Is supply teaching for you?
A common opinion among teachers and the general public is that supply teaching is a back up option. For some, this is true as supply is always preferable to being unemployed. But others see supply as more than just a last resort.
Some choose supply teaching for the flexible hours. Some choose supply for the competitive pay. With the increased stress and pressure in the full time teaching profession, many are choosing supply just to be able to enjoy being a teacher.
After I graduated, I did some travelling around Africa. I returned to the UK with only six months left of the academic year. Most of my friends were already mid way through their NQT year. I originally saw supply as a stop gap and a way to rebuild my savings. Little did I know that it would turn into the best professional learning experience I’ve had as a teacher.
These are the top three things I learned on my two stints on supply.
1 Classroom management
Getting to grips with class dynamics and nipping bad behaviour in the bud quickly was the first priority in every school I was sent to. I knew that if I didn’t get the class onside within the first quarter of an hour, I’d be chewed up and spat out.
Being a supply teacher enabled me to trial a huge variety of classroom management approaches. It became clear that different strategies worked depending on the unique circumstances of every school. Furthermore, being in such a vast number of other practitioners’ classrooms allowed me to ‘magpie‘ ideas I thought I could use.
I learned to deploy humour in class alongside the school approach, regardless of the school setting and I still use humour today as it helps diffuse conflict, keeps the main troublemakers grounded, gains the attention of the class and engages all in their learning. I saw the danger of ‘hands up’ as a means of gathering answers. This meant it allowed some children a safe space to create disruption and undermine me.
What I did was go to random children for answers, perhaps even deliberately challenging the alpha boys and girls and keeping everyone on their toes.
2 I learned the curriculum
For the new teacher, the curriculum is a rabbit hole of extra homework. Let’s say you got an NQT position straight out of university. Your placements never involved teaching in upper key stage 2. Suddenly, you have an awful lot of swatting up to do before September.
Now let’s say that, in the year leading up to your NQT year, you have done a stint of supply teaching, as I did. During this time you have taught a year six class for a month to cover maternity leave. You’ve also covered several year five classes for non-contact. What’s more, you have had around two weeks of day-to-day KS2 cover in four different schools.
Obviously, at interview you have a significant head start compared to someone who hasn’t worked in supply. Furthermore, you have a far easier job when it comes to planning learning experiences than you would straight out of university. During a six month period of supply, I was able to develop a basic understanding of the progression of the National Curriculum.
3 Which staff teams I wanted to be a part of
Supply teachers are very much a fly on the wall, especially if they are only at a school for a day or two. This luxury enables them to find out which schools they could work in full time and which schools to avoid. Because of my supply experience, I didn’t waste time applying to every position I could for my first post, as I had already worked in many of the schools in my area advertising posts. I was able to make a more informed decision.
Even if I hadn’t taught at a school on supply, I learned a lot about staff teams by listening to the way they spoke to each other. There were a few undesirable traits among staff teams I learned to identify. In the interest of preserving my mental wellbeing, I subsequently avoided schools displaying these traits like the plague.
More than just a stop gap
To sum up, supply teaching can provide a breadth of professional learning that university lecturers can only dream of giving. I would definitely recommend a stint in supply to both prepare for, or consolidate, the NQT year. Sometimes Plan B can actually be Plan A.