Whether you have deliberately chosen it or not, supply teaching is quite simply a fantastic opportunity. It sharpens behaviour management, gives you versatility across year groups and broadens your pedagogical repertoire.
But at first- and I cannot deny this- it is uncomfortable, so I thought I would write a supply teaching guide for those first couple of weeks to avoid the mistakes that I made and give you the best possibility to thrive in this wonderful and beautifully unpredictable job.
Read the behaviour policy and school values before you arrive. This will give you a great foundation for your class the expectations at the start of the day. You can explore the website a little, glance at the Ofsted report but such research is certainly not a requirement.
Give yourself time...
Finding the school, a place to park and the correct entrance can take more time than you think, especially if it is your first visit. Walking in at the same time as the children is certainly not fatal but it makes those crucial early moments more challenging than they need to be.
But not too much time...
There is no point being too early, however. Most school offices don’t open as early as you think. Arriving at 8:10am is perfect. It gives you time to take care of the essentials without any panic but also gives the office and teacher time to prepare your welcome. Take your DBS with you to avoid any unnecessary delay and make sure you put the obligatory safeguarding sheet somewhere safe.
A new world
While you are shown to your classroom, try to focus on the layout of the school. Ask for the location of the staffroom (fridge!), staff toilets and the school hall. You are a sparkly new adult joining the team for the day, which often elicits lots of curiosity. Be polite but don’t get distracted from your principal task - to get a feel for the place.
Plan for the day
You will almost always be greeted by someone with a plan for the day. It is usually the class teacher but can also be the year group leader or phase leader. At this point, brace yourself for a tidal wave of information. Some teachers start with behaviour but most will go through the lessons. It is important to get a flavour of the day but try to narrow your focus to the first session - you have break time to get your head around subsequent lessons.
Don’t be scared to ask questions. Class teachers – and I have been guilty of this – often assume that you know far more than you do. Ask about the marking policy, timetable, behaviour policy, whether you have support in class, the register, lunches and going to the toilet expectations.
Once you have written that timetable on the board and you are comfortable with the content, it is time to take a deep breath and ask that most significant of questions.
What are the classes like?
In my experience, you get three answers:
1)“It’s a wonderful class. You will really like them.” Excellent news.
2)“It’s a pretty good class. There are a few characters but generally they are a good bunch.” Should be ok.
3)“Umm…They are a lively bunch. You will need to be firm. If any of them give you trouble then send them to me.” Hmmm.
Three days of the week you will get description 2. The other two days will be shared between description number 1 and yes, you guessed it, number 3. If you do get a number 3 (lucky you!), you will nearly always have an extra member of staff. They are worth their weight in gold- introduce yourself, laugh with them and then investigate strategies that work. Oh, and don’t forget to ask about medical conditions (asthma, allergies etc.) because these can be overlooked when a teacher starts talking about behaviour.
The children arrive
You will be greeted with a flood of questions.
“What’s your name?”
“Are you older than my mum?”
“Where is Miss?”
“Are you Andy Murray?”
Try not to get distracted because this is observation time. Watch how the children interact, watch how they deal with transitions, watch how they settle at their tables, watch for the ‘characters’. If no pre-register work has been set then create a task that can be completed independently- that could be reading, practicing spelling or timetables. The key here is not what they do but providing silent, busy work that allows a calm start to the day.
Once the stragglers have arrived and you have a quiet classroom, it’s register time. I tend to apologise to the children for any mis-pronunciations and explore why laughing at such a thing would be inappropriate. This not only avoids any giggles if you do make a mistake but also sends a clear message that today, in your classroom, everyone has the right to be respected. Registers will usually be on SIMS ( / for present, blank for absent- remember to save) and be wary of the dinner register- stumbling around with school dinner options can quickly destroy early momentum.
Once the register is complete it is time to write your name on the board and introduce yourself before making it very clear what you expect from the children. I tend to spend far more time on emphasising the positives- I state that kindness, collaboration and resilience are the ingredients of a good day.
Referencing consequences for poor behaviour is necessary but don’t spend too much time on this- be calm, be decisive, be certain. And don’t be afraid to hold one of these boundaries immediately but just remember to be calm with the delivery of this sanction and clear with your follow-up explanation.
