Gareth Tanswell, creator of The Cover Teacher’s Planner, talks to us about his work as a supply teacher.
Why did you choose to go into supply teaching?
Throughout my school life I thought that I wanted to be a primary school teacher, I couldn't imagine ever teaching in a secondary school. My parents persuaded me not to go for an Education degree but to go for a degree that might give alternative options and to then follow that up with a PGCE, and so I went to University of Wales, Aberystwyth and studied Human Geography. I chose Aberystwyth because I had attended Welsh-medium schools and wanted to continue my education in that language as best I could. However whilst I was in Aberystwyth, I decided to do some voluntary work and so ended up helping out at a Youth Club once a week. I also decided to join the Special Constabulary, on what was (in all honesty) a bit of a whim. I genuinely had no desire whatsoever at that point of joining the Police. But I then caught the bug for policing and decided that I wanted to pursue a career in that route. When I finished University I got myself a job as a Learning Support Assistant at HMP & YOI Ashfield in Pucklechurch, Bristol. I just saw that as a stepping stone for getting into the Police. In fact I applied to join the Police in February 2007 whilst working at Ashfield. I didn't hear anything from the police for a while, and later in 2007 an opportunity came along for me to complete a PGCE on a part time basis, and the prison were willing to support that, so I joined the course, and that same week decided that I wanted to be a full-time student again and took the dive and switched to the full-time course. During that year the economic crisis began hitting, and the prison were unable to take me back once I had qualified, and so I found myself with a PGCE but no job. I first went into supply teaching in 2008 just as I had finished my PGCE because I wanted to get some experience of working in schools and to see whether it was for me. I was seeking full time employment but was still living at home. I worked in 2 different schools at that time, and I didn't really enjoy it, the one school was in quite an affluent town and I found the students to be quite snobbish, and then on my first lesson on the first day in the other school which was deep in the Gwent valleys, a fight erupted in my class, and the teaching assistant just looked at me to sort it out. I quickly found myself a non-teaching full time job late in 2008, but began teaching Welsh in Community Education classes as well. In 2008 I had managed to get myself extra teaching with The Open University teaching on their new L196 Croeso course (Welsh for beginners). Then in March 2009 I finally got into the Police and began the career that I am now in today. This unfortunately meant that I had to give up my teaching commitments because I was going to be living away during my initial 30-week training course, and I knew that I wouldn't be able to commit to teaching in the community whilst also working a shift pattern. But even on a police wage, being a single man with a mortgage meant that I needed something to supplement my income, and so I kept working for the OU as I could easily schedule tutorials around my shift pattern. More than the need for money, I wanted to keep teaching because I had always been passionate about facilitating learning, and wanted to keep my own professional development going. By teaching with The OU I was able to complete most of the masters for a MA in Online and Distance Education and didn't have to pay a penny for it! So it was definitely worth it, and I really enjoyed watching the course develop and mature, and working with students from across the UK who were passionate about learning Welsh. In 2012 I was made redundant from my teaching role with the OU due to cutbacks which affected the whole of the HE field, and in all honesty I missed it, and although I wasn't being paid grandly by the OU as it was only a few hours’ work every week, the extra bit of money was useful, and so in early 2013 I made contact with my old agency and signed up again.
How did you choose your agency?
When I first joined my agency I had seen them at a stand at a Careers Fair at my University where I was completing my PGCE in 2008. I signed up and got work quite quickly. But as I mentioned before, I didn't really enjoy it and so only did a few assignments and then left them. Then in 2013, I went to find them again but found that the office had been relocated to Cardiff. The staff were the same and remembered me and were happy for me to give it a go again. I dragged my feet at this stage and kept putting off my appointment to bring my documents to them and to sign up, I just wasn't sure whether I wanted to do it as I hadn't enjoyed it before, and then one day I decided to just do it! If I didn't give it another go I would never know, and I couldn't think of any other way of keeping my teaching qualification current. The staff at the agency were really warm and welcoming, and I very quickly began getting assignments. They understood my shift pattern and only called me when I was free, but I felt valued by them, I almost felt that by taking assignments that I was doing them a favour, and so I stuck to it. Now, 18 months on, I really enjoy supply teaching, and have no intentions whatsoever to stop doing it any time soon.
