Have you ever imagined what it must be like to be a supply teacher? I have always imagined it to be an absolute nightmare.
Can you remember the challenge of your first few bleak weeks as an NQT, when your classes were new, when you felt as though they could smell your nerves, viewed you as fresh meat, when you hadn’t built up the relationships and the trust that you (hopefully) have now established? At least we had the status of being full-time class teachers; the pupils knew they were stuck with us for the year.
How do you gain respect from a group of pupils who know they may never see you again? How do you maintain motivation without an understanding of who they are, their goals and aspirations? How do you maintain order when you have to adjust to a new behaviour policy every few lessons? How do you “teach” a lesson that is not your subject speciality?
Despite my reservations, supply teachers have informed me there are many perks to supply work; flexibility, less paperwork, the chance to experience and learn from a variety of teaching environments and, of course, no planning or marking, hence time to pursue hobbies outside of the classroom, maintain a semblance of social life, or even dedicate time to your own academic pursuits such as a Master’s degree or doctorate.
As for my experience of supply teachers within school, I always feel like there is some mystery to the work that they do; of course I chat to supply teachers in the staffroom, help the odd lost supply teacher find their way around the school, or show them where the class teacher keeps the books or the whiteboard pens. But as for the supply teacher that takes my own lessons, I am never entirely sure what has happened in my absence.
I always find myself wondering, how they got on. What did the pupils learn? Were they well behaved? Will they have fallen behind?
Assuming the inevitability of requiring a supply teacher to take our classes at some point during our career, it seems important to give some consideration to what makes “good” supply work.
From discussions with supply teachers at my school, I have collated some top tips I like to apply where I can to make the cover work as useful as possible.
First, if your handwriting is atrocious, make sure you type-up your cover instructions. If the teacher cannot read them then nothing you desire to take place in your absence will be possible!
Second, provide an up-to-date seating plan, annotated if possible. Remember how knowledge of pupils’ names and where they should be sat was invaluable for behaviour management during those first few weeks before we had memorised the difference between tall Timmy and little Jim?
Third, do not assume the supply teacher will be able to navigate your classroom; help them to actually find the resources for the lesson by being crystal clear.
Fourth, provide an answer sheet so pupils can mark their own work at the end of the lesson. This will also be invaluable in helping you to assess how well pupils got on without your tutelage.
I love having my own classes and am not ready to try out the work of supply yet, but I have the utmost respect for our colleagues in that line of work and feel anything we can do to give them an easier ride could make the difference between them having a good day or being run ragged!
Our NQT diarist this year writes anonymously and is a teacher of maths from a south London secondary.