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.