Many stressed staff find that switching to supply teaching gives them the time and space to reassess their careers. Janet Murray reports
If you feel you are heading for burn-out, a spell of supply teaching could help recharge your batteries. Reduced workload, flexible working hours and a break from staffroom politics are just some of the perks that supply gives you. But before you take the plunge, make sure you've weighed up the pros and cons.
Maria Wilmot has been a supply teacher for three years. An English teacher from Bristol, she gave up her full-time job to reduce her stress levels. "I was going through a very difficult period in my life," she says. "My marriage ended and I was left with two small children to bring up on my own. I had a full teaching load and I was the school literacy co-ordinator, which involved a lot of extra work. Something had to give. I couldn't afford not to work, so after a lot of thought, I decided to resignI " But while supply teaching offered Ms Wilmot greater flexibility and the chance to spend more time with her children, she was nervous about the prospect of working in many different schools.
"You hear so many horror stories about supply teaching, especially in rough schools," she says. "Classroom management is one of my strong points, but in a strange school, where you don't know any names or the system, teachers are incredibly vulnerable.
"I'd heard of supply teachers being sworn at, spat at and even attacked. I was also nervous about the prospect of walking into a new school every day and feeling like the 'new girl'.
"Staffrooms can be insular places and something as simple as sitting in the wrong seat or borrowing someone's coffee mug can get people's backs up.
After teaching at the same school for eight years, the thought of having to tiptoe around strangers didn't appeal."
Nevertheless, she signed up with a number of recruitment agencies. To maintain some stability in her working life, she also wrote to secondary schools in her area, enclosing her CV and stating her availability for supply work.
She followed up her letters with phone calls to headteachers and her persistence paid off. One head asked her to attend an informal interview and offered her one day a week teaching key stage 3 booster lessons to small groups. Another offered her three weeks of cover for an English teacher about to undergo an operation.
Since becoming a supply teacher, Ms Wilmot has worked three or four days a week during term time. "I'm regularly asked to do supply at local schools, where I've got to know some of the staff and students," she says. "I have also done agency work, which wasn't half as daunting as I expected and I've started doing private tuition from home."
Science teacher Paul Diamond decided to become a supply teacher after a new head of department arrived at his school. "We just didn't click," he says.
"We disagreed on many aspects of teaching and learning, and any ideas I had about how to improve the department were dismissed immediately. I was working really hard, but I didn't get any recognition for it. I started to become de-motivated and questioned whether I wanted to teach at all.
"In the end, I decided to take some time out and rethink my career plans.
I've been a supply teacher for more than a year and I've enjoyed it. I've done one long-term contract, lasting half a term, but mostly short-term work. I love the fact that I still get to interact with young people - which was what attracted me to teaching in the first place - and I'm also getting the chance to find out about different schools in the area."
John Dunn, director of Select Education, an education staffing agency, says more teachers are choosing to be "professional" supply teachers. "At one time, teachers did supply work because they couldn't get a permanent post.
Today, that's just not the case," he says.
"Often it's a lifestyle choice for people who want a more flexible way of working. And particularly at secondary level, supply teachers get to call the shots, especially in shortage subjects such as science. They're very much in demand."
Select Education estimates that more than half of its teachers are looking for long-term supply work - usually half a term or more. Others prefer the variety involved in short-term work, often arranged daily or at short notice.
Mr Diamond decided to use a recruitment agency to find supply work, as it deals with personnel matters, including salary payments, tax and employers'
national insurance. Some agencies offer access to teachers' pensions schemes and holiday pay entitlement. Many local authorities now have their own supply services which offer access to pensions and training opportunities. Daily rates of pay vary, but can be as much as pound;140, depending on experience and qualifications, so shop around before committing to an agency. Because of the varied nature of her work, Ms Wilmot prefers to be self-employed and makes her own pension arrangements.
While supply offers great flexibility, it does not usually offer sick pay.
A teacher may be eligible for statutory sick pay if they have had continuous employment for 13 weeks, but as supply teachers can have unusual work patterns, they should check their position with their local benefits agency. Many insurance providers offer income protection, which can be paid monthly, but can prove expensive. Alternatively, many supply teachers choose to save in case of illness or a lull in supply work.
Mr Diamond believes his time as a supply teacher has revived his enthusiasm for the job: he is now looking for a full-time teaching post. But how will his spell of supply teaching be viewed by prospective employers?
Geoff Wybar, headteacher at Gravesend grammar school, admits he would be cautious. "I'd need to see some explanation in the covering letter as to why the applicant had been doing supply work," he says. "I do see the advantages of working in a variety of schools, although I wonder whether the teacher found it difficult to settle or build relationships. I'd be interested to hear how they thought their experiences as a supply teacher had enhanced their teaching skills. But if the applicant was a good candidate, with a strong CV and reference, they'd stand as good a chance as anyone."