Mini whole-class activities
There is far greater chance of finishing lessons early than overrunning so have a range of activities up your sleeve. I would have a maths task (KS1 and KS2), English task (KS1 and KS2) and a fun game. These activities need to be engaging, simple and accessible to every member of the class.
Boundaries, boundaries, boundaries
Given that you are only there for a day it is tempting to just ignore bad behaviour- this is the biggest mistake you can make. You ignore one rule breaker and you will soon have ten on your hands. I try to have a discrete one-to-one chat with any child I see struggling to cope with the change of teacher. Finding a shared interest at the day’s beginning (dogs, football, chocolate) can often be the difference.
If you do have to administer sanctions then follow the behaviour policy. Asking a child to leave the room without the warnings/steps will put everyone on edge. When using the sanctions be calm, be consistent but above all, be certain.
Try to be prepared if you do have to ask a child to leave. Where do they go? Who do they go with? How long do they go? What happens when they return?
The end of the day
Whatever you do, do not rush!
Of all of the transitions I see in schools, this is often the most poorly executed. You are tired, the children are tired- everybody has got home on their mind. But the last five minutes are actually the most important to get right.
Give children enough time to tidy up and then once you are happy with the state of the classroom, explain your expectations. This should begin with children collecting their belongings in tables. Any messing around and you stop the process and get everyone to wait for 30 seconds- you should only need to do this once!
Once the children have returned, you carefully go over expectations: line up quietly, walk towards the area of dismissal, wait patiently for your parent/carer, point your parent/carer out before saying goodbye.
Check that all chairs are tucked in and have one final check that there are no errant jumpers, reading books or letters left on the floor. At this point, reiterate expectations and then remind yourself that care triumphs over speed at this time of the day. Take a deep breath, smile and open the door to the outside world of parents and carers.
If you are unsure about anything at this time, let the office deal with it. This is a completely no-risk zone – everyone will appreciate it.
Check the classroom is tidy and complete any marking. If you don’t see the class teacher then I would write a short description for each lesson with a general statement about the class.
Just like anything, supply teaching is going to give you good days and bad days but even on the worst of your bad days you will have much to reflect on. Ultimately, supply made me as a teacher. It gave me the skills, knowledge and confidence I needed to enjoy life as a teacher and a leader. I hope it does the same for you.
The pandemic has shone a spotlight on many things: key workers, zoom, DIY. But it has also sharpened the focus on what schools can do to support the social and emotional wellbeing of children.
This is a tricky area for many reasons:
First, unlike other subjects, teachers don’t have their own school experience to lean on - I certainly don’t remember being taught about self-regulation, failure or relationship boundaries when I was at school.
There is also a lack of effective resources to support student wellbeing. Yes, there are emotion fans, gratitude trees and rainbow worry worksheets but I am yet to find a robust package that explicitly teaches children how to manage themselves and the world around them.
Assessment in this area is also a real challenge. How do we assess the progress of a child’s social and emotional ability? How do we judge whether a child is at the expected standard for resilience? What is the expected standard for resilience?
Ultimately, we all know that social and emotional learning is crucial but the lack of experience, resources and means of assessment often make it the first subject to be neglected on a timetable that is already bursting at the seams.
I don’t pretend to have all of the answers but after spending two years teaching social and emotional lessons in a range of London schools, I thought it might be worth sharing some ideas that support and engage children in this area of their development.
1) A Culture of Openess
No class of children arrives prepared to talk openly about their thoughts and feelings. They need to trust their teacher and believe that they will uphold an environment that will address any conspiratorial whispers or eye rolls.
Ultimately, adults need to be the model, emphasising the crucial importance that being open plays in wellbeing, perhaps even modelling their own concerns and fears. Difficult, I know, but once an open culture is established where self-awareness is the target, children start engaging with themselves and the world around them.
2) Explicit Teaching of Skills
Just like all subjects, social and emotional skills need to be broken down into small chunks. It sounds obvious, right? The problem is that the social and emotional themes we are asked to cover often need to be crammed into an impossible small window of time.
Take the teaching of resilience for instance.
For many years, I was guilty of the ‘Just Be Resilient’ teaching philosophy. I never looked into what made a resilient person. The result? Very average lessons delivered by a poorly prepared teacher (me) pushing definitions and examples with little or no impact.
