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Life on Mars: Life on Supply

All schools are like their own planets & your own school can feel like you’re own little world. Life as a Supply Teacher is like encountering a new universe every single day.

You’ll know a Supply Teacher that’s had this look on their face!

This article aims to build on existing literature about Supply Teachers and also give perspective to their unique experience in schools. Research from the NEU states that as of 2018, schools across the UK are spending £1.3billion on Supply Teachers. Work from the Guardians ‘Secret Teacher’ also claims that many Supply Teachers are given a ‘raw deal’ by agencies.

A tough gig

Having chosen to do Supply Teaching twice in my short career, I’ve been to many places, seen many faces & it has been, at large, a privilege as well as tough gig. So many people ask me “Why are you doing supply?”. I get that ‘you’ve lost your mind’ look by so many students & teachers alike. I’m not here to paint a Mona Lisa about Supply teaching. It’s a tough gig.

Imagine waking up to a 7am call, getting ready, typing in the name of a school you never knew existed until that earlier phone call into you SatNav, spending a day in an unfamiliar building, working with students you don’t know, delivering largely undifferentiated lessons, unable to come to terms with the plethora of names & behaviour thrown your way. Then, finally returning home not knowing if you’ll be at work the next day. A truly tough gig. Behaviour of students on supply can be challenging to say the least. I still remember the roars of jubilation I could hear down the corridors at school when we knew we had Supply. Standing on the other side of the desk, I know realise exactly how tough Supply teaching is. But I’m not deterred, not yet!

I want to look at why people choose Supply & aim to dispel some of the far-fetched myths that seem to follow Supply Teachers. This isn’t an exclusive list, nor is my limited time on Supply enough for me to dispel all of these myths. But I want to start a conversation as well as provide a handful of practical tips teachers themselves could use when they have Supply at their schools.

Supply teaching can feel like this. Undifferentiated lessons, a hostile crowd, not being in subject specialism. A tough gig.

Why people choose to do Supply?

•Flexibility – full time teaching comes with its pressures. Some people can find a balance, have prosperous careers & blossoming family lives. But others can’t. Many people choose to either go part-time or do Supply because they have families, children or care responsibilities. Many even give up high status roles to spend more time with their loved ones. I recall a lengthy conversation with an ex-Head who left teaching for 10 years to take care of his terminally ill wife. He returned on Supply because he loved teaching but loved his wife much more.

•NQT – many NQTs struggle to find a school to complete their placements. PE in particular tends to have a surplus of Trainees, many of whom end up on Supply. In the infancy of your teaching career, the enthusiasm can be seen from a mile away. Many NQTs won’t dwell on the disappointment of not securing a school to complete their training but rather will deep dive into the world of Supply. It’s income, albeit sporadic at times and also it’s more experience & time to work on your craft.

•Workload – perhaps the reason why I chose to do Supply. I remember hauling bags of books into my car ready for my weekend marking sprees! The 80hr weeks were, a) totally unsustainable & b) bad for my wellbeing. The Education Wellbeing Index published just a fortnight ago states that the wellbeing of teachers is in tatters because of workload. It’s not that I gave up, quit or that I’m not dedicated. I was always willing to put my job ahead of my life, which in hindsight, made me fall out of love with my job and despise my life. Workload is insane when it comes to teaching and so many leave the classroom as a full time practitioner to do Supply where the workload is significantly lower.

•Staff/School politics – my blog on toxic schools & bullying really fits into this nicely. As teachers, we spend a lot of time with people who we don’t know that well. We’re closely bonded together under ‘departments’ & as ‘colleagues’. If the children we teach don’t agree on everything, how can we expect adults to agree all the time? I’ve experienced bullying & I’ve seen predatory accountability culture whereby there’s a constant feeling that you’ll be banished from your very existence by Gestapo-eque management! Supply means you can walk in, teach & leave. Not being exposed to the more sordid side of schools perhaps is the biggest bonus of supply teaching!

•Last chance saloon – Many Supply Teachers want a last swansong in teaching. This can happen at any stage of your career actually. Bad experiences or simply not wanting to teach any more, Supply can provide a last chance for teachers to galvanise their enthusiasm, get those nervous-anxious excitement goosebumps before a lesson! Supply can be a final gig for teachers heading towards their end of their careers through retirement. Their wisdom & experience can be so wonderful and enlightening!

Misconceptions about Supply

There are many other complicated reasons to why people choose Supply. Yet with their decision to do Supply, comes many misinformed misconceptions about their role. Let’s break these down.

•Supply Teachers are mercenaries- I’ve heard this many times. The idea that Supply teachers can just dictate their terms & conditions, pick & choose the schools they go to, earn whatever rate their heart is set on & are rinsing schools of money. Rates are normally done to pay scales. Supply Teachers also still need to pay tax, National insurance & union membership. They don’t get holiday pay, work is sporadic at times & they often have little choice where they go work. Imagine not having any work for weeks & then being called in to a PRU. Turn it down, you’ve missed income & agency may not call back. Go in, have to deal with terrible behaviour & unpleasantness. Supply teachers actually don’t have the amount of power we’re lead to believe. Mercenaries? Why don’t you work for free then? Oh yeah, you got bills to pay too!

•Don’t like/want Marking – day to day supply rarely involves rigorous and arduous marking. You arrive, teach & leave. But what about those on long term supply? They are contractually obliged to mark & fulfil the full duties of a teacher. The idea that supply teachers have weekends free & are living a life of leisure is a misconception. Those on long term supply will tell you, workload is an issue for EVERYONE in education.

