Supply teaching work - 16 questions I wish I’d asked my supply agency

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Adam Morris
Feb 20th 2023 in
Twinkl guest blogger Adam Morris, ex-cover supervisor, recounts his earliest experiences of supply teaching, and takes a look at some personal wins and fails. From decorating cheesecake to wielding a soldering iron, his stories are a testament to the educators who provide teaching in schools when it’s needed the most. 

"Adam's experiences offer real insight into choosing a supply agency. Adam didn't work with Airsupply during his time as a cover supervisor but has become aware of us since joining Twinkl. team.Thank you so much Adam for offering your valued experiences to our community of supply teachers."

Airsupply leadership team

Supply teaching work - the learning curve

Supply teaching work comes with a sharp learning curve. The first hurdle for many is choosing the right agency partner for supply teaching work. A hugely important decision which falls right at the start. With the pressure of bills to pay, and a sense of inbuilt urgency it’s time to jump right in, but, wait! How do you know you've made the right choices?

Where to begin - think about what matters to you

It’s useful to think about your motives. What do you want from your supply teaching? What do you want from supply teaching agencies? Maybe you want higher rates of pay. Maybe you prefer the flexibility to set your own hours. Skipping the hassle of phone calls and scheduling is another part of the job too. It all varies depending on who you pick. 

So before you make your choice, check out the questions below. I know I wish I’d asked them sooner. Hopefully, they’ll give you a headstart when you begin your career as a supply teacher.

How did you choose your first supply teaching agency?

The short answer is that I didn’t. Mine was recommended to me by a colleague. In hindsight, I wish I’d done a lot more research. For example, some agencies pay up to £30 more than others. Perks and holiday rates should be a factor as well. You’ll want an agency where it’s easy to set and agree on your work hours, and a system for staying in touch. With some agencies, even those small things are next to impossible in my experience, so it’s worth shopping around.

I was lucky in the end. After building up my good reputation, I was able to play my cards right and I found plenty of supply teaching work local to me. There are still many agencies that don't pay as much as you'd hope for, so I can't stress enough to shop around.

What were morning routines like when you had supply teaching work?

If you’re on a long-term contract, same as any other. Last-minute phone calls for supply teaching work were expected between 7:30-8:00 am. 

Having had bags of enthusiasm, I’d signed up for every school under the sun. I got up for my first day at the crack of dawn. Expected loads of calls. I was suited and booted for 7 am. Raring to go.

But it was a fortnight or so before I got my first supply teaching phone call. And even then it was at 10 am. I’d just changed back into my pyjamas (as was the tradition for a day off in the week), so I changed again and was out in a flash.

You learn flexibility works both ways. But if you’re open about what you want from your supply teaching agency, they’ll respect that. 

How are the commuting times as a supply teacher?

That depends on you. When I first started, I set loads of boundaries. I wanted to avoid city driving and keep the commute under 30 miles. I was so adamant about returning to the schools I liked, I remember outreaching to one with an absent learning mentor. They’d told me they’d be off for six weeks and I used that to my advantage. I called to “check-in” and wound up getting my own contract. 

Sometimes I had requests to drive a little further. But there was no pressure. A good agency will be really supportive of your needs. And some places will let you set your preferences so you can fly under the radar for jobs you don’t like.

How long did it take for supply teaching work to come in?

It was slow going. It felt as though schools wanted to test the waters with me. I needed to get my name out there and build up a reputation.

The minute I finished my first job, the floodgates opened. 

How often did your supply teaching agency find work for you?

Agencies that are great at making connections with schools and building their client base will be able to sing your praises like a boss. And once you have experience from your first few supply teaching days, your agency can use that to get you more work.

Once the work is regular, I could generally pick and choose how many days I wanted. 

But schools really appreciate loyalty. And return the favour. If I worked a full contract with them, they’d usually ask for me by name if they rang for cover again.

What would you do if you didn’t get a call for any supply teaching?

I changed into my dressing gown and put the kettle on. 

Sometimes you have to put money aside. So having a high rate of pay really helps with this. It make up for those quiet weeks. And this supports your finances when you’re on holiday too. 

What if you were late?

It rarely came up. You tried your best, but the journeys took time. That’s how it was when you were supply teaching. Especially if they were last minute. 

In my experience, schools were grateful just to have you there. There is a lot of demand for supply teaching work.

How did you make a good impression with the school?

I would have my DBS, and a copy of my CV. If they asked for it, you’d look super organised. 

Asking about SEND needs made you look really good. If you have resources to work with SEND pupils, even better. This helps you in the log run as well. Pupils really appreciate it when you show an awareness of their needs. You don’t need to be an expert. But it still gets you plenty of bonus points. 

How did you make a good impression with the pupils?

