeshire Festival of Education, and Northern Rocks have sustained Dutaut over time. “All these and more pack a lot of CPD punch into an affordable day and I don't have to lose a day's teaching (1/5 of my weekly earnings) to attend,” Dutaut explains. “I read TES in staffrooms because it's free. I read SchoolsWeek online. I keep my membership of the Chartered College of Teachers and Society for Education and Training up-to-date for their journals.”
If you’re embarking on a period of supply teaching in the near future, these ideas may help to ease the path:
- It goes without saying, but arrive so that you give yourself enough time to get sorted in the classroom, pick up the planning and get any resources you need in order.
- Consider having a “kit” with you: at least spare pens and pencils, paper and tissues.
- Make sure you know the school’s rules and routines as far as possible. These should be made clear when you arrive.
- Ask specifically about the children you will be teaching. What do you need to know? You should be fully briefed about any children with special educational needs and disabilities, current behaviour issues, and emotional needs outside the “norm” for the age range you are teaching. You should also be told specifically about the support that is available to you.
- Introduce yourself to staff and pupils. Be visible and known.
- Have some useful time fillers up your sleeve in case you have odd minutes in which to keep children usefully occupied. A range of general knowledge quizzes can be great, especially if you don’t know until the last minute who you will be working with.
- Get into the habit of reflecting on your work as a supply teacher. You may not be included when it comes to CPD but you can make sure you get the most out of the learning opportunities presented by teaching on supply.
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.