The role of a supply teacher can be varied. Calls from schools range from the informative to the obscure. They come from deputy heads in total panic, slight panic or those assuming an air of control. Most will tell you the school's name, when they want you and, sometimes, what subject they want you to teach.
Schools often assume that to a supply teacher one subject is the same as another. You may find you are covering for an English teacher who is also the school's information and communications technology expert, and consequently you will be covering subject areas that you probably know little about. You could find yourself giving a religious education lesson on parables with five minutes to prepare, or starting a topic on Kenya without having had recourse to reference books.
Schools tend to prefer to match their needs to your qualifications, but it is not always possible. There is not much you can do to prepare for this except be versatile, look confident and accept it as part of the job. You never know what you may learn.
Supply teaching is not an easy option. We do not sit behind the desk while the pupils get on with set work. To teach a new class, supply staff have to use every trick in the book, draw on every ounce of experience and try hard to remember facts. We step in not knowing at what level children are working or, indeed, which children will work at all, and do our best to provide a valid lesson. Children will ask questions and expect you to possess the level of knowledge of their regular teachers.
There are obvious advantages to being a supply teacher; no out-of-hours marking, or at least very little, usually no meetings and you can choose when and where you want to work (although saying no to a school can be difficult). The disadvantages are that it is hard to get to know the children you teach and you may feel like an outsider.
If you believe supply teaching is for you, you first need to get on to the list of several schools. Registering with the local authority will give you the necessary clearance but don't rely on getting work from the lists they circulate to schools. Only once or twice have I been offered work like this.
Write to the schools where you think you would like to work, but remember that the popular schools are usually the ones well served by supply staff. In your letter, mention your specialties, what age ranges and what subjects you are qualified to teach.
Remember that versatility is important. Sometimes a school will contact you when they are up-dating their lists for cover, but generally the first you will hear is when you are needed and it may be at 8.30am for a 9am start. Have your bag packed ready.
Give all the schools a fair try and don't listen to adverse gossip. The school may be right for you. If you decide that one is not, it is wise to say that you are not available for the rest of the term. This way you keep your options open and if work proves hard to get you have something to fall back on.
In some areas agencies for supply staff are prolific, but by contacting schools personally you stay in control of where you want to work. If you are looking for longer term work, then agencies may well be more help.
There are a few tips that can make life as a supply teacher easier. Find out the school's policy on discipline, as it is important to know what procedure to follow if the usual classroom methods fail. If a class senses you have little or no power to invoke disciplinary procedure, they can become very difficult to handle.
There is little time to ask questions when you arrive at a school for the first time, but it is important to be as prepared as possible when you walk into a lesson. Children are notorious for playing up supply staff. Appear confident and in control from the first moment and things will get easier.
Always have work with you for the times when there is no set work, and fillers for times when the set work is done but quiet reading isn't likely to work. Make sure you have a range of work suitable for all the age groups you may be asked to teach. Word searches are excellent fill-ins for the under-12s, but don't expect to have a chance to photocopy them, so keep your stocks up.
Quizzes can save the day with even the most unruly groups but make sure you are very definite about the organisation and who is scoring. Have questions with you. There are various sets on the market to suit different age ranges.
It is important to get on with other staff as it can make your stay much happier. There are so many visitors to schools these days that the staff can be forgiven for seeming unfriendly and not knowing who's who. Ask whoever is responsible for supply cover to give you an introduction. Don't avoid the staffroom, as by listening to the conversation you can learn more about the school. And one of the most useful tips anyone gave me was to have my own mug.
There will sometimes be problems and it is far better to air these with the deputy head, or whichever member of staff is responsible for supply cover, than to brood on them. If you are prepared for the unexpected and ask for help when you need it, supply teaching can be an enjoyable and worthwhile experience.
And don't forget to get your time sheet signed.