In supply and under demand
Managing an unknown class of unruly Year 9 pupils in the last period on a Friday is most teachers' idea of hell. For supply teachers, it's the nature of the job. Whether parachuted in to provide emergency cover or placed on longer term contracts, supply teachers often appear to get all the worst bits of the job - such as financial insecurity and lack of respect from pupils (and some teachers) - and none of the perks.
But there are ways of turning supply teaching into a positive experience, whether you're looking for a step up the career ladder or your first permanent job. And there are teachers who choose to make a career out of supply rather than taking up a full-time post.
Lynn Hotton, who won this year's Supply Teacher of the Year Award from the Recruitment amp; Employment Confederation, says: "I was offered a brilliant job starting in January, at a top secondary school in Milton Keynes and turned it down because I don't want to work in the evenings, which shows how much I value supply teaching."
Lynn left her full-time post as head of RE at Kingsbrook School in Deanshanger, Northamptonshire, in July 2006 to devote more time to charity work in the Middle East. She has been visiting the region for 30 years, but quitting her full-time job lets her dedicate more of her time - usually three trips a year, sometimes up to a month each visit - to the youth club and children's activities she runs in Bethlehem.
"Being a supply teacher gives me choice and control over when I can take time off," says Lynn.
There are just under 46,000 supply teachers registered with the General Teaching Councils for England and Wales. The General Teaching Council for Scotland does not publish figures. Rates of pay vary by region and who's in charge of payroll, whether it's the local education authority, an agency or school. You can expect to earn a similar amount as a full-time teacher, although you won't get paid during school holidays.
"Nutty Supplier", a primary school teacher from Cumbria, took up supply teaching six years ago. She now runs www.supplybag.co.uk, an online forum, and loves the perks of supply teaching. "I work fewer hours, have less commitment and responsibility, experience less stress, and can take time off when I need to - for the same wage," she says.
The variety of the job also keeps her interested in the profession. "Although I loved the schools and the children I worked with when I was a full-time teacher, when the initial joys of having my own class and classroom faded, cabin fever set in. Despite changing schools once, year group four times, and classrooms five times, I'd had enough after five years."
But supply teaching doesn't suit everyone. Richard Ratcliff has been working as a supply teacher in secondary schools in Kent since retiring as an English teacher in 2006. "You wouldn't last in this job if you were a bit of a wallflower," he says. "It's the last thing I'd ever recommend an NQT or young teacher did, as it's all about image, appearance and manner, which I'm afraid comes with age."
That's not good news for the 2,700 new teachers England's GTC estimates to be working as supply teachers since qualifying. But even if it's not an ideal situation for an eager, freshly qualified teacher to dive straight into the deep end, many agencies claim that supply is one of the best routes into a permanent post and the experience it offers could even boost your CV along the way.
One of the most frustrating aspects of supply teaching is waiting for the phone to ring with news of that day's assignment. But there's nothing to stop teachers from making the first move, as Nutty Supplier discovered: "I initially called the local county council and asked if I could be put on its supply teachers' list. I was advised to call back in 18 months as it had more than enough teachers.
"Knowing that there was a need for supply teachers in my area (outside of the natural administrative area of my county council), I phoned 13 schools and asked if they would be interested in taking a look at my CV with a view to me undertaking supply work in the future. I then hand-delivered my CV and covering letter to them, and was offered four days' work starting the next day at the first school."
There are at least 950 recruitment agencies across England, Scotland and Wales specialising in supply teaching, and teachers can register with as many as they want. To get the most out of the relationship, supply teachers need to keep in regular contact with the agency - and good agencies shouldn't discourage teachers from calling frequently.
At the same time, the agency should be doing everything in its power to secure the teacher a job and support them in their career.
"We ask them what kind of professional development they want to do, so as soon as a course comes up they get an invite," says Jean Wilson, performance director at Axcis Education. "We also have a resource library they can use if they need to do any photocopying or preparation."
Once a supply position becomes available, candidates should expect a comprehensive brief - not just about the requirements of the position that's being covered but also information on the school and what stage in the curriculum the pupils have reached in order to be fully prepared for their day of teaching.
For last-minute postings this isn't always possible, so do some homework about the schools in the area beforehand and prepare some stock lesson material just in case.
Indeed, being organised is one of the core skills necessary for making a success out of supply teaching. The Teacher Support Network has a checklist (see panel, right) on its website (www.teacher support.info) for supply teachers to help them manage the stress of being regularly dropped into a new environment.
The network also encourages schools to write checklists for inducting supply teachers, outlining the school's behaviour policy, including a map of the buildings and naming a teacher that the supply teacher can approach for help if needed.
Supply teachers also have to be fairly bold; walking into a room of unfamiliar faces - whether the staffroom or classroom - can be daunting.
"It's like starting a new job every day," says Laura Silverdale, managing director at A+ Teachers and a former secondary teacher. "But if you are positive, show willing and do your best, you will be offered more work."
John Dunn, director at Select Education, is still stunned when he hears stories about supply teachers who arrive at a school, teach and leave at the end of the day without speaking to another soul.
"One of the best adverts for an individual supply teacher is him or herself, so make yourself known to senior staff so that they get to understand what you're capable of and invite you back," he says.
If you're using supply as a route to find a permanent post, use the experience gained in teaching at different types of schools to your advantage; you'll certainly have seen a variety of management styles and strategies for tackling pupil behaviour along the way.
"You've got breadth of experience, which is important, and if you've been successful as a supply teacher it also means you've been flexible, as it's quite difficult to go into a new organisation, pick up what's required of you and function well," says Margaret Adams, author of How to Take Charge of Your Teaching Career.
Whatever you do, don't feel the need to apologise for doing supply work. "Be positive about what you've done and be totally honest," she says. "If you couldn't get a permanent job, tell them, `I want to be a teacher and this is the only way I could get in to begin'."
If you're still feeling despondent after a tough day at school, Nutty Supplier has this advice: "The first day is usually the worst. I cried at the end of my first day and vowed never to go back to the school again. But it's now the school I spend most of my week in."
Your checklist should include
- A clear idea of how the lesson is going to go before you even step into the classroom.
- Three or four basic ground rules that you constantly enforce during the lesson.
- Firm, fair and consistent use of rewards and sanctions.
- Keeping accurate records of any challenging behaviour exhibited by pupils.
- Demonstrating that you value the school and its pupils.
- Making allowances for errors by the pupils, the staff and yourself.
- Avoiding physical contact with pupils unless reasonable force must be employed (as a last resort).
- Displaying a sense of humour and a caring attitude.
Source: Teacher Support Network
Make a career of supply teaching
Have goals and objectives
Remain positive about what you want to get out of supply teaching, treat it as a career choice and determine how you plan to use it to advance your career.
Be a model teacher
Work hard at overcoming the outdated stereotype that supply teachers can't hold down a permanent job. Be flexible, do the work that's expected of you, leave notes for the teacher whose class you're covering and follow school policy.
Be prepared and command the classroom
Do your homework about the school you're working at, the subject you're covering and turn up on time. In the classroom, have a lesson plan, lay down some basic guidelines and don't just resort to worksheets.
Track your experience
You're in charge of your career, so learn from the best practices seen at different schools, ask for references and make yourself known to key people - such as the head of department or headteacher - who could one day be your boss.
Don't give up
Like any teacher, you'll have good and bad days. Accept this and move on. If you're really struggling, talk to a supportive teacher at the school, your recruitment agency (if you used one to get the job) or the Teacher Support Network for advice.