- Written by Jenny Smith
January / February 2015
Ah the unknowns and ups and downs of supply. Next to “Where am I going?” and “Who will I be teaching?” the big question is often “Will I have enough money?”
For my family and I, it's a pertinent enough question. Having difficulty with childcare has limited the amount of work I am available to take significantly. I find it helps to deal with just the one agency, rather than signing up for a few. It's taken time, but we're finally beginning to develop a relationship I can work with. Unfortunately, I feel as though I've lost contact with the consultant I had been working with and moved to a different consultant, which isn't easy when you're only available for work occasionally. I feel as though I am having to prove myself all over again. And that has been more difficult to deal with than I imagined.
Having spent the past ten or so years of my working life in education, I've struggled with the idea of being the novice again. Of course, I haven't taught since a few months before my daughter was born, so I have been out of the classroom for something like 18 months, but in the meantime, I have made it my business to keep myself going professionally. I've written a book for people seeking to supply teach in the EYFS, and I have maintained this blog regularly. I've used my expertise in a range of ways over at the Supply Teacher Network to help people prepare for interview and observations. I've looked at planning and ideas, and given advice and suggested ways to improve.
And I've started to wonder if maybe I can do other things. Things related to teaching, but things where I won't always be the novice. Working for an education website, for example, helping to create their resources brings me in a little additional income, and gives me the opportunity for some professional development and autonomy into the bargain. It gives me the chance to prove what I can do, and hopefully give someone in a full time post a helping hand into the bargain.
Don't get me wrong. Working from home can be difficult. With a toddler on the loose all day, I have to find time in the evening and at weekends to complete assignments, and this means that I don't have an enormous amount of time for anything much else. That being said, there's something exceedingly satisfying about knowing that it's up to me to fit everything in, keep to schedules and deadlines, and give Little One the attention she needs. It means that I don't need to worry about my availability and Granny's availability and train times in the same way. If she visits, I ask her to baby sit for a couple of hours while I work. And then I jot down how long I've been working for, and on what, on Google Calendar, so I can keep a record of what work I have been doing, and for whom, and how long, approximately, it has taken. That proves useful when keeping a record for the books.
I'm slowly finding that there's a balance to working from home. Like with supply, you have to give yourself limits, and learn to switch off and do something else after a while. Personally, I find working in short bursts of a couple of hours is more effective than trying to put aside a whole day. It stops me from feeling guilty and means I can spend time with Little Legs, now that she's found them and is starting to spend more and more time on them!
Long term work isn't an option at the moment. Hard to accept, because I love having a class of my own, but true. Asking Granny to take on childcare for two or three days a week means her staying here three or four nights, which might drive my husband mad after a while. The alternative is nursery or a child-minder, but I don't really want to settle Little Legs somewhere only for her to have to leave if and when work dries up. When Granny moves closer, which she plans to do, we'll have more options. At the moment, that little bit of day to day and some freelance work is just about keeping the wolf from the door. Just.
How lucky we are to have that choice. I feel incredibly grateful that we can scrape by in our current financial state, and allow me the time to explore working from home. I say that because there's also another side to my reluctance. I know first hand now how swiftly baby turns into toddler, and I can see glimmers of the small child my toddler is becoming. This phase will pass, and all too soon Little Legs will be in Reception and too grown up to play with mummy. And I want that time passionately. I want to be here. I want to see her grow. And I never want her to say “But Mummy, you love your children at school more than me...”
- Written by Jenny Smith
November / December 2014
Last night, we put up our Christmas tree, and this morning we brought the toddler in to see it. The look on her face was a picture. It brings back memories of last year, with a tiny newborn staring in awe at the lights and the colour. A few short weeks ago she turned one. How much she has grown, and how quickly she has changed. This year, the decorations were well and truly investigated.
Yes, my delightful baby has grown into a toddler already. All legs and arms and awkward attempts to walk. A vocabulary that increases daily. Exploring everything all at once. Life's a great adventure and I feel privileged to be sharing it with her. I'm ready to learn and explore with her. I'm ready to help her on her way, and support and guide her progress.
