What follows is the text of an article I wrote back in 2012 which was published by The Guardian’s Teacher Network. It offered my own, personal, view of supply teacher in Greater Manchester. The article was aimed at NQTs but other experienced teachers who are just going into supply teaching for the first time might also find some of the information useful. I intend to update this article at some point as well as writing articles on more specific issues for supply teachers including the use of umbrella companies by agencies to pay their workers.
Ok so your training has finished and now you’re ready to have your own classroom. Except you’ve not managed to get a job or, and it happens, you don’t quite feel ready to commit to a full time teaching role. Supply teaching can help but, like most things in life, it’s better to be prepared and know what you are letting yourself in for. Here I offer my own reflections on supply teaching but it’s important to remember that everyone’s experiences of supply are different.
The first top tip is don’t panic and register with lots of agencies. This won’t help you find more work and it just becomes a complete nightmare trying to keep them all informed of your availability. Also be aware that many agencies advertise for a particular role which might suit your needs but by the time you have registered with the agency that particular vacancy has gone. A cynical person might say that agencies use this as a tactic to get people to register with them! I actually made both of these mistakes and it caused a lot of unnecessary stress and confusion. Chose only 2 or 3 agencies and stick with them, if you decide you don’t like one of them drop them and perhaps chose another.
Personal recommendation can work but this isn’t a guaranteed way of finding a good agency. For example I registered with one particular agency because a supply teacher at my final placement school recommended them. This agency worked really well for him but I found them to be unhelpful and less than communicative with regards work (I’m still waiting for them to return a call after almost 7 months!) A good way to decide which agencies to chose would be to ask the schools which you know, either your placement schools (if you liked working there) or schools near where you live.
You don’t need to be able to drive to be a supply teacher but it certainly helps. I know of some supply teachers who don’t drive but this limits the amount of work they can do. They either need to be booked the night before (in order to arrange getting to school by public transport) or only work at schools near to where they live. Agencies work in two ways. Either they can book you in advance for a school or you get an early morning call. These calls can be any time from 7.15 onwards but are more likely to be nearer 8 o’clock. Since September 2011 I think I’ve only between called once before 7.30! Obviously the more flexible you are with regards when you can be called the more work you can get but if getting to a school in a hurry is not possible then tell the agencies this!
Sometimes schools will have plans they want you to use, sometimes they don’t. It’s always a good idea to take work with you, even if the agencies tell you that the work has been left. I used the plans from my placements and then modified them for other year groups. Speaking of year groups- you could tell the agencies which years you’re prepared to work in but, again, the more flexible you are the more work you are likely to get. Supply teaching is also a good way of getting experience. For example my placements were in year 1 and 3 and although I’d observed in other year groups I didn’t have much experience of the other years. Actually if I’m honest year 6 scared me- too much like teenagers and I know I’m not good with the teenage attitude! However having now worked in year 6 on several supply contracts I’m not put off as much as I was before and, I hope, am now a better teacher for it.
Every teacher has their own behaviour management techniques but, I’ve found, it’s important to try and not change things too much during a supply contract. The only time I have ever introduced my own behaviour strategies is when I am on a longer term contract- and even then it was only because the class were quite challenging and I needed to show them who was boss!
Sometimes children like to push the boundaries with supply teachers thinking that you won’t know the ‘rules’ of the classroom. Don’t make the mistake I did and ask the children to ‘help you’ with the school routine- often children will take that as an invitation to nag you if you do something different from the normal routine. Ask the class TA, if there is one, or another teacher if you are not sure what should be happening and when.
Supply teaching can be great. You can learn a lot and get a lot of practical experience. However you need to be prepared and you need the right attitude towards it. If you think of supply as ‘second best’ because you couldn’t get a permanent job then you’ll probably hate the experience and have a miserable time. But I can honestly say that I’ve enjoyed, most, of my supply contracts. I’ve worked in some schools where I never want to go back but I’ve also worked in some great schools and have picked up a lot of good ideas which I think has helped me secure my first teaching post. Use the experience and have fun!