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A guide to the 'unknown school' for supply teachers

Our secret supply teacher shares their advice on how to scope out a school you haven't taught at before

supply teacher

Our secret supply teacher shares their advice on how to scope out a school you haven't taught at before

The day-to-day supply teacher is often faced with the problem of agreeing to work in a school they know nothing about. When the early morning call comes in, there’s no time to read the latest Ofsted report, ring around colleagues for reviews, or check the crime statistics for the local area. It’s a snap decision. You’re either in or you’re out. For any supply teacher who wants to get an indication of what they might be facing, and especially for those who are about to take their first steps into the unpredictable world of cover teaching, here is a guide to help recognise what kind of place you’ve ended up in today.

The name

As I’ve mentioned before, a growing number of fancy new academy schools have given themselves names which convey a sense of order and aspiration. The truth is more often that such names are merely one element of a cosmetic rebrand. The school may have received a fresh coat of paint (or more likely a squillion-pound PFI bung) and a team of fresh-faced, fast-tracked leaders, but will still have the same catalogue of social problems. Enter the Elysian Fields City Academy at your peril.

The location

There was a time when schools were built in the heart of the community. Kids could pop to the local sweetshop on the journey to school or dash out to Greggs for a sausage roll at lunch, while teachers could nip to the pub for a midday pint. A growing number of schools are now being located on industrial estates and business parks, in settings reminiscent of a dystopian JG Ballard novel. With no escape and isolated from the forces of informal social control, ie you're not going to bump into your mum's friend as you tag the bus shelter or throw a Year 7 kid’s shoes on the roof of a passing lorry, it has the effect of sending everyone a little stir crazy. If the zoning is more light industrial than residential, be ready for some grade A (or should that be level 9?) mischief-making.

The uniforms

This is a tricky one. If the kids are in pristine uniforms with elegantly tied Windsor knots, skirts at a regulation knee-length and not a sportswear label in sight, it could be a good sign or a very bad one. A uniform worn with pride could certainly indicate a student body with a genuine respect for their school. On the other hand, all too often an overzealous approach to uniform by SLT signals a very strict regime. Which might seem like a good thing but there are two problems with this. First, focusing on uniform can be a sign of a lazy management who are unwilling to engage with a more thoughtful approach to education, or to recognise and celebrate creativity and individualism. Secondly, if that is the kind of ship they're running, you can bet that given the slightest opportunity to cut loose and rebel, those kids will grab it with both ink-stained hands. As a supply teacher, you, my friend, are that opportunity. 

The support staff

Take notice of the physical build of the first member of support staff you encounter (not in a weird way!). It might be the person on the school gates, it might be the caretaker, or maybe the receptionist. If they look more like the door staff at your local nightclub, then you’re probably in for a challenging day. It’s not a foolproof method by any means, but in some schools, physical presence is worth more than a folder full of teaching qualifications and CPD certificates. Then again, maybe they actually are the bouncer at the local nightclub too – school support staff don’t get paid a whole lot.

The general vibe

OK, this is clearly more about experience and intuition than anything concrete, but the more you do this job, the more you learn to pick up on the subtle cues and background noise of the school. A perfectly stacked pile of prospectuses in reception, the smell of air freshener (as opposed to mildew and farts), the warm laughter of the office staff as you sign in, these are all indications that you’re in a good place. A harassed, sweaty teacher at the school gates barking orders at the kids to tuck their shirts in, keep the noise down and “walk properly” (?), not so much.

In the end, it’s the not knowing that makes the job fun. Kind of. And anyway, once you’ve worked out what sort of school you’re in, you’ve already signed on for the day and you’re stuck with the gig. But you know what they say, forewarned is forearmed. At least you don’t have to go back again tomorrow.

The writer has recently taken up supply teaching after 20 years in a full-time teaching job

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