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One-day courses leave teaching agencies rubbing their hands with glee. But often the job satisfaction for the covering supply teacher is inversely proportionate to the agency's profit, writes Jenifer Smith.

I was a primary supply teacher who willingly forfeited the benefits of a permanent position for flexibility. But I often dreaded new assignments. Why?

Plunging into a new classroom with 30 unfamiliar faces is guaranteed to start your heart racing.

To start, finding the school can be hard work. The day will pass quickly, I would reassure myself, as I drove past the one-way street for the third time.

Once I had found the school - and the entrance - the "official" start to my day was finding the secretary's office and the person who was to tell me what class I had and if there was any planned work. I used to call the school beforehand, but the implicit response was that "supply" meant "come equipped".

I usually spent the next few minutes looking for clues to the children's ability levels. Groups were often listed, but I never mastered the art of knowing if they were in ascending or descending order. I couldn't therefore "match" the work and the day was disrupted with bewildered or bored children.

With a quick glance at the timetable (ften hidden in the paperwork), I would begin a search for the photocopier. Then I would pounce on people in the corridor to ask which door the children entered by; did I need to collect them and was there an assembly today?

Depending on the information available, I would consider my "control" options. Too strict, and there would be tears, too friendly, chaos. While there is no easy answer to discipline problems in inner-city schools, it amazes me how few schools have a policy or, if they do, tell their supply teachers about it. Even if, at the end of the day, I'd managed to get a cup of tea (many teachers are possessive about their crockery), I'd often feel the day had been wasted.

Schools are under pressure, but need to ensure that in a teacher's absence the good work continues. Providing detailed instructions and basic plans helps to establish a calm and ordered day in which the supply teacher can actually teach. If I ever again have to scan my A to Z with one eye on the clock, it would help to know that this information is on the desk, in the classroom, in the school, in the street I still can't quite find.

Jenifer Smith taught in primary schools for several years. She is now head of training for the child protection charity, Kidscape

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