Supply teaching: Keeping an eye on your CPD

Written by: Bridget Clay | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

SecEd’s supply teaching series continues. In this article, Bridget Clay offers advice on accessing high-quality professional development as a supply teacher

How can supply teachers maintain their teaching and subject-specific CPD when not based in a school?

We know that professional learning is one of the most important things for schools and their staff. Supply teachers make up an important part of our workforce and directly support children’s outcomes. Yet, often their CPD is something that is neglected.

Why is CPD so important?

First, great development and a supportive environment improve morale and reduce stress. Teachers who receive great professional learning also report greater confidence and greater self-efficacy. To allow all our teachers to thrive and grow, CPD is a key factor in a successful organisation.

More importantly, staff development can be one of the most effective school improvement approaches. The recent Developing Great Teaching report (Cordingley et al) noted that “professional development opportunities that are carefully designed and have a strong focus on pupil outcomes have a significant impact on student achievement”.

Furthermore, Professor Viviane Robinson conducted a research review of what the most effective school leaders do to improve attainment and found that “headteachers’ leading of and active participation in professional learning and development had the largest impact on student outcomes”. Schools should prioritise effective CPD for all staff to benefit student outcomes.

Building awareness vs changing practice

There are several stages and types of professional learning. If you are aiming for “direct professional learning” that benefits student outcomes, there needs to be a sustained change in practice with iterative opportunities to gain input and experiment in your practice to benefit students and ultimately improve their outcomes.

This “direct” professional learning is probably the most important, as it ultimately helps students, teachers and the whole school.

However, to support “direct professional learning”, you need to learn new knowledge and draw on a body of knowledge and an awareness of different approaches.

“Direct professional learning” tends to happen when a teacher identifies a student learning need, selects an evidence-informed approach that should help this need, then experiments, adapts and refines this approach so that it benefits students and becomes part of the teacher’s regular practice.

This can only happen with at least some input or prior knowledge on different evidence-informed approaches.

A supply teacher who works in lots of different schools in many ways has more opportunities to build awareness and knowledge. They are in the fortunate position to see lots of different school policies, curricula and approaches. This is likely to mean that they have a wide range of experiences and a wide range of awareness and knowledge to draw upon.

However, a supply teacher that moves between schools is almost certainly going to find it harder to engage in “direct professional learning”, as they will find it harder to engage in sustained, iterative approaches to practice, to link to and evaluate their professional learning against specific student learning needs, and to collaborate with others. All of these are key aspects of effective “direct professional learning”.

So, how do we build awareness and knowledge?

Subject knowledge

An important part of effective CPD and effective teaching is strong subject knowledge and subject-specific pedagogy. Supply teachers are likely to work in a number of different schools who work with different specifications, curricula and exam boards. As such, an important part of the supply teacher’s subject knowledge is a strong understanding of a wide range of specifications and exam boards. Use of past papers and specifications can be really helpful for becoming familiar with different specifications and curricula.

Subject pedagogy

In addition to specification knowledge, teachers should develop their subject-specific pedagogy. It is important to not only know your subject and how it will be tested, but the best ways to teach your subject. It is important to spend time contextualising any general pedagogy to how it will work best for your specific subject. As a supply teacher working across schools, you are less likely to engage and collaborate with colleagues teaching the same subject, so subject associations can be an excellent resource.

Social media

Technology has transformed how easy it is to share ideas and knowledge. Twitter and social media in general can be an excellent resource that allows you to build your awareness of different approaches and ideas. Exercise some caution, though. Try and verify the evidence behind what you’re reading – you want to engage with evidence-informed ideas that are likely to benefit students.

Engaging with external expertise

To learn something new, you need to actually gain some new information. Effective CPD should challenge teachers’ existing knowledge and understanding and test preconceptions. Engaging with external experts can be a really effective way of doing this. Even when not based in a school, online and in-person courses, reading research and workshops can all help challenge your preconceptions and build your knowledge-base and awareness.

How to change and develop practice

When not based in a school, and particularly when frequently changing classes and contexts, it is undoubtedly harder to build-in effective CPD practices that really benefit student outcomes. Below are some ways to try and weave in effective CPD practices into your role...

Student focus

Professional development is much more likely to have impact on students if you can constantly link any learning back to specific students’ learning. When engaging with expertise, constantly have in mind some specific students you have worked with, consider how the new knowledge might benefit them and what it would look like if your practice was then successful.

When experimenting with new knowledge in the classroom, evaluate whether those students behaved and benefited in the way that you would expect, and use this to adapt and refine your practice.

Similarly, when choosing a course or a blog or research to read, choose ones that you expect to address the needs of particular students. This is obviously easier when you have an opportunity to work regularly with the same students or to be based in one school for a time.

Link subject knowledge to student learning

In addition to being familiar with different specifications, it is more powerful, where possible, to review and analyse students’ work or completed past papers to help identify common misconceptions and challenges that you might prioritise in your teaching.

This can help you to focus your practice around key challenges that pupils are facing.

Sustain your professional learning

The most effective CPD is sustained over time, with an iterative cycle of identifying needs, input, experimentation in the classroom with assessment and evaluation. This can be particularly challenging to achieve as a supply teacher, but if you have the opportunity to work in a school or with the same pupils over time, pick one key focus and use the time to develop in a key area.


Collaboration helps challenge your thinking and can support you in evaluating and reflecting on your practice (e.g. through student-focused observation). Whether through coaching, peer observation, collaborative planning or even through focused discussion, use any opportunities with colleagues to collaborate and challenge your practice.


Supply teachers work within different structures, contracts and timings to teachers who are based entirely in one school. This inevitably has an impact on how they are able to engage in professional learning.

It is therefore more important for supply teachers to be familiar with the key principles of effective CPD and to build this into their own professional learning so that they can best develop their practice and support their students.SecEd

  • Bridget Clay is the director of school programmes at the Teacher Development Trust, a national charity for professional learning in schools. She is a former maths teacher and works with schools on developing their CPD processes. Follow her on Twitter at
    @bridget89ec and the charity at @TeacherDevTrust

Further information

  • Find out more about how TDT supports schools and teachers at
  • Developing Great Teaching, Cordingley et al, Teacher Development Trust, September 2014:
  • School Leadership and Student Outcomes: Identifying what works and why (summary of the Best Evidence Synthesis), CUREE, Viviane Robinson, Margie Hohepa and Claire Lloyd, December 2009:

Supply teaching series

SecEd’s series of best practice articles for supply teachers will run until January. See below for links to specific previous articles and for all the articles published in this series so far – or to read future articles as they publish, visit


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