- Written by Jenny Smith
March / April 2014
Recently, I have been thinking a lot about belonging, and fitting in. As a new mummy, I have a whole range of new concerns and challenges to consider. Life with a small baby is never dull and months flash by before you know where you are.
In this journey, I’m terribly lucky. I’ve met a whole staff-room’s worth of other mummies, who are always here, always prepared to listen and share as together we tackle the uncertainties and the highlights of parenting: sleeping patterns, formula, injections, growth spurts, routines, weaning, teething, crawling, talking, grasping; the list goes on and on! It amazes me how quickly I have settled into my new job, and how much I have managed to assimilate in only four or five short months. Suddenly I’m an expert in my child and nobody else’s.
And that’s not something I’m used to, not being an expert in other people’s children, at least in terms of what makes them tick and helps them to learn. It has been something of a leap to make the adjustment to stay at home mummy while my maternity leave zooms past at high speed! I’m already looking into my options for returning to work in September, and considering the impact having a child will have on my supply teaching work. It’s going to mean much less flexibility on my part, that’s a reality I have to face. No longer will I want to drive miles away from home at a moment’s notice! In practical terms, there is no-one who can look after a (by then) 10 month old without prior arrangement. Nurseries and child-minders need regular “set” days agreed in advance, so gone is the early morning call. I’d be unwilling to work full time now, so, again, this relies on part time work being available. The agency are hopeful that something will turn up, and I hope to goodness they are right, otherwise things will get very complicated very quickly.
Of course, there is more to it than just choosing a nursery or a child minder based on their availability. Much more depends on their knowledge of the EYFS and the play and developmental opportunities Baby will receive in their care. And all of this is secondary, for me, to how well these people will get to know my child and provide opportunities that will challenge and stimulate her enjoyment and development. That they won’t have a “one size fits all” approach, and that they will see Baby as a person and learner in her own right. As a teacher with a lot of Early Years’ experience and expertise it is this, above anything, that I hope they will get right. I want the person who cares for her to treat her as an individual. I want them to value her play and use it to discover the ways in which she learns best, exploiting those in ways that challenge, interest and engage her. I want her to do what I would do myself, in effect. The things that I’ve been told make me good at my job. And I want them to keep high quality individualised records of her progress.
One thing you get used to as a supply teacher is change. Change of school, class, year group, head teacher, ethos, school size, children, demographic, catchment. Although one school is, in some ways, pretty much the same as another, they are all different too. And yet, something doesn’t change…the professionalism you bring to each and every assignment. The knowledge you have built up and added to over the years. The resources you have bought and moulded to fit a range of different classes and abilities. The flexibility you’ve learned to depend on. All these things stay the same.
Except that…while I have been on maternity leave the goal posts have changed. I’m returning to a different environment to the one I left behind. Now it is all about formal learning and testing children as they enter Reception. Thanks to Mr Gove and Mr Willshaw I’ll be returning to a sea change I’m not sure I can ever agree with. Despite the workload of a full time teacher and in spite of the bureaucracy and the paperwork and the seemingly endless hoops I have to jump through, I love my job. I am never happier than when I have had the satisfaction of seeing one of the children in my class open their eyes wide in wonder and truly learn something they are capable for the first time. Then they use that new skill and embed it into their play, learning it and building on it for the future. There are so many uncertainties about how things will change. I might be returning to a whole new teaching environment. Who knows?
Being on maternity leave has meant I feel very out of the loop. Industrial action and governmental changes have passed me by, in a sense. I will be returning to work in a different school, with a different class, and I may be asked to change the whole way I do my job. From my position on the side-lines I can merely observe and comment, nothing more. I only hope I still enjoy my job when I return to it.
- Written by Jenny Smith
January / February 2014
It has been a long couple of months. Our baby girl finally arrived and the past few weeks have been spent adjusting to life as a family. The dog has made the transition from adored family baby to beloved family pet with minimal grumbling and only the occasional betrayed look. She watches over the baby jealousy, and barks more loudly than ever when there is someone at the door. In short, we have become more of a team than ever, supporting and leaning on each other.
