I am an experienced classroom teacher. I have a PGCE in secondary education and have taught in a big secondary school in the UK. I have been head of music in a special school for boys with emotional, behavioural and social difficulties, experienced international schools in Singapore and most recently was head of music in a Dubai international school. To read about that click here.
Upon returning to the UK in July 2020 I decided to give supply teaching a try because I thought it would allow for some flexibility. I have always had a good relationship with the students I teach and thought that I would be well suited to supply teaching as I am a confident teacher and enjoy a challenge.
Prior to moving back to the UK, I researched about supply teaching agencies and signed up with two. In order to sign up to a teaching agency in the UK you need to be a qualified teacher, have ID and proof of your address and also sign up to the DBS update service. Teaching agencies like you to be loyal to them so it seemed best not to sign up to more than two agencies, although some people might think that joining more agencies could get you more work. Due to Covid, I expected that work might be slow in September and it was but as time passed it seemed staff were having to isolate so more cover work arrived.
As a supply teacher you have very close contact with one or two local representatives within your agency. They will call you in the morning if they have some work or might get in touch with you at any point to discuss work opportunities in advance. This is good because it shows that even though there is potentially general supply teaching on a day to day basis, there may also be the chance of some more long term subject specific work. The agency is there to help in every way. They are happy for you to select the days you want to work and you can request not to go back to any school you didn't like or if it was too far away.
How much do you get paid?
The pay for a supply teacher could range from around £60 a day up to about £180. At £60-£80 a day you might be doing a teaching assistant role and this has been something I have accepted because it is better than nothing when work is sparse. For a regular walk in, walk out supply teacher you get around £120 a day and have no expectations to do anything else other than cover the lessons assigned to you that day using work set by school staff. If you were offered a position teaching your subject specialism or a role which required more time commitment and maybe some marking of work or attending meetings then you could potentially earn up to around £180 per day.
Comparison to Regular Teaching
Teaching is full on. I don't know any teacher that doesn't spend evenings and weekends planning, and yes the holidays are good but usually a lot of that time is spent planning, marking, designing resources or organising data to be submitted to the school. As a teacher you also have to move stuff around in classrooms, print things and do a whole host of other non teaching tasks which you end up doing inside school during the holidays. The actual teaching is the best part, especially if you have been teaching in the same school for some time, any stress is caused by all the other jobs.
Supply teaching on one hand looks really easy because you don't have those extra tasks. However, the teaching is the real challenge and in most cases you are not really doing any teaching anyway. A police or army officer would probably be better than a qualified teacher. You could be a well established head teacher, with years of experience, absolute respect from staff and students in your school and be an amazing leader but the second you become a supply teacher and visit a new school, walk in through the classroom door, then it is like walking into a warzone where you have no idea what will happen and have no resources to defend yourself or fight back. At least to a brand new supply teacher like me, it felt like that to start. With that supply teacher title you do in some ways become a target and it actually highlights a massive flaw in the education system in the UK.
Was it better in the past?
I remember as a high school student (almost 30 years ago), the moment there was a cover teacher some students in the class behaved differently and it was something that was passed on to generation after generation. The supply teacher was like someone it is okay to mock, someone you can disrespect without fear of any sanctions, someone you do not need to impress or do any work for and someone who surely has no idea what they are doing? Sadly, from my experience, this stigmata is still present today.
I actually liked the excitement to start with of not knowing what the day would hold but over time I got anxious about it, especially waiting for the phone call in the morning. I would get up early, get ready in a suit and tie, rush my daughter to the before school club and then some days just return home without a call for work. The not so good days outweighed the good days because most of the time I would be in a school where my description of the supply teacher 30 years ago applied to me. It was having a negative impact on me. I could feel it happening but at the same time, I am not a quitter and started thinking about better ways to deal with the job. As all teachers know, it only takes one or two students in a class of 30 to ruin a lesson but those students do not test the teachers who they know will stand their ground. The teachers with a reputation in the school for not being the ones to mess with. The teachers who use clever tactics to shift that bad behaviour into positive classroom energy and motivate even the most stubborn year 9 student into completing brilliant work. But, I am that teacher, so why do I not have control over classes as a supply teacher?
Covid made things so much worse. Making students wear correct uniform is bad enough but enforcing masks and social distancing is almost impossible unless the school has behaviour under control to start with. The attitudes of some students was so unbelievably bad, they did not want to be in school. I know that in a class of 30 students there are probably more students who do care, but sadly as a supply teacher it is hard to interact with those students when your role is made to turn from teacher to baby sitter, to police officer, to riot controller, to agony aunt, to psychiatrist, to careers advisor to motivational speaker because of the actions of the few who seek to cause trouble.
