Supply teachers are playing an increasingly large role in education. Anne Cox spells out the essentials for survival.
They check up on you all the time - it's unnerving." "They just expect you to get on with it. They don't seem to realise that you don't know anything about the school, or the children."
These quotes, revealing two different problems faced by supply teachers, may be discouraging to any students or newly-qualified teachers considering supply teaching as a way to gain experience and eventually a permanent post. Despite suggestions that it is an easy option, particularly by those who have never tried it, supply teaching is demanding, although it does have many advantages.
Because of the exacting nature of the job, local authorities have usually been reluctant to accept inexperienced teachers on to their supply lists. Supply teachers have traditionally been experienced women (and a few men) with family responsibilities. Of these, a fortunate few forged happy relationships with one or two schools, where they became known as a "proper teacher". The rest tended to manage as best they could teaching in a succession of unfamiliar situations. All this without support, training or even a book of advice and ideas.
In the past few years things have been changing rapidly. First came the recognition in the Eighties that training for returners and supply teachers was a good thing. Local authorities set up a variety of schemes similar to the one pioneered in West Sussex called Keeping in Touch with Teaching. One of the tasks of these schemes was to introduce the national curriculum to those returning to teach. At the same time, the realisation that supply teachers were playing an increasingly large role in education, especially in urban areas, led to the publication of books and resources which were geared to their particular needs.
However, just as all this was well under way, financial restraints and local management changed the situation yet again. Many training schemes, and their operating bases closed down, and those that remained could often only provide a much-reduced programme and increased charges. Schools could no longer afford to call out supply teachers frequently, nor could they employ as many permanent teachers as they would like - so more newly-qualified teachers and returners had to consider supply teaching.
So where does this leave the supply teacher? Some well-established supply teachers are still working at their chosen schools, although probably with less short-term work (days and half-days) and more longer-term spells such as maternity leaves, which may not suit everyone. Others are simply not being called out on a regular basis, as supply lists get longer and opportunities less frequent. Some of the country's larger cities have seen a growth in supply teacher agencies, which aim to match teachers to vacancies over a wider area than local authority boundaries.
In this climate, a prospective supply teacher needs to develop two strategies: one for initially "selling" themselves to schools and agencies, and the other to ensure repeat offers of work by providing high-quality teaching.
How do you become one of these sought-after supply teachers?
* Decide what sort of schools you want to teach in. For local authority schools you should contact the local education office to check their registration procedure.
* Contact any agencies in the area.
* Prepare a brief letter of introduction (not a CV) to send out to independent schools, and to local authority schools once you are registered. This should state when you are available, your specialisms and where you can be contacted. You will need to have a well-prepared CV ready to send when required.
* When deciding which schools to approach, don't forget to consider how you will get there.
There will probably now be a gap while you wait for administration and a flu epidemic. Don't waste it. Enquire about teachers' centres and training schemes in your area. Consider whether further study at adult education classes could strengthen certain curriculum areas. Think about local colleges, the Open University and other distance learning courses.
You may consider voluntary work in schools and youth organisations. This will help to build your confidence, put you in touch with education professionals, give you ideas and fill gaps in your CV.
Watch television. Schools broadcasts, programmes for or about the age group you teach. Anything connected with your subject will help to keep you up to date. Another way to keep in touch with developments in various subject areas is to join an organisation such as The Geographical Association, which will provide a range of information, publications, courses and conferences.
Read. Take every opportunity to look at books on educational matters, your subjects, children's books of all kinds (and of course The TES). When you are in a school, try to find time to look at the textbooks being used, and books available in the library and staffroom. Many organisations such as Oxfam, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and the World Wide Fund for Nature produce some excellent free, or inexpensive materials.
A source of inexpensive resources is vital for supply teachers who have to provide these for themselves. This does not mean that you have to buy textbooks for a whole class, but you will need a selection of books for yourself and also worksheets, artefacts, pictures, postcards, storybooks, poems, craft material and other items linked to your subject and age-range. Visit jumble and car-boot sales, charity shops - and tell your friends that you are collecting. Teachers' centres may have books, pamphlets, workpacks and other resources to borrow or buy. Look out for items produced specifically for supply teachers. They often include photocopiable material which can be invaluable if you are called out at short notice. You will need to store all this at home.
Now for the absolute essential: the Kit List and Kit Bag. No supply teacher can afford to be without these. You may have to teach at very short notice (I was once given two minutes) so you must have a container ready packed with your basic kit, and a list of anything else you may need so that the items can be gathered quickly. Books for supply teachers will give you a more complete list, but you should carry pens, pencils, rubber, sellotape, stapler, story and poetry books, money for coffee and lunch, a pad of paper, a selection of prepared work and resources. But remember that you will have to carry it all with you.
The kit bag should contain a selection of worksheets ready for photocopying, with at least one set copied and ready for use. Preparing for an unknown class is not easy, particularly if you teach over a wide age range, but you will need something to give a class while you prepare for the rest of the morning, if it's a late call-out.
Primary teachers may find it useful to have at least a key stage 1 and 2 worksheet available in several subjects. Secondary teachers will probably find graded worksheets in their subject, plus one or two others in, say, English and maths, a useful standby. These worksheets can be altered and new ones added during spells of teaching. Always replace worksheets of the "written-on" variety so that you are ready for the next call-out.
The other essential is to start a loose-leaf file to record information about the schools and classes that you teach in. When a school phones, you will need to know where the school is, the school times, the age of the pupils and what you are required to teach. Other information can be gathered on arrival, such as times of assemblies, PE lessons, breaks, whether you are on duty etc. Note all this and also which classes you have taught there and what work you covered. "We did that last time, Miss" is not a comment you want to hear as you begin your carefully-prepared day's work.
If you are lucky, at least some of the schools you teach in may provide information sheets, either basic or listing everything you need to know, including where to park. In a recent survey, supply teachers' main plea to schools was for more information. The two quotes at the beginning emphasise this. With access to essential information, supply teachers could work more confidently. By knowing the school rules, routine and class details, they would feel less abandoned. Schools would, in their turn, feel less need to check up on them so often, having provided all the necessary information.
Finally, what if, having prepared yourself and your resources as well as you possibly can, you still have a bad day? Don't despair. Take a few moments to read the poem "Supply Teacher" by Allen Ahlberg (From Please Mrs Butler, Puffin). It may just strike a chord.
Anne Cox has written four books on supply teaching and geography for supply teachers. The latest is Your Guide to Supply Teaching, New Education Press (AMS).