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Elements of supply

So you've decided to start doing supply teaching, but don't do anything until you've read this. Meabh Ritchie discovers what you need to survive

So you've decided to start doing supply teaching, but don't do anything until you've read this. Meabh Ritchie discovers what you need to survive

After doing a couple of PGCE placements, most new teachers can't wait to have their own classes and start settling into school. But with only one-third of NQTs now getting permanent posts after qualifying, supply teaching is an option that can't be ignored, even if it's just with a view to getting something permanent.

However, you must be aware that the clock starts ticking on your 16-month induction period as soon as you start supply teaching (see page ix).

Even before you start working, apply for a Criminal Records Bureau (CRB) check. This can often take about six weeks to process but supply teaching agencies won't take on any teachers without it. You could send your CV to schools directly, but signing up to agencies maximizes your chance of getting work, even if they do take a percentage of your pay. It's worth contacting a few to find out the rates of pay, as this can vary from pound;75 to pound;160 depending on the available posts and the area where you are looking.

Few teachers go in to education because of a love of behaviour management. But knowing how to handle a class of disruptive youngsters is crucial for supply teachers, as pupils will try to push the boundaries if they know you're only there for a day or two.

"Regular lines I hear are: `Our teacher does this.' or: `We don't do it that way' or even: `Yes, miss, I am allowed to sit on the computer for the entire literacy lesson'," says Kerry Barker (not her real name), a secondary supply teacher in London.

Ask about the school's behaviour policy before you step foot in a classroom and find out the name of the head of year so that you have some effective penalties to use. Schools won't necessarily offer you the support but it will be there if you ask for it, says Laura McGowan, a primary supply teacher in south London.

"When you arrive, don't just go into the staff room as directed by reception, but ask any teacher you find to take you to your classroom and quizz them on the way."

Sadly, even supply teachers cannot get out of the early morning starts. Supply agencies will be calling you from 7.30am and your day will be much easier if you manage to get into class at least 45 minutes before the pupils arrive.

"This will make sure that you have time to ask about behaviour policy, read the lesson plans and get to know your equipment," says Ms McGowan. "You can even read some of their exercise books to see what kind of standard to expect."

Teaching is often referred to as a performance, but this is even more true for supply teachers, who have a limited period of time to get pupils' attention, maintain some kind of order and, if they're lucky, cover the work that has been set. Anna Carlile, secondary education lecturer at Goldsmiths University, has worked as a supply teacher herself and says you need to work even harder on keeping the pupils engaged.

"It's good to have a couple of tricks up your sleeve," says Ms Carlile, who used to have a DVD or a game on hand for when the class were getting distracted. "I know someone who had tattoos, and when the class were playing up she would roll up her sleeves and immediately the class would be intrigued."

For primary classes or younger year groups in secondary schools, wordsearches are a great way to buy a bit of time. "You can base these on the season, or even better, if you've been in there before and know what the class is doing as a theme, base it around that," says Ms McGowan. "They're great to keep in your bag as a handy starter so you have a bit of calm while you frantically log on to the interactive whiteboard."

Supply teaching is a great opportunity to get experience at different schools and with different children. You might find you have a talent for a particular age group or ability level.

Ms Carlile advises taking work in SEN schools: "When else are you going to be able to spend a week with a group of autistic kids?" she says.

Those new teachers not as outgoing or comfortable with the performance elements of supply teaching might also want to consider working as a TA from time to time. "The pay isn't too much lower and it can allow you to take an observant role," says Ms Carlile.

There's no getting away from the fact that the supply market is tough. The introduction of cover supervisors means there is much less of a need for schools to bring in supply teachers, unless a teacher is off for more than three days. But once you get into a school and make a good impression, it's very likely you will be asked back and it may even lead to a permanent job.

"Staff at a school I was in today were saying that they rarely have to advertise for a post," says Ms Carlisle. "They'll often offer posts to supply teachers who impress on the job."

It might not be your first choice but supply teaching can give you the opportunity to see what schools suit you and could be the stepping stone to a permanent position.

Top tips

  • Make sure you understand the 16-month rule (see page ix).
  • Go to the early morning staff meeting. It's good to show your face and there might be something relevant about your class.
  • Always have a picture book, a DVD or a game with you to use as a discussion point.
  • Be flexible: you're not always going to be in your comfort zone, but learn to go with the flow.
  • Find out the school's behaviour policy so you know the protocol.
  • Don't be afraid to ask. Senior management will be glad you've shown initiative.
  • Approach your supply work as an extended interview - it might get you a job.
  • If you think you're being underpaid, contact your union to check the norm.

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