I needed strategies, so got thinking and experimenting. Disrespectful students would quickly change their attitude when asked how they would feel if someone treated their mother the way they are treating me. I also stopped trying to take the register and just drew a quick room plan and went table to table to take students names. Covid or no Covid, I needed to win this battle. I started chunking the boring set work into time frames and writing it on the board and then referring to it throughout the lesson. This gave students things to aim for and made the lesson pass quicker. I would also add two or three alternative tasks for students to do if I felt that the set work was not good enough. The absolute best strategy however, and hardest to do was to remain calm, ultra cool and be unfazed by anything. Sometimes after ten minutes or so of completely ignoring the behaviour of a few students they would just give up and save their rein of terror for the next supply teacher!
The Good vs The Bad
When you first get given your register for the day you know what sort of day you are going to have. A whole day of year 7 is brilliant, compared to a whole day of year 9 which would most likely be a nightmare. You might get lucky some lessons and be covering top sets but the bottom sets, students I personally feel I could help the most have been demoralising to teach, I just felt like giving up and walking out sometimes. Year 7 lessons are normally fun and covering sixth form students is a joy. Primary supply and even SEN supply has been lovely because the students are trusting of you straight away which is nice. Covering a GCSE subject like art or music or any other which students have opted for is great but lower set core subjects from year 8 to 11 have all been difficult to manage. Now and then the supply teacher gods look down on you and you get a free period and the absolute holy grail of supply teaching is when you enter the room and there is a PGCE student taking the lesson so you can sit at the back and pretend to be an Ofsted inspector.
To just go one whole day where a student doesn't look at you like this would be great! Harry Enfield's Kevin the Teenager started in 1990 and still exists in every school in the land.
I salute anyone who has been a supply teacher for many years. The sad thing is that most schools could support supply teachers so much more and they are failing their students by not doing so. Some schools seem to accept that what happens in a classroom with the supply teacher is just how it works. If a school knowingly assigns a cover lesson which has students renown for behaving badly to a supply teacher then they should be having someone visit that room to check all is okay, but I have rarely seen that in my experience. Which means, some schools accept that their own students are not working or behaving correctly, which to me is unacceptable.
A senior leader came into one lesson of mine and asked one boy to explain, in front of the class, what had been happening (even though I just told him). How shocking, unfair to the student being put on the spot and disrespectful to me as a fellow professional. On another occasion I was told to ask at the science office to collect the work for my class only to be ignored completely by 5 members of staff sat in there (I could see through the window and the door was locked). Or the time I was given French to cover all day and only had cover work for 3/5 of my classes, I tracked down the head of Foreign Languages to be told that, "I haven't got time to sort that now" and off they went on with their day. I could tell stories of so many problems like this all of which are caused by staff in that school rather than the students. If staff treat supply teachers like this then what chance do we have of having any respect from students?
I did have some really happy times from some schools though. Some moments where I felt a real sense of achievement where students say they have done more work than normal or another teacher comments on how well the class worked with me. If I visited a school a few days in a row, I noticed that even in that short time things improved. Students would wave or say "hi" in the corridors and even now and then you might hear a "he's a safe teacher" comment as you walk past. Respect can be gained even in the most difficult schools by just being nice and showing the students that you care for them. Sometimes if I overheard the students mention anything, like holiday destinations, musical instruments, online gaming or cars or football or anything that I knew anything about then I could instantly earn credibility by talking to them about it. It is amazing how students suddenly think you are great and get on with their work if they know you also play Call of Duty - Cold War!
Despite the challenges, supply teaching is a perfect job for teachers who want flexibility. If you have a hobby or something you are passionate about which occupies your mind at home then it doesn't matter what has happened during the day, you just switch off from it and don't take the actions of just a few students to heart. I try and think about what sort of lives the students who do cause trouble might have, not to justify why they are behaving badly but just to make me feel grateful that I was raised really well and had a brilliant childhood.
Going forwards I welcome the challenges that supply teaching offers. I am going to try and focus more on the students who want to learn rather than those who enjoy being disruptive and I am going to go to greater lengths to hold schools accountable for these students by reporting incidents and checking that schools are using sanctioning and other methods to tackle inappropriate behaviours with the support of the agencies.
If you are a teacher reading this, a school leader, a parent or even a student please help educate others so the age old attitude towards supply or substitute teachers can be removed. Teachers should set meaningful work for students to complete and presume that the person covering is highly skilled. We all must help the students who are going through tough times to be brave and courageous learners because every student who has been disrespectful, rude or lazy during any lessons are those students who need love, kindness and strength to help them make better decisions in their lives.
Thank you for reading my blog. Next up I will be sharing my thoughts on why it is never too late to learn a musical instrument!