One word. Progress. Is it a dirty word? Or a fad? It's certainly the one on every teacher's lips. The children need to make progress in every lesson. Push, push and keep on pushing. Engage them, keep them motivated, make sure they all achieve to their full potential. Take on board government policy or not, I think most teachers would agree that, in an ideal world, all children should make some progress within a lesson.
Schools rise and fall based on the levels of progress the children make, and teachers, parents and kids are all constantly being told that every lesson counts. They need to be in the classroom, learning, making progress.
So, why is it that things can be so different when a supply teacher is in the classroom?
Other people's expectations can be so low for a supply teacher. Really, there should be no distinction. We're all trained. We all went to the same universities and colleges, and we all have the same qualifications. And yet I often hear myself being excused by others because I'm “only” supply. Right.
I never excuse myself. I'm always looking for ways to ensure I add value when I'm in school, even if it's only for the day. Granted, some days I don't make as much of a difference as I would like, but I feel it's always important to try. Progress, for me, might look different to the regular class teacher, but I always try and see it. And record it for the teacher.
What is progress when you're a supply teacher, then?
Well, it might be the child who is really nervous and insecure at the beginning of the day, but by the end is chatting to you like you're an old friend. Or maybe it's the child the TA tells you can be a bit of a handful, but you find a way through to them and they don't cause you any real problems. What about that one in the corner who does some quality writing, and when you look back in their book, they often don't. Maybe it's that kid who hasn't really understood a concept but grasps it when they hear it explained a slightly different way. Or the one who always needs support writing a whole sentence by themselves. Or the child with SEN who copes terrifically with the changes in routine even though the teacher's notes say they won't.
That's not all. I look at the big picture, too. Working with a lot of classes means you know when the children are really putting the effort in. And long before the children do any written work, you get a sense of how well they really understand what you are teaching. Wherever I can, I try not to just plough on regardless, but think about how I can change things to meet the needs of the children. In the long run, I'd prefer them to understand a concept, and I always assume their teacher would rather they were secure in something than move on before they are ready. I would, if I was their teacher, at least.
And how does progress look for me? Here I am, ten years into my career, and it looks for all the world as though I have never done anything different, but I have. I've taught Nursery to Year Two. I have worked in any number of different schools and situations. I've job shared, I've worked in failing schools, I've been through Local Authority observations and Ofsted. I'm getting to the point now where I'd like to be able to draw on that experience and use it to help other people.
With January comes a whole new year, and a new start. It's time for many more firsts. First steps, first sentences, first drawings, first conversations. And I want to be here to see them and hear them. I've said all along that I don't want my job to come before my family. When the going gets tough, and the money gets tight, when the work doesn't come in, or a long term comes up at the wrong time, I have to remind myself that this is progress too. It's the progress of parenthood. And it's worth every sleepless night and every day with no pay.
And that's that.
- Written by Jenny Smith
July / August 2014
With all the window displays and supermarket special offers, it would be difficult to miss the advent of the new school year at the best of times. This year it is more difficult than usual. As I type, Baby E and I are preparing in our own way for the difficulties we are going to encounter as September rolls around.
Next week, my little newborn turns nine months. She's crawling now, standing, beginning to cruise the furniture, and saying “mama” and “dada”. Change, change, always change. Nothing stands still very long with a baby.
This morning I have left Granny in charge. It's a trial run for us, and her. It's almost impossible to concentrate with an almost-toddler on the loose, and finding the mind space to focus and write a coherent blog entry just won't happen at home. It's good to get them used to spending time with each other like this, as Granny is going to be our child-care solution when the day to day work rolls in. It seemed like the simplest solution, at least in the short term.
Baby E loves her granny and adores spending time with her, so in that way we are lucky. We don't have to go through getting her settled in nursery. She will spend time at home or at familiar baby and toddler groups with her. We're in the process of setting up an outside play area in the back yard, complete with artificial grass. And of course she has all her toys, the dog, a beach down the road, and the soft play and park around the corner. Granny will read to her, play with her, and have adventures with her just as I would.