There is something about having a baby that means everyone gets involved. Granny has visited umpteen times since Tiddler was born, and my fellow knitting enthusiasts love nothing better than a chance to baby sit. I’ve made so many friends and met so many other mums and mums to be since having a baby that I have a ready-made group of friends. I’ve started going to a post-natal group, and the idea behind it is that it gives us the opportunity to develop a peer support network, and a wealth of experience we can draw on. That’s the thing; when it comes to babies, everyone knows something that works, or has worked… everyone comes up with suggestions and solutions. Everyone wants to help.
When I was starting out as a supply teacher ten years ago, the thing I struggled most with on a daily basis was the feeling of isolation. Sometimes I’d feel completely out of my depth and at sea, and I didn’t know of any other supply teachers with whom I could get together and have a gossip – discuss everything from what I took with me into school to how I dealt with a “chatty” class or share any funny stories or terrible failures. Inexperienced teachers are often insecure about the skills they have, and logically, often look to their more experienced colleagues to give them the support and advice they need. It’s not always advice that’s needed. One supply teacher I met, who is now a close friend and willing babysitter, couldn’t drive, and was working in a school an hour and a half away from the area we both live. Having passed my driving test long after becoming a supply teacher, and remembering well the sinking feeling at the thought of waiting for a bus after a long day with an unfamiliar class when all I wanted to do was sleep, I offered her a lift after school. That lift turned out to be a small step on the road to helping her to get to grips with a first long term position, and supporting her through a trying and somewhat traumatic Ofsted inspection, and offering interview advice when she began searching for another job at the end of the academic year, when, as is so often the case, the job was no longer available. And I was there as her friend to console her at the thought of starting all over again after a very challenging, but also rewarding year in which she learned a great deal, and felt like part of a team.
It’s something that every teacher takes for granted. The staff room is where you talk things over. On a basic level , it’s a place to join in professional discussion and debate, and on a personal level, somewhere to build and maintain friendships, share life experiences and let off steam. Supply teachers don’t have a staff room. We are reluctant, sometimes, to discuss problems with our recruitment consultants for fear of being unprofessional or looking bad to a school. Often supply teachers choose not to share problems or issues with regular staff in a school because they are worried about being judged or not being asked back. And sometimes, it’s the trivial things you want to share. Things like no one told you to mark in green and you have no green highlighter so you have to rummage around in the felt tip box until you find a green felt tip that “will do”. Or the behaviour management system you can’t follow because no one bothered to explain it to you. These are the meat and potatoes of supply teacher pet peeves, and sometimes the only person who understands how you feel about them, is another supply teacher.
It was a few years ago that I discovered a then little known website and forum, after randomly searching Google for “support for supply teachers” and became a member of the community at SupplyBag. Getting to know other teachers whose job was the same as mine, and talking with them about everything from how to teach a lesson on the interactive whiteboard without the whiteboard to how to make tasty puddings from After Eight mints was an important part of my growth as a supply teacher. Talking to colleagues, who swiftly became friends, people I now share parenting and personal stories with as well as teacher related anecdotes took me from seeing supply as a necessary evil on the road to becoming a “real” teacher…to a permanent way of working. Back in those days, SupplyBag was a pretty small community. It has grown enormously from what it used to be, but still the same old people drop by from time to time and catch up. I’m sure I’m not the only one who came to rely on SupplyBag support before and after interviews, with difficult classes, and through the odd unpleasant experience. And I always used to feel for those teachers who hadn’t discovered it, tell them of its existence, and smile when they popped up on the forum a few days later, making friends and realising it wasn’t just them. They had found a little place on the internet called home.
- 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.
- Written by Jenny Smith
November / December, 2013
This month’s blog has been more difficult than usual to write, as I have been more than a little preoccupied with the forthcoming arrival of our baby in only a couple more weeks. And, with a rapidly approaching due date on the horizon, I have officially signed off on maternity leave.
