The Guardian's Secret Teacher: I Thought Supply Would Be Hell, But It's a Joy

The Guardian's Secret Teacher: I Thought Supply Would Be Hell, But It's a Joy

I get to spend my days with the funniest, most creative, interesting people around – and also get to go home on time

When I first started supply teaching, after five years working abroad, the idea frightened me. After all, surely it would be unruly classes of untamed charges out for a day’s holiday in the classroom? Surely I wouldn’t cope? But I did. Last year, one of the most popular Secret Teacher blogs was about the hell of supply teaching – but for me it has been a godsend.

Although I have since taken on positions in schools, I have always gone back to supply. As the new academic year started up again last year, I didn’t return to the school where I’d been for the previous four years, due to restructuring. Instead, I’m signed on for supply again. I couldn’t be happier.

Don’t get me wrong, the job satisfaction that seduced me in the first place still gives me a reason to teach and is hard to replicate in another field. And nothing is quite like working with a class for a year or longer, and knowing you’re making a positive impact that only time and love can enable. But since my PGCE, the game has changed so much that having the opportunity to step back, sleep properly when term starts up again and have my weekends intact has stopped me from hurtling along a career trajectory that might not be the best for me in the long term.

Secret supply teacher: we're used to trouble from students. If only we had support from staff


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It’s true, my take home wage is not on par with my professional pay point, but right now I’m not looking for the limits on my time which that particular pound of flesh involves. Primary supply, in London at least, is almost guaranteed. Some agencies even offer a five-day rate, often in an attempt to lure bright-eyed young Australian and New Zealanders to come over and wet their feet.

Despite its dusty image, the supply market seems to be booming. In May of 2016, the BBC estimated that an average of £168 is being spent per child on hiring extra staff, with over £250 per child in London. According to a Labour analysis of government figures in December 2015, school spending on supply staff increased from 2013 to 2015 by more than £300m to a record £1.3bn. Clearly, there are loads of sick teachers and a lot of unfilled posts, and children who need support.

The joy of supply is that if I don’t like the way a school treats me, how it organises its curriculum, or how they do or don’t support their struggling learners, I don’t need to go back. I don’t need to spend the weekends planning, assessing, wondering how the children are ever going to make it through the expected two sub-levels over the year. There is no worrying about reports, parents’ evenings, or long agendaless meetings.

I start on time, finish on time, and get to teach in between. I have a few, highly adaptable lessons up my sleeve if I need them, but generally stick with the work already set. I have never felt unable to chat with fellow teachers, and have core friends and ex-colleagues to call on if I’m unsure.

It’s difficult to quantify the professional development that comes unexpectedly out of supply, but it teaches you to adapt very quickly and absorb the different rhythms of different schools. You find out what really works for you and for the children, and see how to put it into practice. You learn to use your voice less, to become a better manager, and to have fun without the restrictions of a constant known agenda.

It can be confusing and tiring, just like anything that helps you to grow, but it is the most fantastic way to see inside the workings of our education system and, sometimes, to be inspired.

Secret Teacher: cutting staff numbers to save money is a dangerous game


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Yes, there have been memorably peculiar days. One headteacher offered the year three class I was covering a biscuit at the end of the day “if you behave for the supply teacher”. I don’t recall the children’s behaviour being a problem, though how she thought waving a packet of custard creams in front of them was supporting their longer-term prospects was perhaps more concerning.

Another headteacher, whose school had taken me an hour to arrive at, truly didn’t believe that my agency verified qualifications were genuine. Bizarrely – and for the only time ever – I’d had to turn up at the job carrying my A-level, degree and PGCE certificates, as well as my passport and my DBS check. The head implied very clearly that they couldn’t be real so I was turned away for being overqualified, or appearing to lie about it, it was never clear which. I can only suppose she thought I was a master forger too.

But supply means that I still get to spend my days with the funniest, most creative, most interesting people on Earth, and get paid for it. I still get to be a person who makes a difference to those people, that day. And I always get to go home. On time.

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