Interview with... Sally-Jayne, self-employed supply teacher

Supply teacher Sally-Jayne talks to us about the importance of a smile and developing her teaching styles.

Interview with... Sally-Jayne, self-employed supply teacher

Why did you get into supply teaching?

I love teaching. I love working with children. I love seeing the progress they make, and I love seeing how fired up they get and how engrossed they get when you make a subject interesting for them. I don't love all the paperwork that goes with teaching – the endless assessments, the logging of results, the must should and could target setting, the reports etc.

I also thrive on variety. Before becoming a teacher I was a project manager and I still love the buzz of having lots of different things to do. I soon realised that teaching the same class for a whole year wasn't for me.

For me, supply teaching is the perfect solution. I get all the joy of teaching, all the variety of working with different age-groups from Foundation Stage right up to adults, and none of the paperwork and politics that are so often associated with the profession. Oh – and best of all, I get to have a nose at other people’s classrooms, to see what their classroom displays are like, and to see their planning to get new ideas for my own teaching!

How did you get into supply teaching?

I chose not to join an agency, so I am registered as self-employed. I contacted the schools I was interested in working for and explained what I could do for them. I only work for a handful of schools, but I am the first choice supply teacher for most of them, so I get as much work as I need – sometimes more!

I also work as a private tutor, and as a visiting lecturer at a local university and so I sometimes find myself teaching an 8 till 8 day, but I don't mind because I enjoy what I'm doing.

A lot of people say they wouldn't like supply teaching because they would hate to lose the bond they have with their own class. For me, this isn't a problem. Because I only work for a few schools, I teach the same children on a fairly regular basis and so I do have that bond – but with the whole school rather than just one class.

What did you take with you on assignment?

There are a few things I always take, the most important being my smile – after all, it's bad enough when your proper teacher doesn’t come to school, without having a really miserable-looking supply teacher in your classroom!

I never leave home without my whiteboard markers, because it’s amazing how often you turn up to a classroom to find that there aren't any, or that they are all dried up. I also take some ideas for standalone lessons just in case there is no planning left. If there’s no planning, I’ll have a look in the children’s books first to see what they are working on, but there have been occasions when a teacher has taken books home to mark and then called in sick. On those occasions it’s handy to have some ideas for one-off lessons up your sleeve.

Stickers and praise-pads always come in handy. Children will always push the boundaries, and when you are a supply teacher, some want to know exactly how far they can push – but it’s amazing how focused even the most disengaged child in the class can be when there is a sticker at stake!

Finally: ideas for fillers are essential – assembly could be unexpectedly cancelled or the class might finish the work their teacher set for them more quickly than he or she imagined. Games and quizzes to practise what they have been learning that day always go down well.

How did you ensure you'd be called back to work at that school?

I’m always professional. I arrive in plenty of time to find my way around the classroom, to have a look at any plans that have been left and to make sure I know what I'm doing for the day. It sounds obvious, but if plans have been left – I use them! A few teachers I know say they get really fed up with making the effort to plan a day’s worth of lessons with a supply teacher in mind only to come back the next day to find that the plans have been ignored.

Another thing that I thought would be obvious, but seems not to be, is that I mark the work. I once had an email from a headteacher, thanking me on behalf of the staff for being kind enough to mark the books! To me it’s part of the job, but if a head takes the time to comment on, it sounds as if not everyone thinks so. I always leave a note for the class teacher, letting him or her know how the day has gone. I'll include notes on behaviour (good and bad) and let them know how lessons have gone, with details about which children found the work easy and which ones need a bit more help. If plans have been left I'll annotate them, and if I’ve had to deviate from the plan I'll note down why and how – for example the plans said to use something on the IWB, but the laptop was locked away and nobody had the key!

I just “get on with it”! A head once said to me that if a school has to call a supply teacher in it’s because there’s a problem, and that she really appreciated the fact that I can just walk in and solve those problems rather than creating more.

Story time!

No particular nightmares, but the first time I did supply in a school for deaf-children I was extremely nervous before-hand. I’d spent a few days in the school observing how they teach, but that’s not the same as teaching yourself. I worried about whether I would understand the children, and about whether they would understand me. I have some BSL (British Sign Language) but it’s not the same standard as the other staff.