•Leave at 3pm – “You arrive at 8:30 & leave at 3, don’t complain!” The exact words I was once told. I don’t think I’ve ever left when the students leave. Supply teachers aren’t usually expected to complete after school meetings & training but many don’t leave on the bell. Cover sheets are expected to be complete, many have to speak to safeguarding personnel about something they’ve heard or seen. Some have an hour or even two commute. It’s so wrong to say that they all leave at the bell. They’re not contracted to work beyond the school day; well neither are so many teachers but that’s a different story altogether!

•Couldn’t handle teaching – there’s a myth that people who are on supply are ‘weak’ or ‘inept’ in teaching full time. So they’ve taken the ‘easy option’ & gone into Supply. It’s usually the contrary! Many have taught, got significant experience & handled themselves well. Supply is in fact not an easy option. You arrive, have 10 minutes to familiarise yourself with your room(s) for the day, teach students that will know that’s you’re only here for the day, deal with behaviour with little/no guidance of behaviour protocols, find somewhere to have lunch, park, etc. It’s endless! There’s no ‘easy’ job in education & to assume it’s easy is crass and misinformed. I’ve been racially abused, spat at and threatened whilst on Supply. I’ve seen Supply teachers walk out mid-lesson, others crying in staff rooms and shaking with fear. It isn’t easy but for some of us, it’s our livelihood.

•They are spies! – “Do you work for Ofsted Sir?” Said a Year 10 pupil. I was alarmed! The amount of time I see Supply teachers sat alone in staff rooms or wondering around looking lost, it’s actually shocking. Supply teachers aren’t spies! They come in to fill a void because one of your colleagues is not at work. They are informed, intelligent & very switched on folks! There’s a lot that we can learn from Supply teachers. Once upon a time they were classroom practitioners with pedagogical expertise. As teachers, we’re told to always be willing to learn from others. So why not just have a chat? What you got to lose?

Tips for Teachers:

Personally, I had no idea how to talk to Supply Teachers when I was a full time teacher. I didn’t think much of it but when I went on Supply, the reflection really started. Here are my five tips to Teachers:

•Don’t judge – we all have our pre-assumptions about others but try to avoid jumping the gun. The Supply Teacher who was run ragged by your Year 8s during a PE lesson, may be the same Supply Teacher that helped cultivate a love for Shakespeare with the Year 11s before with their experience with Elizabethan literature! Most Supply teachers have good knowledge & experience of education & their expertise may come in handy. I remember a Supply teacher telling me that I should readjust my seating plan as certain students couldn’t work together. He was right! Same guy who got employed at the school as a Deputy Head!

•Support where you can – if you know there’s a particular class that may cause issues, just pop in. It may be at the beginning of the lesson, middle or end but your presence will reassure that Supply Teacher that they are supported. If they are struggling to login to a computer, there’s issues with worksheets or textbooks, it’s just a humanly gesture to offer a hand. I absolutely think a good school is a welcoming school! Showing a Supply Teacher around, giving directions/guidance, these are hallmarks of good schools.

•Be visible – this is perhaps more geared towards SLT. A strong leadership is a visible one. They know who the more vulnerable teachers are; Trainees, NQTs & Supply. SLT need to be visible & proactive in supporting these teachers as they have the experience of handling tough classes & cohorts. Being visible, reprimanding students & of course, seeing the type of job your teachers are doing, that’s leadership. SLT want their school to have a good reputation so they should absolutely work their upmost hardest to support their teachers, build good rapports with Supply agencies & protect their reputation.

•Say hello – So many teachers ignore supply staff. It’s understandable, we’re busy. We all are. Sometimes we’re so busy we forget to have lunch or sit down all day. 99.9% of teachers I have met on Supply have been lovely, accommodating & understanding. Yet, when Supply are ignored, left to fend for themselves with difficult classes & there’s a sense of arrogance amongst staff, this isn’t an environment I want to work in. Simply saying hello to a Supply Teacher can really be an icebreaker for you & them. Politeness costs nothing at all.

•Listen – I read an African proverb once “When an old man dies, a library burns to the ground”. I suppose the same could be said about someone who retires or leaves their chosen profession. A wealth of knowledge, a mountain of experience & a well of wisdom is lost when a teacher leaves teaching. Many supply teachers have incredible CVs & experiences. Just last week I met a Supply Teacher who has been teaching for 50 years! He may have taught my father! This man has seen the transformation of education, been there, done it, worn the t-shirt! He told me he started as a Catering Assistant, then TA, before doing his degree at Oxford, taught in 10 different schools including a private school. He’s been a Governor, an Advisor, Consultant & has a PHD! I was in awe and tried to jot down some of his ideas! Supply teachers have experiences and skills that can enrich schools. Listen to them & learn from them.

In Summary:

Is there life on Mars? I don’t know but neither do I know if I’ll be working tomorrow.

Teaching is an incredible complex profession, one that deserves nothing but credit & support. When we have a day off, we’re unwell or there’s an emergency, someone has to step in & fill that void. Supply teaching is a tough gig. Not knowing where you’re working each day is a cause of anxiety itself let alone handling a class of 30 unruly students.

We’re teachers & our professional fraternity can be divisive but it costs nothing to be kind. How Supply teachers are treated by students & staff alike speaks volumes about a school. We are your guests & I know how I treat my guests. With nothing but courtesy. And although supply isn’t a career, behaviour can be poor, staff may ignore you, for now, I’ll enjoy life on Mars!

To the supply teachers out there reading this: you’re incredible.

Thank you for reading.

Shuaib Khan

Twitter: @shuaibkhan26

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