I think it’s important that I write this post. It often feels as though we, the supply teachers, are the hidden members of the education system. Even the unions, to a certain extent, don’t see us. I generally scan through any literature sent to me by my union, and put it in the bin, because the bulk of it applies not to me, but to teachers working in long term or permanent positions. Supply teachers have only recently received holiday pay and many earn below what they should on the pay scale for day to day assignments, or are repeatedly encouraged to sign up to umbrella pay companies without really wanting or needing to. There is something about pension roll-out in the offing, I understand (and this can only be good news, right?) but we still don’t receive statutory sick pay, even on long term assignments. The temporary nature of our appointment means we can be replaced at a moment’s notice. And that’s on top of ignoring our training and development needs, charging us for training other colleagues can access for free, seeing us having to pay for our own DBS certificate, without which we cannot work at all (and which is free for volunteers, even), and more critically, through their lack of action, endorsing the attitude other teachers reserve for us.
When I first received my union membership pack, it came replete with a page long case study of each and every member they support. Newly qualified teacher, primary teacher, secondary teacher, SEN teacher, student teacher, nursery nurse, early years’ educator... There was no such page for supply teacher, and I felt strongly enough about this to telephone and ask them why. Their reply, which amounted to saying that they felt as though this would stigmatise supply teachers, didn’t ring true to me. For my money, I would have felt as though my union recognised that my needs differed slightly to my permanent colleagues, and were seeking to address this. It would also have made me feel valued as a professional in my own right. Perhaps others feel differently. Perhaps they did research amongst their members and this was the result, but I am far more tempted to believe that they didn’t really think about it too deeply. It’s easy to overlook supply teachers, like I said.
Perhaps in part, this attitude stems from the fact a lot of supply teachers these days work for agencies, in effect, the private sector. And yet, for many of us, this isn’t exactly through choice. The majority of local authorities have closed their supply pool, and for work within a particular authority, it is recommended that you sign up with a certain agency. Schools often make the same suggestion too, in my experience. It’s a form of security. Agencies have the systems in place to vet and check their teachers effectively, and a good agency will seek out a teacher with appropriate experience for any given assignment. This has become more vital for schools in this results and target driven environment, not to mention the increased importance now placed upon safeguarding children, and with which I completely agree. As far as I am concerned, the agency works on my behalf too. It is much more difficult to stand up to any accusation from a school as a self-employed supply teacher, because I have no clear union representative to support me. At least having the backing and support of an agency behind me, who are aware of my employment history, and value my reputation, any concerns I have about a particular assignment can be dealt with swiftly and tactfully. There’s a lot to be said for this when having a good reputation has a direct effect on how much work I get!
So…we should be getting information and advice from our unions...but we are not. Agencies, fair and well run as they may be, have no legal obligation to provide their teachers with information regarding rights such as maternity benefit for temporary teachers, for example. And yet, that information should be freely available to me. Simply a downloadable PDF leaflet from my union website, in a section for supply teachers, would suffice. But no. Do you know where I found out I was probably eligible for maternity allowance? Not even the Job Centre. No. My midwife. And actually, I think that’s quite shocking. I was pretty much under the impression that I wouldn’t receive any maternity pay as I wasn’t working full time and hadn’t been permanently employed. Maybe I’m naïve and other people would be asking the question of their union, but the fact is that I didn’t. And that in itself means that my union failed me.
Neither my husband nor I have ever really applied for benefit, as we have always worked and earned enough to keep the wolf from the door as far as the benefits agency are concerned. So it was with some degree of trepidation that we began filling in the online form. First we had to check I was eligible, and fortunately, thanks to two long term assignments within the given “test period” (effectively consecutive weeks of employment within a specific time frame related to when the baby was due), I qualified! Hurrah!