I started the day in a class where there were some plans, and we did maths. That was OK – I know the signs for numbers so I started to feel more confident. Then part way through the day I was taken out of the class where there were some plans, and put into one where there weren't any. All I knew was that they were learning about Ancient Greece. I somehow managed to dredge up enough sign language to tell them about the Trojan War, but all the while I was looking at the children thinking “ I'm really not sure you are understanding me.” My relief when they were able to retell the story and draw it in cartoon form was immense! I must have done ok that first day, because they asked me to go back to cover a class for half a term.

Do you have any advice for those wishing to be a supply teacher?

Be flexible: just because you were booked for Year 2 doesn't mean that you will actually be teaching Year 2! If you turn up and they ask you to spend the day in Year 6 instead – do it! Take it as a compliment – it means they know they can trust you to do a good job wherever they put you.

Be prepared: as I said, just because you were booked for Year 2 doesn't mean that you will actually be teaching Year 2! Make sure that whatever ideas you have brought with you can be adapted to use in any year group – just in case!

Be professional: the children are entitled to the same standard of education as they would get if their own teacher were in the room. Even if there are no plans, or you are unable to follow them, you must teach something meaningful that helps the children to make progress. Remember that the children are your best source of information… I had a phone call at 8.50am one morning to see if I could cover. I raced into the school, and was hurried down to the classroom before I had even finished signing my name in the visitors book. A rather harassed-looking caretaker made a grateful exit and I was left alone with 30 expectant faces and not a clue what I should be doing. I settled them down with some silent reading just to give me time to look around for some plans, a timetable, or anything to give me some idea what was expected to happen that day, and then began with lessons as quickly as possible. I’d obviously had no time at all to find out about behaviour policies, and as we all know there are certain children who will push and push to see if you do know the rules. One child was being particularly disruptive and I had spoken to him several times in the first half hour. “James*,” I said to him at last, “I have now given you three warnings about your behaviour. If you were the teacher what would you be saying to you now?” Very obligingly he told me, “I’d tell me I’d got to write my name on the board and lose 5 minutes of my Golden Time.” And so he did, and then he settled down into acceptable behaviour. It works every time!

What did you learn from being a supply teacher?

I've definitely become a better teacher through doing supply work. For example, I do a lot of supply work in a school for deaf children. It’s made me really aware of not talking too much! I've always made sure my lessons catered for different learning styles, but now I've developed my teaching to be extra visual and extra kinaesthetic.

How could the lives of supply teachers be improved?

Either leave us a computer AND a password for it, or leave a plan that doesn't involve using the whiteboard.

Tell us which group is which! Remember that we don’t know the children so we have no way of knowing whether Pelicans is your top or bottom group unless you write this on the plan.

Please don't just leave a note saying “the children know what they are doing”. Maybe some of them do, but others only think they do and the rest don’t have a clue. It’s not always easy getting to the bottom of what you are expecting them to accomplish.

Pin a copy of your plans somewhere easy to spot – that way if you call in sick, we can still teach the lesson you were planning to teach, so when you get back your children are still on track. Leave a copy of your timetable in the same place, then we can make sure the children have some consistency and get the lessons they are expecting to have.

Please treat us as professionals. We are not supply teachers because we can’t get a “proper job” – some of us have chosen this way of working and we are just as dedicated and committed as classroom teachers. Unfortunately there are still a few teachers out there who treat us with complete disdain.

Who would be the ultimate supply teacher and why?

Dr Who. No matter what subject was sprung on him, he would have all the time in the universe to swot up on it, he could mark the books before he taught the lessons so he would know what misconceptions were going to arise… in fact he could even visit the classroom the day before the class teacher called in sick, so he would know exactly where to pick up from in the lessons.

He’d have the ultimate eyes in the back of his head. If he didn’t see who threw the rubber, he could just jump in his Tardis, watch the incident from the back of the classroom and then return and be able to call on the culprit without turning round. And his lessons would be memorable. What better way to learn about history than by spending a year living in the era concerned, and still being back before hometime? What better way to learn about geography or a language than by living in that country for a year without missing morning break? What better way to learn about problem-solving and teamwork than working together to defeat the Daleks? Children could make 2 full levels progress, in every subject, in just one day – a guaranteed way to make sure he got invited back.

And finally, what is your favourite supply teacher resource?

Singing French – it’s a book of songs in French with an accompanying CD. Languages are my specialist subject, and most children love learning them. I find this resource to be a great carrot to dangle in front of the class: If you work hard and finish everything Mrs Bloggs has left for you, then we might have time at the end of the day to learn a new French song.


Sally-Jayne has more information about being a self-employed supply teacher on her blog here: You can find her on Twitter: @sjbteaching


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