Having come from a full-time job on a long-contract, I was eased into supply teaching (or relief teaching, depending where you are reading this from) with a 4 week contract, followed by supply days at the same secondary school. Everyone’s journey is different, but most supply teachers I’ve met have enjoyed their work and still find it rewarding.
For those who haven’t considered supply before, you might have heard the horror stories, but there are definitely some positives: there’s no working from home; the hourly rate is much higher (although work is not guaranteed and there’s no holiday pay); you can leave your experience at the door; you can choose what schools you want to work in; you choose your hours; there are always opportunities for contracts in schools where you fit right in. It does require a shift in perspective, but I’ve found it very rewarding.
Although my partner was initially very confused about why I did not know if I was going into a school that day, I always aim to be ready to go at 7:30am so I can see my day as a work day. I make sure I am wearing professional workwear because I am an example to students and my clothing helps me change between work-self and home-self. Even if I’m not called in, I have plenty to do (MOOC Learning, gym, life admin!).
If you find yourself supply teaching, through circumstances or choice, I hope these observations will help you out in those first couple of terms. It really is a great opportunity to see how different schools, subjects and classes work (even the same class in different subjects!) and every day I’ve been a supply teacher has been a valuable experience.
It starts outside the classroom
Check the school’s uniform policy and expectations for line-up; this will usually be in your supply pack or ask someone in your staff room. Knowing the rules helps settle any nerves and sets up for a good lesson.
I prefer to have students line up outside, with all of their things out and ready for the lesson. When I explain my reasoning to them, they’re usually pretty compliant and it makes for a smooth start. I have occasionally had to have classes line up outside again with the reminder that being mentally prepared to learn is just as important as having pens, paper etc.
I am very conscious of giving positive feedback to students and thanking them for being prepared, or reminding them that preparedness is a sign of maturity and intelligence, often goes a long way to a positive environment for all. That being said, pick your battles! If a student is particularly resistant, I may ask them to wait outside so I can listen to what they have to say, or arrange a compromise to avoid too much disruption.
Introduce yourself when everyone is in and listening
I found this out pretty quickly when I realised I’d introduced myself 5 times to interested students and then the whole class. Students are curious creatures and you can use this to your advantage! Make them wait until everyone is quiet before the introduction. You may like to give an interesting fact about yourself or comment on something positive they’ve done before going into content.
If a class or some students are particularly curious (or trying to avoid work by asking questions), I will sometimes employ an exchange system where they show me completed work and I’ll answer a question about myself (always give the proviso that it must be appropriate and respectful!).
Be a physical presence with positive reinforcement
Get your steps up by walking around the class and checking in on how students are going. If possible, set an exit ticket so they are motivated to do the work! You may have to follow through on keeping them in, but the long-term benefits are worth it! Positive reinforcement will bring students on-side; I am not their friend, but this doesn’t mean it has to be a totally negative relationship either.
Bring a spare activity for students
This does not mean don’t do the set work, but definitely helps when coping with technology or communication breakdowns, missing equipment or fast-finishers. Being an English teacher, I have Boggle, poetry Uno (replace the numbers with examples of poetic devices; this also works for word types) and some matching activities with key terms and definitions in my bag. Word challenges, crosswords and quick writes are also popular.
Bring something for yourself to do
For those classes who are self-sufficient and quietly working, it is not always beneficial to be constantly asking how they’re going. It is also not helpful to sit there on a phone or device, because this shows students it is ok to do the same.
Bring something that gives them an example of using time wisely or is intellectually stimulating (reading, crosswords, writing…). Make sure that it is not something you can’t leave at a moment’s notice, because you still need to do your laps around the classroom, answer questions and keep an eye on those students who are suspiciously tapping away at their arrow keys while smiling at their maths problems (top tip – Alt F4 tabs between open programs if they are trying to hide a game).
If it is not your subject area, you don’t know where something is, or you’re not sure what something means then let students know respectfully and honestly. They may well be willing and able to help! If they’re still stuck, refer them back to their usual teacher and have them write their question down, or put it on your supervision form and let students see that you have done this. You can also model behaviours like moving onto the next question or figuring out the next step could be from what you do know.
If there is a long line of questions, I will often say ‘come to me with a solution’ or ‘ask three, then ask me’ (depending on the class). It is not that I am trying to avoid helping, but sometimes students will take the easy way out and need some independence to solve the problem and then check their solution. If it is an issue a few people are running into, I stop the whole class and outline the problem. Again, a student may be able to solve the issue or the first person I helped could explain the solution.
A lack of feedback was always my biggest bugbear when I was a full-time teacher and tried to leave thoughtful lessons for my classes. Leaving feedback allows a teacher to follow up with students (positives and negatives) and makes it much easier to do follow-up activities because, let’s be honest, students are not always the most forward about saying what work they completed when their teacher was away. It also means the class is accountable for their behaviour with you.
I try to make notes during the lessons and leave positives as well as issues. I say what we completed and if there was anything students didn’t understand. I write down behaviour issues (with follow-up if a student pulled themselves together) and anyone who was excellent through the lesson. If we discussed something about the subject that wasn’t on the supervision, I let the teacher know so they are prepared for any questions.
Learn something new
This is what I have loved the most about supply teaching, particularly outside my subject area. Students love to tell you about their successes in this subject or help you understand something new and it is a great way to encourage them and model how to tackle challenges and keep learning. You can also reflect on how you reacted in different situations and which techniques work best with different groups.
I’d love to hear your experiences and tips in the comments! I hope these have been helpful and you’re ready to enjoy your supply teaching journey!
About the Author:
Rhi (Musings On Teachings) is a secondary English and SOSE teacher. With a passion for literature, she can often be found with book and tea in hand.