Supply teaching: Managing pupil behaviour

Written by: Ben Solly | Published:
Image: iStock

SecEd’s supply teaching series continues. Here, school leader Ben Solly offers his behaviour management guidance for those constantly working with new classes from school to school

Managing pupil behaviour is a perennial hot topic in education – everyone seems to have a strong opinion on how to achieve a calm and purposeful learning environment.

Teaching is a demanding profession and each day brings with it a plethora of challenges, particularly in relation to pupil behaviour in class. Even for the most experienced and effective teachers, who are well established in their school, poor pupil behaviour can often derail a lesson and affect the learning of other pupils.

So, for supply teachers, it should come as no surprise that behaviour is high on the list of anxieties that a temporary member of staff might have as they enter a school for the first time.

The last decade in education has seen a change in the way schools tackle teacher absence. The introduction of “rarely cover” has meant that teachers now do not very often step in to teach a class when colleagues are absent; cover supervisors are commonly employed in schools to provide a consistent presence within the organisation and provide short-term cover solutions.

However, where cover supervisors are not employed, or when a more long-term absence is anticipated, most schools will turn to a supply agency to provide a subject expert in order to ensure their pupils’ learning is not adversely affected.

Additionally, a shortage of teachers nationally has compounded recruitment problems for schools and this has led to many short-term contracts being offered to supply teachers up and down the country.

Considering the substantial challenges facing supply teachers in both primary and secondary schools, what strategies can be employed to maximise the chances of securing good levels of pupil behaviour throughout the duration of their contract at a school? This article will provide practical examples for supply teachers to implement in order to maintain good levels of student progress in difficult circumstances when teacher absence occurs.

Get the basics right

From the perspective of a headteacher, I want supply teachers to fit into their new role as seamlessly as possible and to hit the ground running from day one.

My advice to new colleagues on their first day of supply teaching is to focus on the basics – don’t try anything too flashy or ambitious and keep things simple for the first few lessons with a group while you establish yourself.

Supply teachers should aim to get to school early for a variety of reasons. You may need to familiarise yourself with key school policies or processes, or it might be as simple as getting yourself set up in the classroom you are going to be based in and acclimatising yourself with the resources available to you.

Your preparation can begin before your placement. Before your first day, get your hands on key documentation such as the school behaviour policy as well as the procedures for rewards and sanctions.

The school website would be a good place to start, but if you cannot find what you are looking for then there will be key members of staff within the school who can provide you with this information. Be proactive and well prepared so that you can focus on your teaching when you arrive on your first day.

Making a good first impression with the students is incredibly important for a supply teacher; those initial interactions with a group of pupils can strongly influence the chances of successful relationships being established.

Consequently, supply teachers should think strategically about how to ensure pupils’ initial perceptions of you are positive. Having your resources and materials set up in advance of the start of the lesson is ideal, hence why arriving early at the beginning of the school day is crucial. Meet students at the door, greet them positively and have an activity ready for them to complete as they enter the room.

If this is the first time you are meeting the group, strategies such as giving students stickers for them to write their names on is advisable, as is requesting a seating plan or class profile with key information such as SEN requirements, Pupil Premium information etc.

Implementing the behaviour policy

As a supply teacher you need to understand the school’s behaviour policy so that you can respond consistently to unacceptable behaviours within a framework that pupils understand. However, a behaviour system will not get pupils to behave, it should be used to deal with pupils in a fair, consistent and transparent way if they do not meet the behaviour expectations of the school.

Most successful teachers will focus on well-planned, well-taught lessons that engage pupils in stimulating learning activities and therefore they will not often need to use the school behaviour system.

However, for supply teachers, who do not have the benefit of well-established relationships with pupils, this is not always possible. You will often be faced with a set of instructions (which aren’t always there, or aren’t always good or clear) left by the regular teacher and the ability to think on your feet is absolutely essential.

Some pupils will try and push boundaries with a new supply teacher to see what they can get away with and this is a real challenge in the first few interactions with a class. My advice is to be firm, fair and consistent – apply the policy and associated sanctions where appropriate but do your very best to find positive behaviours to praise and reward

Sometimes a pupil might need to be removed from the classroom because their behaviour has escalated, or they have done something extreme or outrageous in the lesson.

In these circumstances it is crucial that supply teachers have a point of contact who can be easily reached. This might be a head of department or a member of the leadership team, however it can be counter-productive to use this option too frequently as it can quickly disempower the teacher, as pupils will rapidly realise that the teacher cannot cope with this class and needs to be continually supported by others within the school.

However, if a class understands that poor behaviour will be dealt with in a firm, fair and consistent manner and sanctions will be followed through on a short timescale, and where appropriate more senior members of staff will be involved, then this can help a supply teacher in establishing credibility with a group of challenging pupils.

Choose your attitude

The approach and attitude of a teacher towards a class is often mirrored back in the approaches and attitudes of a class towards a teacher. My advice to everyone working with young people is to speak to them in a calm, confident and measured manner; be the adult in the conversation, regardless of how much you are provoked. If we expect a mature and calm response from young people, then everything we do as the responsible adults in the situation should model and exude these qualities and characteristics.

Supply teachers can be seen as an easy target for some challenging pupils so it is critical to exude confidence and control from day one. Body language, appearance and tone of voice are tremendously important, so dress to impress and be confident and calm at all times, even if on the inside you are feeling quite the opposite.

The swan analogy here is a good one, above the water you are a picture of calmness, elegance and serenity, but under the water your feet are kicking and flapping like crazy in order to stay afloat!

Supply teachers should also put themselves in the shoes of the students too. It might be that this class has not had their regular teacher for some time and you might be the latest in a string of short-term solutions that, as yet, have not worked out for the school.

Don’t take it personally if the class doesn’t instantly warm to you, and be resilient. It will take even the most effective teachers some time to pick up a class mid-year and hit the ground running with them, especially if the group have had a negative experience of inconsistent teaching. Be persistent and consistent and you will eventually win them round.

  • Ben Solly is principal of Uppingham Community College in Rutland.

Further information

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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