We tried looking into child minders and nurseries. We really did. We even went to see a couple. But I found that not knowing what days you will be working really limits your childcare options. Some people were more flexible than others. I found someone I really gelled with, but couldn't give her exact days (not knowing if I would be offered work) and so she offered E's place to someone else. Fine and fair enough. But it left me feeling very disheartened at the thought of having to send E somewhere I didn't feel completely happy about just because I can't be sure when I will need child-care. Financially it's not worth putting E into nursery or with a child-minder unless I'm working, so we were in a bit of a double bind! I teach in early years, and I know the difference between good and bad. And I know what I want, and I wasn't finding it. And that's where Granny comes in.
It's not an ideal solution, though. In the short term, it still won't provide me with the complete flexibility I need as Granny lives around fifty miles away, so at the moment we are compromising to see how it works. I'll take pre-booked work, but it will have to be at least one full day. It's not worth my mother's fuel money for a morning or afternoon. She brings her dog and stays overnight currently, so if I do take more than one day, they would need to be consecutive. I can't really expect her to come back later in the week! We plan to pay for her fuel and a dog walker short term. The long term plan involves mum moving closer. My grandad passed away in March, and she's got no family back home now, so she would love to be closer to us. And Baby E will have a close relationship with one of her grandparents, and that's important to us as her daddy's family live at the other end of the country, so at the moment we're juggling house hunting along with everything else.
I'm not sure I'm wholly ready to step into the classroom again just yet, but I am trying my best to get into practice. At the moment I'm parked in the library, barely ten minutes away from home, with my phone on the desk here next to me. If it rang, and E needed me, I would pack up my things and fly home as fast as I could. What about when I am in school and my phone is parked at the bottom of my bag, ringing in a cupboard somewhere? What happens if she's ill? Will she be pleased to see me when I get home? Will she miss me? Will she settle for Granny?
All these questions and more occur to me, as I sit here enjoying the luxury of a hot cup of tea from the library café, distilling my thoughts and concerns into a coherent piece of writing. And I'm reminded that supply teachers everywhere face the same issue. We're reliant on the goodwill of a small army of grandparents and other adults, or we're only available for work on certain days. Or we struggle, taking turns with a partner for childcare, or we're lucky enough to have a hugely flexible arrangement with a child-minder or nursery. However we tackle this issue, we still turn up for work in the morning with the same amount of dedication as we always did; we're just more exhausted and sleep deprived than we were before! We'll struggle with the same issues as other supply teachers, and on top of it all we'll worry about our kids.
Ah well. All that is for another day. Today I have the luxury of still being on holiday. Today I am mummy first and foremost. So I'll finish here, and go and change the library books I packed in my bag. Then I'll make my way home and appreciate spending time with my little girl.
- Written by Jenny Smith
September / October 2014
Any supply teacher will tell you that there is an assumption among carers and parents, fellow teachers, and children, that because you're a supply teacher, you're therefore not as “good” as a “regular” teacher. If you were, you wouldn't be a supply teacher, you'd have a “proper” job, wouldn't you? Right?
We all know about the teacher who supplies for a bit of extra pocket money in retirement, or the one who wants to be home in time to pick the kids up from school. Traditionally, that's who supply teachers were, mums with young children who wanted to work part time, and those who were retired. The assumption is that you don't have to work that hard, or don't really want a job at all, to be on supply.
We'd better bust that myth too.
These days, those of us on supply come from a range of backgrounds and experiences, from budding and enthusiastic NQTs to those of us with senior management backgrounds, and mid-career teachers like myself, who see the advantages of supply or who, for one reason or another, do not want a permanent home in the classroom.
The greatest strength of the supply teacher workforce is its very diversity. Supply, for me, has given me the flexibility to open other doors. I've begun writing, this blog among other things, and I am beginning to hope that my future lies more in that direction, rather than in waiting for the phone to ring. I'm a passionate, committed Early Years practitioner, and I'm good at my job. That said, I've never held a permanent contract. Recently, I went for an interview for a long term position, and rather resented the question about this. No-one would question a teacher with ten years experience in the same school, and yet I've probably worked in more challenging situations and had more success than they ever would.
