“The day has been a nightmare from start to finish,” sighs the frazzled supply teacher, snapping shut her bag. She has had five periods with five different classes in five different rooms, teaching three different subjects. She would say nothing had gone to plan but it doesn’t feel as if there was a plan to begin with.
The thing is, this is not a challenging school. The staff are pleasant enough, the students weren’t awful. The supply teacher just didn’t start the day with the tools she needed to do her job properly. It was, she says, like trying to build a cruise liner out of play dough.
How to make supply teachers’ lives easier
Every school has a first-aid box to cope with the day-to-day accidents that befall its students. Similarly, every school should have a supply teacher “first-aid box”, containing everything they need to deal with the everyday practicalities of doing supply in a school. Here’s what it should contain:
1. Give them a map
If the supply teacher is new to the school, this is essential. But actually, it really doesn’t matter if he or she was in your school just last week, because he or she was likely to have also been in several other schools. Therefore, you’re going to need to give them a floor plan and a quick explanation of how your room numbers work.
This is particularly important if your setting is a split site or if the work will take the teacher to different classrooms.
At one sixth-form college in the south-east, the site is huge and is split over three different buildings so, where possible, supply teachers are given a mini induction before beginning their cover.
A teacher at the school explains how they ensure their supply teachers are looked after. “Ideally, the supply teacher will come beforehand and meet the rest of the department, and be shown the rooms and the staffroom,” she says. “It’s important they know where they’re going.”
2. Explain the discipline policy – and give them a copy to refer to
What are the sanctions? What are the rewards? Does your school have time-out cards? How should they be used? Who does the supply teacher call if they have a situation they need help with?
A head of department in a London comprehensive shared his secret to minimising discipline issues in cover lessons: send in the back-up before it is needed.
“Having senior teachers drop in to check how things are going at the lesson changeover and during the lesson means that supply teachers don’t feel thrown to the wolves,” he says. “Some pre-emptive action can make everyone’s day easier.”
3. Provide the SEND information
Students in every class are going to have different needs that would be accounted for with their classroom teacher; this doesn’t change just because you have a supply teacher in. Make it easy for the supply teacher by including a list of special educational needs and disability requirements for every class they have that day.
4. Share pastoral issues
If staff have been given information about students who need to be kept apart, or about a student who has recently experienced a loss, or even students who have recently returned from exclusions, then the supply staff need to have this information too, where appropriate.
Descriptions don’t need to be lengthy – short bullet points will suffice, and will possibly avoid awkward situations later. Forewarned is forearmed.
Amy Forrester, head of year in Cockermouth School, Cumbria, advises that safeguarding is the priority, and information should be “need to know”. Sensible sharing of student issues means “learning opportunities are maximised while also ensuring students’ pastoral needs are not neglected”, she adds.
5. Tell them about your students
Within one town, three schools can have three very different demographics and there is no point in assuming your supply teacher will know the demographic of your students. Give a breakdown of your student demographic in case it proves useful for the teacher.
6. Remember the small stuff
Toilet passes, the mobile phone policy, bell times and lateness; it is the mundane and boring stuff that could trip up a supply teacher. To ensure the smooth running of the day, the small things need to be sorted.
Board pens, remote controls and door keys: make sure these are handed to the supply teacher as they enter building. You can’t expect them to function without the basics.
7. Spell out the schedule
Not only do they need a schedule but it must be one they can actually follow. Work set should be realistic and worthwhile, and be written for someone who has no prior knowledge of the class or the topic. However, the supply teacher must be provided with work that children can see the value of.
“It’s essential that supply teachers have a high standard of cover work,” advises one head of department in a new free school in the South of England. “The children need to be accountable for the outcomes of the work.”
8. Give them carrots and sticks
Detention slips, merit stickers, postcards home…each school has its own armoury of rewards and sanctions, and there is no reason not to equip the supply teacher with these things, too.
Who has the responsibility for putting this together?
Whether the cover is planned or unexpected will dictate whether the classroom teacher or head of department should put this information together for the supply teacher. It is a good idea to make use of your school software, and it should be a simple matter of printing off class lists from SIMs to put the majority of the required information together.
For pastoral issues, the head of year team should have an ongoing list of students who are currently monitored, and then this information can be shared with the supply teacher.
Grainne Hallahan has been teaching English in Essex for 10 years. She is part of the #TeamEnglish Twitter group and tweets from @heymrshallahan
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