- Written by Jenny Smith
So what is supply teaching? Well, let’s face it. It’s a flexible job. At the moment, for me, tied as I am to regular antenatal check-ups, this has been a huge bonus, as I have been able to refrain from being available for work in a way that wouldn’t be practical for a teacher tied to the classroom. For others with children, it allows them to spend time with them. With day-to-day supply comes less responsibility – no planning, no class to manage, no targets to meet, no paperwork – and for teachers who have life responsibilities outside the classroom, this in itself is a perk. It’s an opportunity to experiment and develop new skills, and then utilise these skills in the most practical and effective of environments… the classroom. And most importantly, and excitingly, it gives us the chance to work in many different ways, taking the best from every situation, and applying it in a new one. We have the unique opportunity to see what works and feed this into our teaching pedagogy and practice. We supply teachers learn how to adapt. We take pride in being reflective practitioners, and we seek to improve ourselves in every way we can. If we don’t, we aren’t doing our job.
You see, I think what is often glossed over by agencies and schools, is that we are often treated a little like the enemy. Regardless of how talented and experienced we may be, schools can view us and treat us negatively, perhaps even without really meaning to.
Supply teachers are often isolated, and we don’t always have a community as such to draw on. This school negativity can come across as plain rude or even quite insulting. Rudeness, such as the office manager calling over to some other member of staff that “the supply” has arrived, for example, when all the while I know that my agency has provided them with a verification form not only including my name, but also my photograph, is just uncalled for. (And yes, I’m sorry, but my response is always to pointedly give them my name, and the year group I am there to cover.) Not even being acknowledged by the staff – from the head teacher down – is another one. Not being shown where the toilets or staffroom are. Being left alone in an empty classroom with the words “So-and-so will be along in a minute…” Being told “I didn’t want to leave that to the supply…so I have left you this…” or even worse, being asked if I know about phonics, or if I’ve read a particular children’s classic before! Teachers who think I will allow the children to get away with doing nothing during my day with them, or make assumptions that otherwise insult my professionalism, as if I am somehow less well qualified than they.
Of course, it’s on the tip of my tongue to utter some ironic retort, but I never, ever, do. I smile as sweetly as I can and say that I do actually do know what I’m doing, and that I have ten years or more teaching experience. Don’t worry, I find myself reassuring them, we’ll be fine. I’m conscientious, and always prepared, with a friendly smile, and it really makes me wince when people call me “The Supply” or ignore me altogether. I feel like I should be wearing a badge! I like to arrive in school early, (although I don’t always manage to do so!) as I like to have sight of the planning as soon as I can, and I prefer sketchy instructions to a long drawn out plan of activities I need to get through. I like to treat the class as my own for the day, and I find it easier to be a little bit flexible as to what I teach, and how I teach it. Everyone is different, though, and what works for me doesn’t work for everyone.
I think this attitude has a lot to do with the way in which supply teachers are portrayed in the media; as being somehow incapable of controlling a class, and of being out of date as far as the most recent education initiatives are concerned, and it’s my belief that these attitudes need to change. Supply teachers already pay for their own Disclosure certificates, something our employed colleagues don’t do as their employer takes responsibility for that for them. Our work is generally erratic, and we often get precious little information about courses that are available to us (if there are any). As far as paying to go on courses is concerned, it’s often not practical. Fees can be as much as a full day’s work and agencies don’t get offered free places. In some months, particularly at the beginning and end of term, work barely pays the bills, so paying for professional development is not an option. And courses run through agencies may not be Key Stage or skill specific, so, while useful, they do often address familiar ground.
This is something I’ve thought about a lot over the years, and I’d love to see agencies devise more creative strategies for their staff, providing relevant and up to date training. It hit home when I realised that, as an EYFS professional, I would receive no training on the new EYFS because of my status as a supply teacher, and even though, at the time, I was employed on a long term assignment in a school. I’d love to go as a delegate to the conference my agency are helping to sponsor, but for me, at approaching £100 for a place, it’s something I can’t begin to afford.
Not that it’s all bad. After all, I have been into plenty of different schools and seen the new EYFS in action, taking away with me best practice from each setting. And that is equally as valuable as training and development, because it is intensive and practical – and can sometimes be reminiscent of teaching practice! – the problem is that schools often don’t appreciate the depth of experience and expertise at their disposal. Now that Ofsted and government pressure is mounting, schools often want to see something on paper. Just being good at your job isn’t always enough.
It’s obvious to me that the way supply teachers work makes us resilient and self-reliant. We develop the ability to pick new skills up swiftly, and apply them even faster. That can make us seem a little maverick in our approach as we have seen different examples of good practice in a range of schools and we’re eager to find what works. And that’s what makes a good supply teacher, well, a good supply teacher. Schools take note, please.