I want to get this off my chest. Just because I'm a supply teacher doesn't mean I'm not professional. It may mean that I have had moderately haphazard career progression, and that I've decided to seek professional challenges of one sort or another in addition to my supply work, in order to give me the sense of some sort of professional development and fulfilment, but it does not make me any less committed in the classroom. It really bugs me when people assume that it does.
The uncertainty of the job gets us down from time to time. Nobody likes to think that they are stagnating in their job, or that they might not really ever get started in it at all, or perhaps that they'll struggle to pay the mortgage this month. We think about giving up, because juggling childcare and a part time job isn't cost effective, or because we're struggling to travel, or maybe just because four days out of five, the phone doesn't ring.
We think about it, we talk about quitting, and yet many of us hang on. Why is that? Let's just myth bust again...
The majority of supply teachers I have met - and doing the additional work I do means that I have now met a lot of supply teachers – are committed beyond measure to doing a fabulous job. To not letting the kids down. To spending time preparing and creating interesting and engaging lessons, and to developing their own resources. Supply teachers are often locked out of planning and resourcing websites, open to schools with an annual subscription, for example, and often spend hours of their own time planning in detail. Most of us really and truly care. We want the best for the kids, even if we are only in there for the day, and we'll put our heart and souls into providing it.
- Written by Jenny Smith
May / June 2014
It’s funny. This is the time of year when all my teacher friends are winding down for the summer, thinking about a well-earned break from the classroom, and how they might do things a little differently, perhaps, tweak this or that, or change that area there around, for September, but essentially, their world will stay pretty much the same. They may be teaching in a new year group, or have new responsibilities, but they don’t have to worry about where they are going or when they will arrive. They’re cruising towards a fully paid summer with a job to return to afterwards. And always, at this time of year, I feel a little pang of envy.
It’s not that I don’t love my job. I love being a teacher, and most of all, I love being passionate about the work I do and the children I work with. I’m proud of the knowledge I’ve gained in all the different schools I have been fortunate (or less fortunate!) enough to work in. And I love putting that knowledge into practice in different settings, seeing one challenge through before moving on to another. Supply teaching gives me the flexibility to do all these things and the emotional space I need to do them well, but the one thing it doesn't give me is security.
At this time of year, I’m desperately trying, along with many other supply teachers, to line myself up with some regular long term work for September. I’ve resigned myself to a summer spending as little as possible and, depending on the money we have managed to save from any regular work I might have had, perhaps a couple of long weekends or a week away camping in the Lakes, and I’m hanging on to the possibility that something will turn up to pay for Christmas. This year, I’ve discovered, it’s not so much what work comes in, as when it does.
As I type, I have a small child balanced on one knee and a netbook on the other. Baby E is no longer a tiny newborn but a rapidly sprouting six month old, long and lanky like her father. She sleeps with her head snuggled into the crook of my arm, sprawled on my chest and legs either side of mine. It occurs to me that the last few weeks of my maternity leave are slipping away from me, as I wait to hear from my recruitment consultant before the end of July. Like any new parent, I’m not looking forward to going back to work, but at the moment I have no work to go back to. No stability. No work colleagues waiting for me to come back. No familiar children or parents. No guaranteed wage. No going back to work to get paid over the summer. Wherever I end up it will be another fresh start. It would be easy to allow myself to believe that I’ll be able to stay at home forever, but the truth is that if I don’t get work, we’ll struggle to get by and from a practical point of view, the longer it is before I find out what I am doing, the more difficult it will be to arrange good quality childcare…and as an early years teacher, good quality childcare is a highly emotive issue!
