Essential skills for supply teachers

The career supply teacher

Peter Dickinson made a career out of supply teaching when a serious illness forced him out of permanent work. Having tried it out of necessity, Peter has stuck with it out of choice, and was named the UK’s best supply teacher in 2005 by the Recruitment and Employment Confederation. There are particular aspects of this branch of the profession that dissuade him from a return to teaching persuade him not to return to permanent teaching:

“I like the flexibility of supply teaching - money can’t buy time. And, to a certain extent I’m my own boss”. Peter also likes the variety of work, taking him between primary and secondary, inner city and rural school and the mix of pupils this brings him into contact with. Remember, that as a supply teacher you can’t change things in a short period of time but you can be a professional.

Peters’ Tips

  • Develop your personal philosophy. It will help you cope with the unpredictability of a classroom of unknown children. I remind myself that, even if they’re 16 year olds in Year 11, I’m the adult in the room and they are the children. Mentally, that helps me remember that regardless of whatever behaviours they display, I have to behave as a professional adult. The other thing to bear in mind, particularly in inner city schools, is that some of the pupils may prefer to be at school because life at home is horrendous. Remembering this helps diffuse any anger that I may have and fosters an understanding of where they’re coming from.
  • Use ‘settlers’. These are tricks to get the attention and focus of a class immediately, providing a breathing space to check out the classroom, range of pupils, who’s behaving - and who’s not. Because I’m an English teacher I tend to use word games: I’ll write the name of an author on the board immediately that the class walks in and ask to make as many words as possible out of it. I award merit points for winners.
  • Take a set of pens. The school should provide pens and pencils, but always have a spare supply, just to ensure pupils have no excuses and stay on task.


The semi-retired supply teacher

Richard Ratcliff spent 37 years as a permanent teacher and has worked in supply teaching for the past two years. “My attitude is that I’m prepared to do anything and I have so much work thrown my way it’s ridiculous. Supply teaching is an extremely tough option and I have the good fortune of having a lot of experience and confidence to deal with most situations.”

Richard finds the extreme challenge of supply teaching exhilarating. He also enjoys the greater freedom of expression a transitory post affords compared to the constraints placed upon the permanent teacher. “They’re under constant pressure to get results - the beauty is I can go in and try any approach I want”.

Richard’s tips

  • Give a good performance. You have to be a really good actor and be able to change your stance within a fraction of a second if the audience - classroom - changes its mood. You also need to have a different style for different types of school and children. If you’re in a grammar school, you’ve got to know your stuff. The kids will challenge you on your topic to see if you really know what you’re talking about.
  • Be strict. I’m old school and I like to be strict. I’m progressive but I don’t allow messing around and the kids respect you for it. When I was a kid I would have been scared to the back teeth of a teacher like me, although nowadays then kids are lot more lippy. The attitude you used to get from fourth from girl you now get two years earlier in year 10. The schools like people who can keep control too they don’t want supply teacher who are calling for help.
  • Get on with it. I’ll teach anything. I’ve done food technology, English and Spanish although by training, I’m a French teacher. It’s possible to teach any subject with a bit of imagination.

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