As a school, we started realising that the explicit teaching of resilience was integral to positive learning behaviour so we spent numerous staff meetings unpicking it. This led to the creation of a resilience sequence (managing emotions, embracing failure, taking responsibility etc) that included key questions and practical strategies. Progress happened almost immediately. Children started asking questions, became more aware of their triggers and began applying resilience tools to every-day life.
The point is, children need these enormous concepts broken down into carefully planned sequences that include actual guidance. This not only gives the children time to develop the knowledge but most crucially, the opportunity to apply these principles in their own lives.
We have found that images of social and emotional concepts not only deepen understanding but also add to engagement. Here are a few examples:
These representations also provide a shared language across the school community. Phrases like the Tornado Zone (anger), Pit of Failure and bubbles of emotion can be a reference point throughout the school day. They can be used to support learning and also as the basis to follow-up conversations if boundaries have been pushed.
What was the trigger that made you fall into the Tornado Zone?
What did you do to climb out of the Pit of Failure?
If regularly revisited and visible in the classroom, the representations help to create routines when children are faced with challenges. Once the shared language and routines are embedded then it doesn’t take long for children to start turning their new knowledge into actions.
4) The Power of Story
The more lessons I taught the more I realised that many children feel alone. They think they are the only ones to feel anxious on a Monday morning, while they ponder tests, PE or merely having someone to talk to at break time. They see their peers smiling, seemingly gliding through school life without a worry in the world.
Imagine the relief when a child reads a story that articulates their exact fears. Suddenly they realise that they are not the only one.
Stories help children to see that everybody struggles, which is immensely powerful when creating a culture of openness. Stories also provide the platform for children to discuss their own thoughts and feelings through the lives of fictional characters.
Introducing a story that includes misconceptions is also a good way to start a lesson.
The deliberate inclusion of misconceptions in a story taps into a child’s desire to prove something (or someone) wrong. Not only will this kickstart discussion but will also give teachers an opportunity to assess the knowledge that children already have.
Stories are not just used to contextualise a lesson but also to show the consequences of poor decisions. For example, communicating the danger of violence through story is a powerful way to incentivise children to develop the tools to manage anger.
5) Learning Though Activities
Applying the new content to real-life scenarios emphasises the relevance and prepares children for challenges that they might face later in their lives.
Such tasks provoke debate that often elicit misconceptions. The use of drama is also beneficial whether that is role-playing, hotseating or presenting a concept to the class.
The format of these lessons creates lots of discussion so the children are grateful for five minutes of space at the end of the lesson to reflect on the relevant points to them. You can provide questions to direct children to the objective but I have found that the best outcomes occur when children are allowed complete freedom. It won’t happen immediately but it doesn’t take long for children to relish the five minutes of quiet reflection.
What inspired you to write ‘What They Don’t Teach You in School’?
I have been a primary school teacher for…(gulp) nearly fifteen years. I became a teacher because I spent most of my time as a child wondering why we behave like we do.
Why did excuses appear in my head when I did something wrong? Did everybody doubt themselves before taking a test? Does everyone’s younger sister boss them around?
What I needed back then was to be taught how to be resilient. Lessons about expressing emotion, managing anger and failure, setting healthy boundaries and understanding why taking responsibility for our actions is often the first step to growth. And that’s what I have tried to do with this book - provide a platform for children (and adults) to discuss the big questions that nobody asks.
How do you do you think the book will help children?
The book prepares children for life’s challenges and with it, gives them an enthusiasm for life. It encourages us all to ask questions and provides the knowledge and skills to be happier, more resilient people. Oh, and I hope it makes them laugh from time to time.
How can this book be used?
The book is versatile. It can be used by teachers and parents.
We have created six lessons that run along side each chapter to help teachers deliver in a whole-class setting. Schools have also used this book in small groups, for homework and even as an end of year present.
We have also found that parents enjoy using the book to scaffold conversations with their children.
Who is your favourite character and why? What is the favourite part
of your book?
My favourite character is Rory. His defiance and rebellion make me smile. He is also a Liverpool fan! The best part of the book is story 6 when you realise that every member of the Costello family has made a mistake. It just shows you that nobody is perfect- not even Mum!