I usually had a few resources ready-made to keep classes busy. Nothing serious. Games, or ice breakers. I used to have to make these myself, but you can source them from places like Twinkl now. Huge timesaver when you’re supply teaching. 

Resources bought you time while you turned the computer on, did the register, etc. And it broke the tension.

I also took a few minutes to go over expectations. If you had a rough idea of behaviour policy, you could show that you knew the system. But gear it towards rewards, not sanctions. 

How did you deal with behaviour while supply teaching?

Prevention is always better than cure, always. I lost count of the great supply teaching experiences that I had with classes because they realised they could use me to get millions of bonus points with their regular teacher. Some of the challenging pupils even treated it like a fresh start with you. 

Novelty is everything. Be creative with your behaviour management. Using cards, stickers, or games will win your classes over quickly.

Reward consistently. See to it that school rewards are followed up as well. You can mention specific names of students at reception if you can’t pass it on. That usually makes its way back to the teacher. Useful if you ever come back to any more supply teaching work with them. 

What’s the best school you’ve ever worked with as a supply teacher?

One SEND school really looked after me. I got loads of supply teaching work from them. And the staff were so welcoming and supportive. It felt like I properly worked there. They even offered me a job.

I thought I’d well and truly burned a bridge when I rejected their offer, as well as taking some time off to travel. However the day I got back, I got a phone call from the same school, asking for me to cover. Literally the next day. 

Despite the jet lag, I said yes. The following day, I was in a classroom. The main teacher could see I was cream crackered. She brought me a cuppa and a biscuit and settled me in gently.

That school was incredible to me. I was grateful.

What was your first job with a supply teaching agency?

I was asked to cover a teaching assistant position in a specialist SEND school. Once I’d signed up, she texted me one incredible bit of advice: get involved with everything. Even doing the pots. 

When I wasn’t sitting with the kids, helping them with their lesson work, or guiding them from one class to the next, I was making brews and printing off worksheets. 

I realised then that all the little jobs get forgotten about because there’s so much one to one work with SEND students. They were so impressed with my work ethic, they asked me back for the next two weeks. Best bit of work advice I’d ever got. And it led to more supply teaching work!

What’s the best day of supply teaching you’ve ever had?

I was sent to a secondary school to teach design and technology for a morning. Resistant materials. Little did I know that it was a challenging bottom set. Plus I was teaching them how to use a soldering iron; I could barely use a normal iron. 

A recipe for disaster. But the kids loved it. I think they’d cottoned on to the fact that I had no idea what I was doing, but was having a go anyway. And I was being a bit of a showman while I was at it. This set the tone for the rest of the lesson and the class was fantastic.

It went so well that the school asked me to stay all day. I spent my afternoon making a cheesecake with the same group. The kids were in fits of laughter again, as I tried to decorate mine by drizzling chocolate over the top and making a massive mess. The look on the TA’s face was priceless. But their behaviour was spot on. And I got some of the best feedback I’d ever had from a school.

What’s the worst day of supply teaching you’ve ever had?

I once got asked to cover a GCSE language class. I spent my commute praying that it would be Spanish. But I discovered they were all-day German classes on arrival. Could I speak a word of it? …nein.

That was a tough day. But I managed to save face by challenging the class to learn the German grammar and vocab for that lesson faster than I could. They were a competitive bunch. So they took that action. It made the last half of each class a lot more peaceful.

What’s the best piece of advice you could share with those new to supply teaching?

Even if you’re qualified to teach, take on other roles. Working with a supply teaching agency can be such a rich experience. Make the most of every single opportunity. You’ll also have a better understanding of all the different roles that make a school tick.

Is supply teaching work a useful experience?

Incredible. I graduated from university with very little experience. Through three years with an agency, I’d been a learning mentor, teaching assistant for the blind, and home tutor for excluded kids. I’d worked in behaviour units, primary schools, secondary schools and even the local library as a home tutor.

It’s fantastic ammunition to have in interviews. Nothing phases you. Because you’ve seen it all. 

When I applied for my first full-time job, the assessment day was intense. I had to write an essay, do an interview with students, one with the department, and a final one for the leadership team. I practically waltzed through it. All the valuable advice and top tips I’d been given meant I felt really prepared. 

If you had known about Airsupply, would you have done supply teaching with them?

It's really great to see an agency that puts the teacher first. Many agencies are not so enlightened.

Being able to set your own pay scale is an incredible perk. And I wouldn’t moan about earning up to an extra £30 a day either.

Plus I would have really appreciated a system where you use an app to set work. During short-term contracts, my days were full of phone calls. Not a fan. Prefer the flexibility to check in myself. You just feel more in charge of your day.

At the end of the day, you have to pick a supply teaching agency that suits you the most. Do your homework. It takes a bit of time. But it pays off.

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Airsupply teachers typically earn £30 per day more, doing work they choose.

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