Advance planning and organisation are the key to being a good supply teacher, and even more crucial when you’re a working parent too. And to that end I’ve been asked by the lovely Sharon here at The Supply Teacher to take a look at The Cover Teacher’s Planner by Gareth Tanswell, a new diary designed especially with supply teachers and temporary school staff in mind. I’ve been giving it the once over, wondering if it will make my life any easier when I go back to work. Here are my thoughts:
There are several features of the Planner that I really like and I think would be very useful, although in all honesty, in its current format, I’m not sure how much use it would be to the average Early Years or Primary teacher. Each day is set out in sessions, leaving room to detail objectives and work set, behaviour and achievements. It’s a little too structured for my needs as is, although I can see how this would really work with a bit of alteration. With room to write the agency’s name at the top, this could be photocopied and left as a record of everything done, and I could keep a copy for myself: I like the idea of this for a number of reasons. Firstly, it gives me a bank of ideas to draw on. Secondly, it acts as a safety net, as I have a record of everything I have done on any given day, and thirdly, if I return to a certain school or class on a regular basis, I can use it to track the children’s progress during my teaching sessions, informing the class teacher’s judgements. I like that. It makes me accountable, and I’m all for we supply teachers being accountable. It means we get taken seriously.
The way it stands, I’d be more inclined to use this if I were a secondary teacher, I think. It’s a little rigid even for use in a Key Stage 1 or 2 classroom in my opinion, and it would almost definitely need tweaking to work effectively for Early Years. I’d be tempted to amalgamate the Student Achievements and Behaviour columns and perhaps, for general primary, to separate the sessions into Literacy, Numeracy and a more general section for other subjects. But these are just teething problems for a new product that the Planner’s creator might take into account in the future; it also looks as if planners can be customised when placing a batch order, so agencies ordering for their teachers could well place orders based on differing key stages and needs, thereby providing them with an extremely useful working document.
There is plenty of space in the Planner for weekend and holiday dates, taking into account that supply teachers often work during holidays and at weekends (although I’m not sure the holiday dates all need a page a day...I think that makes the Planner bigger than it needs to be.) Room for reminders and tuition/out of school activities, in addition to space for recording non work related activities make it comprehensive and useful for more than just work. There’s an impressive array of additions in the back; incident report forms, lesson plan forms, risk assessments, and a mileage and expenses log. There’s also space to record regular schools and agency details in the front. Of course, teaching Foundation Stage, I’d like to see space to observe particular children and record their comments somewhere, but then, the planner could be customised to accommodate that too, perhaps, if ordered and produced in bulk. Imagine that. The Early Years supply teacher’s planner…an invaluable addition to the supply bag! I’d also like to hope that agencies could be encouraged to include their timesheets as an “in the back” resource. Fab for photocopying when you realise you’ve run out!
I have only one main problem with the Planner, and that’s its size. It’s a hefty tome (sorry, I’m on maternity leave…I didn’t have the time to count the pages, but there are a LOT!) Just to keep it neat and tidy, and prevent pages being torn, I think it would be better produced with a cardboard cover. This could become an excellent working document for supply teachers and, as one who shoves everything willy-nilly into my supply bag and expects it to survive, I think it needs to be durable! It’s going to being generally manhandled, pored over, flicked through umpteen times, have random pieces of paper stuffed between the pages or post-it notes stuck to it, and yet it needs to remain in the sort of condition where you wouldn’t feel embarrassed about having it out in the classroom or when writing pre-bookings in, or at interview.
But all in all, I’m impressed.
And with that all in mind, I’m getting organised. I’ve enrolled on an Autism training course and I’ve been in and signed all my paperwork long before the summer so that my recruitment consultant knows I’m available and is actively looking for work for me as early as possible. It’s all a juggling act. Learning what work I may or may not have next year, and how I will organise childcare for Baby E when I am at work, has proved something of a headache over the past few weeks. Obviously a regular long term assignment would be easier when planning, but in the short term, day to day advance bookings would be an option. I’m lucky enough to be able to rely on Baby E’s granny in the beginning, at least. She’s agreed to travel fifty miles or so to look after the little one, and stay overnight, which has put my mind at rest. It must be worth it financially. My husband hasn’t opened his mouth to complain that it means his mother in law will be staying overnight every week!
It also means that now I can stop thinking about it all, and enjoy the remainder of my precious maternity leave. I’m looking forward to the six weeks holiday this year, and for once I don’t envy my teacher friends with permanent jobs at all. They’ll spend part of their summer planning for September, and I won’t. And this year, I feel just a little bit glad about that.