The form was next. The paper version I collected from the JobCentrePlus was out of date, and so eventually we downloaded and worked our way through the PDF version. One question in particular made me laugh out loud. “What days did you last regularly work?” with boxes to tick next to the days of the week. Of course, I am a supply teacher. I don’t DO regular days.
After a certain point I had to go back to my main agency and ask them for an SMP1 form, something, again, I didn’t realise, because even though they aren’t paying my maternity benefit, they have to say why they aren’t paying me. What a faff. Finally it was finished and sent off. About a week later I received a letter saying that while I was eligible, I needed to sign something else and send it off, which I did. Then we waited again, and I received confirmation of what I would be paid…and when. I’m still waiting to BE paid, though….proof of the pudding is in the eating and all that!
And this is really where the unions, for me, miss a trick. By refusing to engage with agencies, they leave a large sector of the teaching workforce disengaged and voiceless. There is no impetus to change the system or make it better for us. And this is where National Supply Teacher Week steps in. It provides us with a voice. And I’m so grateful.
- Written by Jenny Smith
I seem to be waiting for a lot of things to happen at the moment.
I'm waiting for the weeks to fly by because in nine or so more, my husband and I will meet our brand new baby for the first time, and obviously, we're both really thrilled and excited!! It feels sort of strange beginning a blog about being a supply teacher just before taking some time away from the job to have a baby, but then again, I will have plenty of time to think of interesting and useful posts while I am at home getting to grips with being a mummy. Or so the theory goes...
I've been teaching for about ten years, and all of them have been on supply. Often long term, but always temporary, and never leading to that elusive permanent job. When I was younger, I was very shy and insecure, and terrible at selling myself at interviews, but now I am older, I have developed much more confidence about what I do, and, while I don't claim to be perfect, I do know that I am good at my job, and that I am a committed and dedicated teacher, permanent job or not.
One of the reasons behind this column is to share some of the goods and bads about being a career supply teacher. I'm lucky. My husband has a secure job, and over the years we have become used to the ups and downs of only one of us having a regular salary. But at times, especially with the added expense of a baby on the way, it can be a struggle financially, and I know I am not alone in this. Nor am I alone in feeling isolated on supply, or sometimes just frustrated by the lack of work or even the lack of respect that comes with the territory. I'm also not alone in celebrating the benefits that go with supply, either. No meetings, no assessment and no planning on short term assignments? I love teaching, but I must admit to being glad that I can make my first priority my family over the next few years. Teaching can so easily become all-consuming.
Of course there are niggles. There always are. I'm waiting for a decision about whether I will receive maternity allowance, and if so, how much I will be entitled to. Without it, I won't easily be able to stay at home and spend time with my baby, and worrying about that is a stress I can do without at the moment. It's at times like this that I envy regular teachers their access to maternity leave and Statutory Maternity Pay!
Until last Thursday I was waiting for my DBS Disclosure form to arrive in the post, so that I am now covered for work in the last few weeks I can manage before the baby arrives! True, I have some flexibility about when I choose to stop working, but the more I can manage to work now, the more likely it is I will be eligible for that precious benefit, and the more money we will have to buy things we still need for the baby. It's a juggling act, always.
So, what else am I waiting for? Well, I'm waiting for the phone to ring for my first assignment of the new school year. And I'm sure I'm not alone there either. I've found it is important to develop a routine when I'm waiting for work. It's not a particularly interesting one, but I've found that it pays to try and keep busy.
I get up every day at the same time as my husband. We go out together and walk the dog, which means I am up and ready if the phone does ring (although at the moment I have asked the agency to book work in advance. Trying to rush out of the door at thirty-one weeks pregnant is something of a challenge!) On my non teaching days I try and keep myself occupied. Ironing, washing, loading the dishwasher, wandering into town to buy dinner...it all helps when the other half gets home...and it's too easy to slump down in front of the television or laptop all day and do nothing, and that makes me feel guilty! I also have plenty of projects on the go. I am working on a new book for supply teachers, and writing a collection of short stories, and when I run out of energy for writing, as a last resort, I get out my baby knitting!