Supply is demanding

16th February 2001 at 00:00
Brenda Jennings is a survivor of the minefield that is called the staff room, but supply teaching does have some more positive elements

To survive in the jungle of supply teaching you need to possess the resilience of a rubber doorstopper, the versatility of a chameleon and the hide of a pachyderm. And that's on a good day.

My long and varied experience stands me in good stead and I'm too long in the tooth to be bugged by suspicious looks, forced questions or just simply being ignored. But heaven help anyone experiencing for the first time the lion's den of an alien staff room.

Let's assume you've had the desperate phone call, agreed to rush to the rescue of the frazzled headteacher and have finally found the school.

You've circled the building three times in search of some recognisable main entrance. You've arrived conscientiously early, without the necessary swipe card of course, and if you can find someone to respond to your frenzied ringing of the door buzzer, you are doing well. Eventually the hurdle is overcome and you are in.

If orienteering is one of your strengths then you might remember where to find the staff room, office and ladies toilet as they are pointed out to you when you rush past, but in my experience directions have to be sought a second time at least.

Although the day seems to have gone on forever and been fraught with obstacles, it's only 8.30am and you are standing alone in the classroom, where, if you are lucky, there will be a well-written and obvious daily diary and plenty of strategically placed resources. It is only by chance, much later in the day, that you discover that most previous supply teachers to this particular school have failed to return after their first visit.

In they trot and the momentary peace is shattered; 27 eight-year-olds who think they have you sussed by the time they have unpacked their bags and reached their desks. They'll learn. After we have introduced ourselves they decide that this is the time to start "trying it on".

"Can I sit next to so and so?" My answer is in the negative - which is one of their favourites. I don't know how many times I've been told, "John isn't allowed to sit next to Jamie" after I've just given permission for the said move.

Or "We don't do it like that," is answered, while smiling sweetly, forced control in my voice, with "Well we are today, OK?" Any deviation from their daily routine is not greeted kindly either. Ask what time first break or lunch is with younger children, and you are bombarded with blank stares or a variety of times from which you can pick the most likely. By break time we've usually all come to an understanding and know who's the boss.

Being at a disadvantage where they know your name and you don't know theirs can be quite frustrating but there will be about four names in every class that are well-established in your memory by the time the morning register is taken.

Break time arrives and one way or another the staff room is found. My survival kit of coffee, mug, teaspoon and chocolate biscuits is the best way to avoid any problems with staff members. It is usually acceptable to use the hot water provided so as yet I've not had to resort to bringing in a steaming flask of my own.

You require independence and self-sufficiency in the conversation department as to most of the staff you are invisible. Either no-one will speak to you or the onewith verbal diarrhoea will find you and you are trapped.

There is nothing stranger than a bunch of teachers together - especially female ones. Individuals with some degree of ignorance and a greater degree of bad manners will sit with their back to you, talk across you as if you aren't there, or offer around donated chocolates to everyone except you.

At least morning break is mercifully short and by the time you have made and had your coffee, visited the toilet and washed your mug, you can escape back to the delights of the classroom. By now of course, your poor, sweet, badly-done-to bunch have thought of new and innovative ways to test your nerve.

Ducking and diving, experience and your own selection of tried and tested strategies get you through the morning - then comes the real test of the day. Forty-five minutes in the staff room will sort out the men from the boys. Usually it's the same scenario as before only requiring greater endurance on your part to survive for longer. Attempts to be friendly are sometimes reciprocated, especially if another supply teacher happens to be there, glad to have a chat and trade techniques.

As part of the aforesaid survival kit you should always carry something to read, so that instead of sitting feeling like the proverbial spare part you can immerse yourself in your literature. You can, of course, excuse yourself early on the pretext of doing some marking back in the classroom. I favour this option.

The end of the day does come, eventually. Your challenging and partly won-over charges have departed and all that remains is to obtain a signature on your "green form". Although, of course, you do the job for love, being paid is somewhat of an incentive to continue.

All you require is one promoted member of staff to sign this form, and suddenly this buzzing, throbbing establishment has turned in to the "Marie Celeste" with no-one with the necessary credentials anywhere in sight.

How often have I returned to the classroom, form signed, to tidy up and leave the class as I would wish to find it, when some gregarious cleaning lady comes in for a chat while she busies about her work. It is like a breath of fresh air to hear a friendly voice. You can often rely on the non-teaching staff to give you a lift and restore your faith in human nature.

Luckily the type of schools I have targeted do not reflect supply teaching in its entirety. I am aware that many of the attitudes encountered evolve from ignorance rather than design, but they need to be addressed to make supply teachers feel more welcome and valued.

I have often thought that being presented, on the first day of arrival at the school, with a small, informative booklet containing such information as school times, a labelled plan of the building and names of key staff, teaching and non-teaching, would be a godsend to supply teachers. Something for serious consideration perhaps?

On the positive side, some schools are a delight to work in, and revisiting a familiar school where you are well-established can be both rewarding and enjoyable.

Remember also, short term supply teaching does not carry with it the baggage of writing reports, having to be there for parents' evenings or slogging over the dreaded forward plans. These are surely good reasons for putting up with some of the tougher elements of the job and emerging, smiling, out of the dark tunnel.

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