What do you take with you on assignment?
I make sure that I am smartly dressed, and have learned that the absolute most important thing to wear is a massive smile. It’s pointless trying to be too firm, respect is something that has to be earned, and I won't get a second chance to make a good first impression with students, and so I make sure that my first interaction with a class is friendly, happy and most importantly, funny!
How do you ensure you'll be called back to work at that lovely school by your recruitment consultant?
By getting a class on side, I find that it means that I tend not to attract attention! I have had some classes which have been a nightmare, and you end up getting other teachers come and assist a lot, which is great for me, but I often wonder whether they then think that I am not doing a good job, and so I prevent it at all costs by trying to get along with the students, and finding a happy medium. I fully know that I am a 'Supply' and I see their eyes rolling in their head when I stand there and pronounce their names incorrectly, or when I expect them to do some work, but I generally find that within about 5 minutes of the class starting, I can get them focused on the task in hand. But then I don't mind them chatting with their mates as long as they are doing some work. I find that by not constantly being negative and oppressive, the students soon think that I am fantastic, and I often now get students cheering when they see me walking towards their classroom! I also keep a good dialogue with my agency, so they know exactly where I enjoy working and where I don't. There are schools where they don't even bother asking me to go now because they know that I would rather have a day off work and earn nothing than to go to those schools, conversely, there are some schools where my agency will forward my work rota to them so that they know when I am free!
You've created the Cover Teacher Planner, what prompted this?
I was losing track of where I was teaching, and what I had been doing. I also had lost track with what subjects I was teaching. I had taught some really good lessons and picked up some great resources, and wanted a way of tracking these things. But when I looked into the various teachers’ planners I found that they were more focussed on teachers who worked in the same school every day, they didn't give spaces for details of more than 1 school, and they had loads of wasted pages for things like timetables or records of student marks/assessments which I simply had no use for as a supply teacher.
What are the key benefits of using the planner?
I need somewhere that I can keep a track of where I have been working and what expenses I have incurred, so far I have been useless at keeping track of these and making the claims for rebates from HMRC that I am entitled to. I have also had a couple of incidents that have occurred in the classroom that I felt needed to be reported back to the school, and so the incident form was designed to be a generic way of recording those concerns. There is also a place for information from each lesson to be recorded as a reference point in case it is of use in the future, perhaps when working with the same cohort or covering for the same teacher.
How do you envisage the Planner moving forward in the future?
The planner is still a new concept, and so I really do welcome suggestions from others. I would like to make the planner friendlier for all teachers, and a suggestion has been made of making a Welsh-medium version. If there is a demand then I will start working on a 2015/6 version in the autumn. Another idea is to have a generic version which isn't year specific.
What would your top tip for supply teachers be?
Be nice! If you are in the teaching profession for the right reasons then your absolute top priority should be to the students. If you put your students in the centre of what you do then you will naturally build lasting relationships with staff and also with the school. Also, recognise that you are one of many supply teachers that your students will have encountered. They know plenty of excuses to get out of doing the work that has been set, and they have an answer for everything, some students will see you as a target and will deliberately want to wind you up, but if you just respond with a smile and remain pleasant and calm, then other students in the class will realise that you are one of the good ones and will help to manage their co-student's behaviour for you. Focus on positive behaviour, and don't give unnecessary attention to negative behaviour.
What is your favourite resource for supply teaching?
My favourite resource is YouTube. I use it all the time to find clips that I can show to students to help them to understand a concept in a new way, and sometimes to help me to understand things before I begin a lesson. For instance, when I am teaching a subject that I am not necessarily comfortable with (maths, English, science etc.) then I would have a look at the work which has been set and I would then try to increase my own understanding of that subject prior to the lesson by watching a YouTube clip on my phone in the staff room.
And finally! Who would be the ultimate supply teacher and why?
Caractacus Potts from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. He is so friendly, joyful and loving to his family, and also is experimental and innovative.
Experienced secondary supply teacher A. Barrett has kindly provided us with a review of The Cover Teacher Planner, and resident blogger and EYFS supply teacher Jenny's reviewed The Cover Teacher Planner in her June 2014 blog post. The Cover Teacher Planner, created by Gareth, is available to buy from his website.