‘Supply teaching is harder than I expected, but it’s still better than teaching full-time’

Teaching supply seemed like a good way for this former teacher to warm up to returning to the profession full-time, but she is already having second thoughts about coming back


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I left teaching in 2011 after a difficult time in my life. I was a head of department in a school that I didn’t fit into. I’ve often likened being a happy member of a school to choosing the house you want to make your home; some just don’t appeal or work out, however hard you try.

I had already spent time off ill with stress and just wanted to get out of teaching and shake the dust off my feet as I left.

After five years out of the profession, I decided to dip my toe back in and try supply teaching. But rather than encouraging me to return to the profession full-time, the experience has simply confirmed to me that I made the right choice to leave, especially given the changes that have been made in the time I was away.

As it turns out, supply teaching is no picnic. Recently, I’ve been doing quite a lot of longer-term supply work. You get a better rate, but once you take the holidays out of the equation then you stand to lose some money. I’m currently £5,000 worse off from my expected pay rate, never mind losing my upper pay scale benefit.

Feelings of abandonment

I‘m afforded considerable preparation time during the week because the classes you get tend to have had several previous supply teachers and their experience can best be described as "varied".

The biggest problem I have with supply is the feeling of abandonment. You’re issued with a paper register but no photographs; you’re given a verbal run-through of the consequences, but not the means to implement them; you’re expected to know what to do, but no one has really told you.

Supply can be exhausting. You spend a lot of time firefighting and have to be a certain sort of person to step into the pit of wolves with so little support.

And yet from my very first day as a supply teacher, I knew that I was still better off than I had been when teaching full-time. The second I stepped through the school doors, all I could see were frazzled teachers, who weren’t being allowed to do their jobs properly.

In the time I’ve spent out of the profession (and let's not forget, this is a profession), ridiculous marking schedules have taken over, with teachers often being expected to stick to a two-week turnaround. I have no idea where this has come from, but I have seen good teachers leave due to the pressure.

When you mark to targets like these, feedback loses its impact. In my humble opinion, it’s simply become another means to track whether a teacher is doing a good job, particularly with record keeping. This type of marking hasn’t made teachers better predictors of achievement, because letters and numbers don’t involve the human element that is the student. 

'Free of the relentless pressure'

I was appalled when, in one school, I heard a headteacher say to a group of parents, “There are no bad students, only bad lessons." Why would I want to commit to teaching full-time and accept a life of living to work, not working to live, if that is the mantra of senior leaders?

In another school, I watched one well-respected head of department being held up as an exemplary teacher by the senior leadership, only for her to then openly attribute her success to the fact that she had no social life, partner or children and often finds herself marking on a Saturday night. If these are the standards that teachers are expected to meet, no wonder it is not sustainable for so many of us to stay teaching full-time.

Supply teaching has its problems. You face a constant lack of priority with textbooks and a persistent fight to access the photocopier. It isn’t unusual to not even be offered a hot drink whilst in a school. Perhaps I should resurrect my plaid thermos?

However, the beauty of supply is that there are plenty of jobs out there to be covered. If you don’t like the school you’re at, you can always walk away, confident in the knowledge that you can be somewhere else next week.

Most importantly, you are free of the relentless pressures that made me leave teaching in the first place. My time as a supply teacher was only meant to be temporary. But now, I’m not so sure about that.

The writer is a supply teacher in the East Midlands.

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