Supply teaching: Tips for a successful placement

This article was written for SecEd magazine and first published in January 2018.  You can read the original version on the SecEd website here.  

You can access the full archive of my columns for SecEd here

Being a supply teacher is tough. At times it can feel like you’re spinning plates and, if you’re not careful, it starts to resemble a Greek wedding.

One trick to keeping all those plates spinning is to break down what can be a complex, multi-faceted job into each of its constituent parts, to deconstruct the whole and identify its components, then reconstruct it again one piece at a time.

In practice, this might mean creating a checklist of short-term, manageable tasks.

To help you get started writing your own checklist, here are five top tasks you might want to tick off as soon as you start a new supply job…

Find your bearings

Try to learn the layout of the school – perhaps by studying a floor plan (there’s usually one in the school handbook or prospectus). If you get time before the school day starts, do a walkabout in order to familiarise yourself with the school buildings and grounds.

On your walkabout, ascertain the location of the main facilities such as the toilets, the staffroom, the hall, the canteen, the school office, and the photocopying machine or reprographics office.

Learn your timetable

You will need to become familiar – and quickly – with the timings of the school day and with your timetable of lessons and additional duties

Timetables vary considerably from school to school so find out and memorise what time the school day starts and finishes, how long lessons are, how long breaks are, and whether there is a daily or weekly assembly and when this takes place.

You might also want to ask if you are expected to cover break duties or are required to attend events, such as parents’ evenings, after school. Although it is rare for supply teachers – particularly those on short-term contracts – to be asked to attend after-school events or carry out break and lunch duties, it is not unheard of. Supply teachers who are paid by the terms set out in the School Teachers’ Pay and Conditions Document (STPCD) must also assume the contractual duties set out in that document.

Read the school handbook and policies

Ask for and read the school prospectus, staff handbook and main policies and procedures. It will prove especially useful to read about the school rules and the whole-school behaviour policy – you will need to adhere to it at all times and it can provide you with the safety net you need. Another policy for your urgent attention is the one on safeguarding and child protection.

Establish who’s who

Find out the names of key members of staff, especially the designated lead for child protection. You should also identify a couple of senior managers in case you need to refer a pupil.

If you’re likely to be working in the school for more than a day or two, then it pays to make the effort to get to know the office staff as well as the caretaking team – they can prove invaluable allies! What’s more, clerical and support staff know a lot about the way the school is run, and they can make your life much easier.

Get to know the staffroom – with caution

The staffroom should be a place of solace and succor but, a word of warning, approach it with caution initially and be careful where you sit. Although staffrooms are becoming less territorial than they used to be, some teachers can still be precious about their favourite chairs. Before you take a seat, ask “is it okay to sit here?”.

If you commit the cardinal sin of taking someone else’s mug, be prepared for the backlash. It has been known for an entire morning break to be taken up with staff deep in conversation over missing cups, detecting clues like amateur sleuths!

If you do have to borrow someone else’s cup, at least have the decency of washing it up afterwards. Leave it in a pristine condition and put it back in its rightful place.

Some further advice

Here are a few other tips to help you succeed as a supply teacher:

  • Make a note of the general work ethic in the school. Arrive on time and leave when the majority of staff do.
  • Discuss your role with your head of department and/or staffing officer. Make sure you know what’s expected of you.
  • Be courteous and attentive to others, and always listen to advice from colleagues who know their school and its pupils better than you.
  • Become familiar with the key policies that will affect you, such as behaviour, homework, child protection, and health and safety.
  • Review your practices to ensure you are meeting these policies.
  • If you are on longer term supply, don’t rock the boat too soon. Even if you have an innovative idea of how to improve the way people work (and because you’re lucky enough to work in a range of schools it is likely you have seen things done better elsewhere), wait until you have established a credible reputation and some positive rapport with colleagues before proposing a change, no matter how small.
  • If you are required to attend staff briefings or meetings, mind your manners. There are unofficial guidelines that dictate decorum during meetings – read the runes as quickly as possible or ask someone to give you the inside track.

How to avoid burn-out and stress

While getting to grips with your latest supply job, you should be careful not to overwork yourself or become stressed. Supply teaching might be an important job but it is still only a job. You must not allow it to take over your life, certainly not at the expense of your health and wellbeing. Rather, your should strive to strike a healthy work/life balance. Here are some tips to help you do just that.

Just say no

Your new colleagues may regard you as an outsider and the new kid on the block and therefore assume you’ll be a “yes person”, always willing to volunteer (or at least not cause a scene) for additional duties. But you need to manage your workload and strike some semblance of work/life balance if you are to be effective and survive. You must not spread yourself too thinly or try to conquer the world overnight, no matter how much you wish to please or impress your new colleagues and ensure you get good feedback for the agency. It is not a sign of weakness to say no.

Manage your marking

If you are on supply for more than a few days, it is likely – especially if you are paid by the terms of the STPCD – that you will be expected to do some marking.

If so, remember that, although written feedback is important and it does make a difference, it is not a panacea and must not take over your life. As with all things, moderation is the key. Try to keep your written feedback succinct and meaningful – perhaps establish some form of shorthand, maybe symbols, and consider using stamps or stickers for this.

Manage the amount of work you mark – perhaps marking one piece of work every five lessons with pupils engaging in self and peer assessment in-between. You could set tasks for pupils to respond to your feedback so that the time you do spend marking is time well spent.

Be discerning

Supply teachers have a tendency to be magpies – after all, they get to see and hear a lot of great ideas in different schools. However, I would caution you against trying to adopt every new pedagogic fad you come across. Yes, you should read and research widely and be willing to take risks and try new things. The best supply teachers take the quality and effectiveness of their teaching very seriously and are not just babysitters or bodyguards. But you should always approach new ideas with an open mind. Also, you must be careful that trying new strategies doesn’t cause you additional stress or add to your workload, or indeed confuse pupils who have established familiar routines.

Ask for help

If you need help then ask for it – you are not alone. The headteacher, head of department and other colleagues are there to support you so don’t be afraid to use them. You are part of a teaching profession and it is so-called because it is a collective enterprise.

Look after yourself

Nurturing your body, mind and soul is vital if you are to get the most out of supply teaching and survive it intact. If you look after your health and wellbeing, you are more likely to be an effective, happy supply teacher.

So don’t give up on sport and exercise and don’t stop socialising. As well as helping you to switch off, it will defuse your anxiety. Another good tip for relieving stress is to make time for eating sensibly and to get plenty of sleep. In short, don’t let supply teaching absorb all of your time.


Follow me on Twitter: @mj_bromley


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