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Not a job for the inexperienced

Supply teaching is not for everyone, Brenda Jennings agrees, as she responds to a colleague's advice.

Judith Fryer's recent article "Hard choice and not a soft option" (TESScotland, September 30), caused my defence mechanism to kick in after 34 years as a full-time and supply teacher in England and Scotland.

It reinforced my ongoing protestations that supply teaching is not for the inexperienced. It is not a soft or easy option. It is tough and a choice many teachers simply would not entertain, preferring the security and stability of their own school and class.

The fact that Judith was struggling to cope with the incessant variety and change of supply teaching, as a newly qualified teacher, made this all too clear.

I am not altogether convinced that people coming into the profession as a second career later in life have the same feelings and attitude to the job as those who, like myself, decided at 4 years old that teaching was to be their vocation. That is not to say that some teachers in this position do not succeed extremely well.

It was with great interest that I read Judith's tips for supply teachers.

"Tip 1: Don't even answer the telephone unless you're feeling bright that morning." I couldn't agree more. If you really do not want to be teaching that day, do not half-heartedly answer the early morning call. If you do, particularly if it is one of your regular schools, they will invariably persuade you to help them out.

"Tip 2: Don't contemplate taking on a day's supply teaching without a ring-binder full of worksheets spanning levels B to D. Divide this into maths and language, with an extra section of miscellaneous goods." This throws up a couple of points for contention.

The ring-binder full of various worksheets is no longer necessary due to a rigid curriculum and the pre-planned teacher's diary invariably left on the desk (a mandatory requirement in most schools these days). This usually has fairly specific instructions, indicating page numbers in textbooks and workbooks for the core subjects. If the teacher has not managed to plan in advance, a year group partner, the children or a member of promoted staff will usually point you in the right direction.

As to Judith's further advice of "don't feel obliged to follow the timetable", I think you will find in most schools that it is absolutely obligatory that the timetable is followed to the letter wherever possible.

With older children, setting for maths and language will probably be in place, which of course must be adhered to. A couple of short story books, poetry books (preferably humorous ones) and standby activities are, however, worth carrying with you, just in case.

I do not think most supply teachers have the luxury of choice when it comes to Judith's third tip: "Do not attempt a physical education, drama or music lesson with a class you do not know." If the curriculum states that you do drama, music or PE, then that's what you do.

Judith's reason for not doing them - "it gives the children the ideal opportunity to lead you a dance" - is perfectly valid but in reality just won't wash.

With time, you learn to pre-empt potentially difficult situations. Prepare the children before you leave the class for the gym, music room or drama room (usually now referred to as the GP - general purpose - room) and make sure they understand the consequences if they misbehave, having previously discussed sanctions or help with time out with another teacher or member of the promoted staff, especially if it is a challenging class.

The children have to know who is boss and how far they can go. They have to be clear that you mean what you say, and you have to be clear that you have the means to back up the consequences of ignoring your warnings or you could have a pretty miserable day.

Once the ground rules are set, it minimises the likelihood of problems occurring during the lesson. You want to enjoy your time with them, not have 30-odd children run roughshod over you, which can all too easily happen.

They say that one man's meat is another man's poison. All the things which Judith dislikes and dreads about supply teaching are the things which I relish, enjoying the ever-changing variety of different schools, different classes and different ages. There is nothing more satisfying to me than winning over a challenging class.

As one who has experienced many aspects of teaching, including working with severely disabled children in a class of four for a year (one of the best experiences of my life, but not for me long-term) and support for learning with small groups, I take my hat off to Judith because support for learning is not a route which I would take.

She has found her niche in an unexpected place, which is wonderful, but give me a rowdy bunch of 10-year-olds that no one else will touch with a barge pole for a few weeks and I will rise to the challenge every time.

There have been a few close calls but there hasn't been a class that has beaten me yet!

Brenda Jennings is a primary supply teacher in West Lothian

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