The phone keeps ringing with complaints about the supply teacher’s classes. Parents are concerned about missing books and unmarked work. This can be just the start of the problem; next you will have emails from the head of year following up behaviour problems in lessons. And then the data manager will be chasing missing assessment grades.
The supply teacher often gets the blame for these problems but, actually, it is usually down to a lack of support or preparation by the school. Here are some problems that department heads and secondary school leaders need to spot, and some easy remedies to fix them.
Problem: the scheme of work has gone out the window
Symptoms: disgruntled emails from parents, missed assessment data, complaints from students that “we didn’t do that in our class”.
Supply teachers going “off script” is a common problem for all heads of department, but often it’s the lack of a script in the first place that causes the issue.
Treatment: get to the root of the problem. If supply teachers are given the materials to teach and the expectations of what should be achieved then everyone is on the same page:
- Make sure a scheme of work is given to the teacher.
- Introduce a buddy system with another member of staff in the department so that the supply teacher can check what they’re teaching with another member of staff who is delivering the same content or has delivered it before.
- Use knowledge organisers (a type of crib sheet with essential information for students and teachers) to boost self-confidence for supply teachers.
- Regularly pop in and informally check on their lessons, and encourage the supply teacher to feel he or she can do the same with you.
Problem: student behaviour has plummeted to new depths
Symptoms: problems escalated to head of year, parents complaining, noise levels dialled up to 11.
From the dawn of time, children have misbehaved for cover teachers: it is as common as wet break times and late homework. But this truth doesn’t need to be tolerated, and good management of behaviour happens only when you have good systems in place and enforce them.
A head of faculty in a Manchester secondary school says: “Even your best students will push the boundaries a little bit when they have a supply teacher. Students love to tell the supply when they’ve got it wrong. Too often we hear that they have told their supply teacher: ‘You can’t do that; I have to have a time-out first’.”
Treatment: implement the behaviour policy. It is never too late to turn the behaviour around in a class and prevention is better than cure.
A head of English at a London comprehensive says: “Don’t hesitate to remove known disruptive students or those who respond poorly to changes in routine. Some pre-emptive action can make all the difference.”
Before a supply teacher starts:
- Review the behaviour policy with them and walk them through how to use it.
- Make time for them to observe a teacher with a difficult class so they can see the policy in action.
- Personally introduce them to the people they should speak to about behaviour.
If a problem has already started:
- Be a support, not a spy. A senior member of staff should drop in on the class and back up the teacher, ensuring the students know that the supply teacher is the one in charge.
- Enforce the behaviour policy, and make sure the supply teacher understands how to enforce it.
- Formulate a plan with the supply teacher and include them in the decision making.
- Don’t ignore it, thinking that the problem will resolve itself when the supply teacher leaves; once rot has started in a group, it needs to be addressed or it will linger on even when their normal teacher returns.
Problem: work/books/children have gone missing
Symptoms: data deadlines are missed, children on toilet breaks have gone AWOL, text books haven’t been seen for a fortnight.
A head of year in Essex explains: “I had a supply teacher who managed to lose two sets of text books. We did have them teaching in four different rooms but when the books eventually turned up, they were in a totally different building.”
Disorganisation can be a frustrating issue to tackle, because what looks like carelessness to the head of department can feel like a mismatched expectations to the supply teacher.
- Agree marking expectations. Supply agencies will specify marking requirements in their contracts and you need a plan in place for who is responsbile for marking assessments in the case of long-term supply.
- Review the assessment calendar and agree who is entering which data and when.
- Make sure the supply teacher knows the protocol for students leaving class and returning books.
- Make the load realistic. Is the head of department expecting the supply teacher to plan and make resources? Is this something that can be taken from the shared area or given to them by a colleague?
- Find out what is preventing the supply teacher from meeting the deadlines: are they unsure of data systems? Recording assessments in the wrong format? Work out what it is that the supply teacher doesn’t know and help them to be more organised.
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