Supply teaching: Difficult placements

Written by: John Dabell | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

SecEd’s supply teaching series continues. John Dabell looks at some of the common problems and practical challenges encountered by supply teachers and offer some solutions and advice

Supply teachers are worth their weight in gold. Brave, resilient and professional, being “a supply” is not for everyone because you often find yourself walking into the Lion’s den – and frequently without back-up.

You are expected to get on with it and deliver the goods, but the odds are stacked against you before you have even been parachuted into the school grounds.

You have to adapt to ever-changing terrains, fly solo, fill gaps, make big decisions, stay calm under pressure, motivate yourself and come out the other end smiling.

However, while supply has many rewards it invariably includes various challenges that make the job extra demanding and we have all experienced difficult placements.

So, what are some of the common problems we might face and what can we do to overcome them? You might recognise some of the following:

Courtesy, or rather lack of it

You don’t always get a friendly hello from established staff because everyone is busy, overworked and flitting from place to place getting ready for the day ahead. They might be used to seeing lots of supply teachers and you are just another and you can be largely ignored.

What to do

It is easy to feel invisible, be anonymous and feel like you are sitting in the second-class citizen chair in the staffroom, but don’t compromise your own standards of professionalism. You are a teacher, a good one and that demands respect from your colleagues. Say hello to staff, make yourself known, be visible and be confident. If you get the opportunity to network even by sharing a few moments with someone in the staffroom then do it – don’t avoid the staffroom or be a wallflower supply, get noticed.


No-one can hear a supply teacher scream. It is remarkable to think that you can be left high and dry, but a great many supply teachers are let down by their schools because schools fail to share appropriate information about pupils’ academic abilities or behaviour procedures.

What to do

On a difficult placement it can be hard to get the attention or help of colleagues as they are wrapped up in their own world and problems. Get to the school first thing and establish your support network early doors. Make sure you know who the names of the senior leadership team. Introduce yourself if you can, make yourself known to teaching assistants, neighbouring staff, year group staff or departmental staff – not everyone but someone, someone who can help if you need it.

No school should expect a supply to just turn up with little or no input and expect success. Make a nuisance of yourself by getting the information you need – don’t be fobbed off and if necessary go straight to the top. You are a valuable asset and it won’t hurt schools to remember that they have an obligation to you as well.


Instructions for the class you are covering are woefully thin, lesson plans are in the back of the class teacher’s car or on their kitchen table and if you are really unlucky then you might find some uninspiring and undifferentiated worksheets left under a brick on their desk.

What to do

Supply teachers are famed for having big sleeves and they always have plenty up them. A supply teacher has to be prepared for the worst because, believe it or not, the permanent teachers you are covering for don’t always like you doing their work so leave you to do your own thing.

So, always have an arsenal of “stand-bys” – tried and tested winners, time-fillers, golden nuggets and fun things to do that have educational value, impact and can get you out of jail fast. If the cupboards are bare then you have got to stock them but with quality items and lessons that challenge and stretch. Have an emergency bag full of ready-to-go back-up activities for all ages and ability levels and start the day with something fun to get a rapport going.


The biggest problem encountered in schools on a daily basis is the attitude of pupils to supply teachers. Children mistrust you as a starting point because they don’t know you and you are a stranger so there is no relationship and frequently little or no respect. Don’t treat this personally. None of this should come as any surprise because connections can be hard-won and relationships are built up over time. Many children find a change in routine confusing and this can make them feel uncertain and uncomfortable.

What to do

Be realistic. There is no way that you can establish deep, meaningful and insightful relationships with a class you have never had before. Smile and greet students as they come into the room – start the day with a positive greeting and an introduction. Remember, relationships first and lessons second.

Get to learn names as quickly as possible. Making a personal connection has to start with names and if that means having children wear name labels (or name cards for desks) then do it so you can hit the ground running.

Take an interest, interact, strike up conversations – don’t keep your distance, step forward and be part of the class community and don’t waste a second getting to know who’s who, what’s what, interests, hobbies and so on. The number one secret to classroom management is positive teacher-student relationships.

Draw the line

Boundaries, expectations and routines are someone else’s and you have either got to second-guess what these are or implement your own.

What to do

Where possible it is always advisable to work within the system but if you are new to a school and you have less than an hour to get to know what’s in place then remember that you are the captain of the ship and what you say goes – say what you mean and mean what you say.

Have your own positive behaviour and no-excuses discipline plan ready to put into action and know it inside-out. Be a model of confidence and positivity, be consistent, fair, calm and sock it to ‘em.

Tough nuts to crack

Every supply teacher will encounter students who are going to test them out and try to make the day difficult. Many supply teachers believe they are often given tough classes to cover. While drawing the lines and communicating your expectations is vital, it is important to be on top from the outset.

What to do

Avoid power struggles and turn the tables early on by getting children who might be out to cause disruption working for you where possible. Befriend the class clown or ringleaders and engaging them in jobs that “I need your help with”.

Give them responsibility and praise their efforts every inch of the way so that they see messing about is worth less than helping and cooperating. By asking ringleaders for their help you can give them the attention they long for while quickly developing mutual trust and respect. Catch them doing things well and praise effort rather than performance. Set up some quick wins and early successes to boost their confidence.


A common problem is not setting the right tone and our non-verbal behaviour makes a huge difference to how successful our day will be. If we fail to establish immediate presence in the classroom then this will communicate a lack of confidence and children will soon notice. What we don’t say sets the tone and atmosphere of the class. Physical presence snowballs into classroom presence in so many ways.

What to do

Some psychologists argue that we need to power pose in the classroom and stand like a starfish in order to send out the message “I’m in charge” and “I’m in control”. If we can tweak our body language and behaviour to make us appear confident then we can become confident, and students will pick this up as a display of a positive mind-set. Stand tall, be expressive, command the class and make an impression so the message is clear: I’m a safe pair of hands and no-one walks all over me.


Supply teachers have long, exhausting and frustrating days but there are always strategies and options to make even the most demanding placements manageable and enjoyable. If we have a plan and prepare well then we can at least control some parts of the day and stack things more in our favour. If you can adapt, plan, react, create, inspire and motivate at a split second’s notice then you can manage any placement.

  • John Dabell is a teacher, teacher trainer and writer. He has been teaching for 20 years and is the author of 10 books. He also trained as an Ofsted inspector. Visit and read his previous best practice articles for SecEd via

Supply Teaching: SecEd Series

SecEd’s current series of best practice articles for supply teachers will run until January. See below for links to specific previous articles and the list of forthcoming pieces:

All articles in this series are available as a free pdf at


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