In the film Groundhog Day, Phil Connors wakes up to relive the same day with the same events over and over again. The life of a supply teacher couldn't be more different than that of Bill Murray's TV weatherman.
Each school throws up a different set of challenges for you to deal with. Some of the issues will be weird and wonderful, but there are some common problems that all supply teachers face.
1. There is no cover work
Turning up to a lesson and finding that no supply work has been left, or it's work for a completely different class, is surely one of the problems that supply teachers encounter most often.
If at all possible, try to confirm with the school ahead of time what the cover work will be, and don’t just assume that the lesson plan and seating chart that you find in the classroom are the correct ones.
When you do receive the cover work, make sure that you read through it straight away, so that you have time to ask questions about anything that is unclear and prepare yourself for any tricky elements, rather than coming to it cold at the start of a lesson. It’s also a good idea to have a stock of generic lesson plans to use as a backup.
2. The technology fails
We’ve all had that unsettling experience of turning up at a classroom only to find that the projector is broken or the interactive whiteboard is out of action.
Beyond checking the equipment before the class, there is not much you can do to actually prevent an IT failure. Make sure that you have an alternative plan that does not rely on technology.
This might mean planning a couple of different activities or simply noting a few tweaks to the existing activities. And if you find yourself with cover work that is entirely based around technology that goes on to fail, you can always turn to one of those generic lesson plans in your bag.
3. The students don’t have the knowledge you expect
Despite what you have been told about students’ existing levels of ability, you will need to use your own professional judgement to determine whether you need to adapt the work to suit the needs of the class.
Start your cover lesson by eliciting as much information as you can about what the students do know already. A great way to do this is quizzing them on the topic of last lesson.
Take the book of one student, and ask closed questions on the work they completed in the previous lesson. Use a no-hands-up rule when asking questions to ensure that all of the class participate.
Not only does this help students in giving them a chance to revisit what they have learned previously, it means that you will not need to rely on the paperwork to check that the lesson is pitched appropriately for students’ current levels of understanding.
4. You encounter challenging behaviour
First of all, try to stay calm. Losing your temper will only serve to escalate the problem. The best way to make sure that you can keep your cool is to have a plan in place ahead of time.
When you first arrive at the school, ask for a copy of the school’s behaviour policy, or at least ask if there are any systems of sanctions and rewards that you need to be aware of. You should also ask about who to call on if a situation becomes unmanageable. It is important that you do not feel stranded on your own.
Secondly, identify some students who you can send for help in the event of a problem. You may need to ask a colleague in the school for advice about who would be a reliable choice.
Finally, try to isolate the problem as soon as you can. Behaviour can be catching and if you nip an incident in the bud, there is less chance that things will get completely out of hand.