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Tales of the unexpected

Supply teachers must be ready for anything. Victoria Forsyth passes on a few tips after an unpredictable, yet rewarding, first year

Are you a proper teacher, miss?" "How long are you here for?" "Which is your car?" "Are you married?" These are just a few of the questions you can expect to be asked as a supply teacher.

Ihave just completed my first year of supply teaching and, as an NQT, I think it went rather well. I decided to go on supply because I was used to contract work and the flexibility and variety it provides.

I have been kept busy throughout the year and, although service and payment varies between agencies, I can highly recommend Teaching Personnel, Capstan and Select Education.

Each agency works with a pool of schools and it is easy to become a "regular". On a number of occasions I have been requested by schools, so, even if you are only on a day's placement, it is vital that you make an impression. Talk to the staff, make a positive contribution and let the co-ordinator know your name.

I trained in secondary English but, on as a supply teacher, you have to expect anything from general cover to subjects you know nothing about. In primary and middle schools I taught everything from PE to cookery.

One thing I learnt very quickly. You must, at all times, go prepared. Even when my placement officer assures me work is set, I have a few ideas in mind. I recently went to a school which assured me lesson plans would be provided, but on arrival was asked: "So, what are you going to do with them?" Luckily, I have a drama background and this has proved invaluable. From Years 5 to 9, a one-off drama lesson always goes down well. The pupils see it as fun and you can get to know them quickly.

I know drama isn't every teacher's idea of fun. The thought of 30 unruly kids can be daunting, especially if your room is what I call an "uncontrolled environment", such as a sports hall. I've already lost count of the number of "drama studios" that turn out to be nothing more than a gymnasium. In this kind of environment, I tend to give a quieter lesson.

My favourite stand-by is what I call my "truth or lie" lesson. Each pupil writes down two true things about themselves and one lie. The other pupils have to guess which one is the lie. This too, is a very good way to get to know the kids and always goes down well.

Another thing the supply teacher must have is a huge bag of provisions. I think my left shoulder has drooped to elbow level from carrying my bag around North and West Yorkshire and Lancashire. I always have a mug (there aren't always spares in the staffroom), spoon, hot chocolate, and packed lunch. And this is before I even think about classroom provisions, such as lesson plans, books and the obligatory pens and pencils - which are usually returned dried or chewed.

Then I have my trusty video with a few BBC2 programmes on sums and spelling - always a good idea if you have access to a television.

A middle school once informed me I was to go swimming with a Year 5 group, so a whole change of outfit was needed too.

One of my placements began as a two-day stint and lasted five months. During that time, I planned schemes of work for key stages 3 and 4, marked assignments, prepared a Year 9 group for their national assessments, wrote reports and was inspected by OFSTED. In this job, you really don't know where the morning phone call will lead you.

My brief experience has been a very exciting and rewarding one. I have travelled the length and breadth of several counties, and had the pleasure of meeting some extraordinary teachers - and some pretty amazing pupils too.

I will never forget the middle school in Shipley, West Yorkshire, where the headmaster kept three beautiful dogs (salukis) in his office. Nor will I forget some smart lads who assured me that their lesson finished 20 minutes before it actually did. But when you're stuck in a mobile classroom with no clock and no timetable, what can you do?

Supply teaching is demanding. You never know where you'll end up and there's no guarantee that you'll like it. I've been to several schools I was only too glad to see the back of after one day. But, on the whole, teachers are supportive and agencies are helpful if you want to limit travel or the age range or subject area you teach.

If you are on a teacher training course and unsure what kind of school you'd like to find a permanent post in, then supply is an excellent way to gain rich and varied experience. As with any teaching post, the learning curve is steep: you really do have to think on your feet. But isn't that one of the reasons we all choose to teach? Yes, it is tiring, demanding and, at times, frustrating, but at least you can never complain you are bored.

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