When I qualified as a teacher, I went straight into supply work. It was during a global pandemic: I had a full timetable, and no mentor or formal support. It sounds like chaos, right? But in reality, it was more like constructive chaos.
A day’s supply teaching is nothing like teacher training. Everything comes at you so fast: the lessons you have to deliver, registers, finding the classrooms – and you don’t have time to worry about what people think of your teaching.
There is pressure when you’re trying to get a lesson started, settle a class and get your laptop to work but, once these elements are sorted out and you’ve got students working away, you have a moment of realisation: no one is watching you and you’ve done it, all on your own.
The experience improved my teaching – and I learned so much.
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As a supply teacher, you have to think on your feet and react in a way you don’t as a trainee, when you have another teacher in the classroom. This builds resilience in way that training just doesn't.
Preparation time is a problem in supply teaching: often you get five minutes (if that!) to read through a PowerPoint and decide the best way to deliver it. These lessons are a chance to hone your questioning and formative assessment skills: it doesn’t matter if you don’t know many of the students’ names because you can still use cold calling or thumbs up.
You also become an expert in adapting lessons on the basis of students’ prior knowledge. For instance, when teaching a lesson on An Inspector Calls, it quickly became clear that the Year 11s were hazy on the ideological differences between the Inspector and Mr Birling. So, I spent some time addressing this issue with the class before setting them a comparison exercise. It felt brilliant being able to adapt to students’ needs this way.
Even if it’s your subject specialism that you’re teaching, it is a huge challenge to deliver a lesson that you probably haven’t planned to a class that you don’t know, while likely grappling with a combination of IT and behavioural problems. We would never deliberately or knowingly put a trainee teacher into these challenging situations, so if you can calmly and competently handle them, the experience – and kudos – gained is invaluable.
Planning a lesson on the spot
Improvisation is a key skill for any teacher: and one I really needed on the last day of term before Christmas last year. I was sent to teach a Year 7 bubble, found I was the only English teacher around and with no work set, I had about 15 minutes to plan a lesson.
Knowing that it would be pointless trying to plan any written work on the last day of term, I put on Home Alone – afterwards, we deconstructed the film, discussing why we thought many Americans have such large houses, and surely you would be in intensive care if you had that many injuries? I compiled a quiz as well to check how observant the students had been during the film, which worked a treat.
Improved behaviour management
Being able to improvise, think on your feet and adapt to your students’ needs helps with behaviour management as well. Often, you don’t know the student’s name, let alone their special educational needs and disability (SEND) profile or history of “interesting” behaviour. But by being firm, consistent and setting expectations early on with every class that you have, this practice and experience will really help in developing your behaviour management strategies and classroom presence.
Nowadays, many teachers who I work with are surprised to find out that I am still an early career teacher: a few have thought that I am an experienced teacher because of my approach and presence.
In my view, the teaching profession underestimates the skills that it takes to undertake supply work. So, if you are prepared to take the plunge as an early career teacher and immerse yourself in the hectic world of supply, a world of enhanced knowledge, skills and experiences awaits you.
What’s more, it’s a good way to get noticed by other teachers, which might give you the edge should a permanent position come up for which you want to apply.
The writer is a supply teacher in Hampshire