Supporting supply teachers effectively


When a supply teacher has to cover one of your classes, what can you do to make their life easier and ensure the least possible disruption to your students’ learning. Jo West advises.

You have a professional development course to attend and will be absent from the classroom for an entire day. Who you gonna call? Well, certainly not the Ghostbusters. And unless you live in Gotham City you won’t get Batman either. 

For you, the fourth emergency service will be a supply teacher. He or she will fly in, to save the day and cover your classes. 

So, what can you do to make a supply teacher’s life easier? Considering this question carefully could just make the difference between coming back to neat piles of well-attempted work or complete chaos. 

It is very likely that the supply teacher is a newcomer to your school. He or she is therefore in the unenviable position of never having met the staff or the pupils. 

You know what time lessons start, where the textbooks are kept, the code needed to access the computer to take registers, and that little Johnny in 7A is a right pain in the backside; but the supply teacher won’t. Building details like this into your forward-planning makes everyone’s lives simpler.

Ideally, your school should provide all supply teachers with a “survival pack”. This would include: a detailed layout of the school, names of the heads of department and heads of year, codes for computers and accessing coded doors (in some schools staff toilets are accessible only by punching in a code), the school’s disciplinary practice, lesson and break-times, fire alarm procedures, plus any other useful information that might help the uninitiated become better acquainted with the school. 

It helps if this is brief and to the point – a 100-page tome is not user-friendly and heavy to cart around! The majority of schools also issue visitors with identity badges for security purposes, but try to make these as unobtrusive as possible. Pupils will view “supply teacher” emblazoned in capital letters on the lapel as synonymous with a sign around the neck saying “kick me now”.

If the supply teacher is expected to register every class then remind them. Make sure that they are given the correct code to access the computer to enable them to do so and also leave them hard copies of the class lists so that they can mark the pupils present manually should technology fail. Having to pass around a sheet of paper for the pupils to write their names on is an invitation for some of the more inventive members of the class to adopt bogus identities! 

A number of schools implement seating plans as a way of ensuring class discipline. Leave copies of the seating plans for each class. Insist that while you are away the pupils stick to their particular seating plan and advise them that you will be checking up to make sure that they have done so. 

A seating plan is an invaluable tool, giving a supply teacher instant access to the pupils’ names while also ensuring that pupils sit where they will learn most effectively – which is why Johnny from 7A sits near the front next to Samantha and not at the back with Ben playing on his iPhone. 

Every class has one or two “characters” and although you probably know them well enough to keep them engaged and on-side, they may well exhibit challenging behaviour when confronted with unexpected change. 

If possible, explain beforehand how you want them to behave in your absence, that you don’t want them to disappoint you and that there will be consequences should their behaviour fall short of your expectations. 

Please place all books, worksheets, file paper etc in a conspicuous place – preferably on your desk. Supply teachers really despair of having to spend the first 10 minutes of the lesson playing “hunt the textbook”. 

If they need to be kept in a cupboard – just let them know where they are. Please also leave spare pens, pencils, erasers and so on available – although supply teachers often carry a number of these items, they cannot be expected to single-handedly plug the shortfall in the departmental stationery budget! 

If a supply teacher is required to cover a lesson in an alternative room, such as the drama studio, then arrange for them to be given the key or for the room to be left unlocked. It really isn’t much fun trying to amuse a bunch of bored, restless teenagers in the corridor for 20 minutes, while waiting for the caretaker to pitch up with a key. 

Conscientious teachers put as much time into planning lessons for when they are absent as they do for when they themselves are going to take the lesson. 

Best practice would advocate setting a variety of different tasks – an interesting worksheet, group and pair work, use of laptop computers and games to be played on an interactive whiteboard. 

Never leave instructions for a class to simply copy out of a textbook. This may seem like an easy option but it causes universal resentment. The pupils will blame the supply teacher and the supply teacher won’t thank you either. If you do decide on worksheets, then remember to leave a comprehensive answer sheet, so that the supply teacher can help the pupils and/or go through the answers with them. 

It is unusual to be guaranteed a subject-specific supply teacher and an English teacher covering year 10 chemistry may well feel like a fish out of H2O. No-one is omniscient but with 30 pairs of beady eyes focused on you it is preferable to at least create the illusion that the teacher’s knowledge is greater than the pupils’. Nothing causes confidence to crumble quite as effectively as being deemed a charlatan.

Foreign language lessons can pose a particularly tricky challenge. Clear instructions penned in the mother tongue saves unnecessary embarrassment. Language specialists are a fairly rare breed and your average supply teacher’s own smattering of childhood French will fast fly out of the fenêtre when confronted with an unintelligible worksheet and a classroom devoid of dictionaries.

Supply teaching, by its very nature is a challenging occupation. A supply teacher may visit 20 different schools in as many days. Successful supply teachers are versatile, intrepid, independent, quick-witted and thick-skinned. 

However, they are also human and appreciate kindness and common courtesy. Try to arrange for a colleague to greet the supply teacher on arrival in the department, to be on hand if they require assistance and maybe to invite them for a cup of coffee at break-time. 

Some staffrooms are reminiscent of the Marie Celeste – the only remaining vestige of former inhabitation being a collection of mouldering mugs. Knowing where other teachers congregate during breaks helps the supply teacher to feel less isolated. He or she may only be at your school for a day, but they will appreciate being made to feel welcome.

Empathy is the key. Remember what it was like on your first day – not knowing a soul, worrying about your classes, perhaps even wondering whether you would be able to survive until break-time. That was probably some while ago. 

Many supply teachers relive this experience every day – especially due to the rise of the “supply agency” who thinks nothing of shunting supply teachers here, there and everywhere and treating them less like professionals and more like cheap commodities. 

It is your responsibility to ensure that your temporary replacement is treated with the same degree of professionalism and respect as you yourself would expect to be treated with.

All relationships are symbiotic and if you succeed in making a supply teacher’s experience in your school a positive one, then not only will you be helping them, but your pupils will surely benefit and ultimately, so will you.

  • Jo West is an education writer and teacher. She has been a supply teacher in Cardiff for 15 years.


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