Why people judge supply teachers (and how wrong they are)

5 minutes to read
Sophie and her young son

As a full-time teacher, I eyed the merry-go-round of supply teachers in school with some suspicion. Who were these teachers who would turn up, do a day’s work, and then, after some marking and tidying, leave school with a happy smile on their faces?

I couldn’t decide whether I envied their absence from staff meetings and parents’ evenings, and their lack of curriculum responsibility, or felt sorry for their short-term relationships with staff and students. I observed that many teachers did not talk to them in the staff room and those who were new and unknown to the school often had to resort to scrolling through their phones during breaks, whilst the hubbub of gossiping jollity, made inaccessible with in-jokes and curriculum discussions, happened around them.

Despite being a friendly person who loves chatting to new people, my pressing timetable and endless to-do list meant that a quick hello and a cursory smile was often all that I had time for, as I pointed out the coffee to the new face in the school.

It’s now my turn

After fifteen years of full time teaching, it is now my turn to be that stranger in the staff room and I quickly realised how often supply teachers are the recipients of quick-judgements. That no matter how much classroom practice you have under your belt, how many subjects you have coordinated, or how many residential trips that you have been responsible for – people will often assume that you are an inexperienced or poor teacher, who requires guidance and help with sometimes even the simplest of tasks.

I cannot decide whether it delights or depresses me when members of staff exclaim, ‘Gosh! You are really good!’ (or words to that effect) as if they had assumed that, given your supply status, you would be woefully lacking in teaching and classroom management skills.

Supply has its own challenges

Fellow teachers can sometimes be the worst critics of supply teachers, and may assume that a teacher has chosen the supply route as an ‘easy option’. But as I have discovered, supply is far from an easy ride.

I sometimes arrive at school prepared to teach a particular age group, but will be asked, at the last minute, to teach another. I am armed with my back up plans and time-fillers to fill gaps between lessons, and will often draw upon experience and knowledge (and sometimes a quick Google search) to extend high achievers, support struggling learners or to address problems and misconceptions.

I have to engage with pupils that I have just met at the door and who are sometimes unnerved by a new face in their classroom, or may be having a challenging time at home. There are a whole host of reasons that mean a day spent thrown together may be tough, for both parties, if not handled sensitively and with consideration for their needs.

Most pupils are respectful of a new teacher arriving in their classroom, but there will always be ‘characters’ in the class for which I have a whole host of behavioural techniques that can stretch across seven years of age ranges. As a new face, it can feel disconcerting to not have prior knowledge of pupil behaviour, so you have to start the day with firm boundaries and a smile that conveys that you are approachable, but a voice that commands authority.

Throw in temperamental technology, unexpected fire alarms, pupil illness and accidents, and a dizzying maze of corridors that sometimes make a simple trip to the staffroom or toilet an unnerving challenge – yes, supply is teaching but without the comfort of familiarity of staff, school and routines. My motto is: always expect the unexpected.

In a school that you are settled at, you have proved your worth from the moment you aced the interview process, and continue to impress every day with your teaching prowess and handling of new situations. However, a supply teacher only has that one day in school to shine.

Don’t make assumptions

I CHOSE supply teaching – it did not choose me. I know this often surprises some teachers, because I too used to think that supply was for teachers that were not ‘good enough’ for a full-time post, or who could not secure themselves a permanent contract. I was wrong: I meet plenty of talented teachers who have, for a variety of reasons, chosen to work for a supply agency at this point in their career.

As all teachers know, the ever-increasing workload that is required to run a classroom means that evening and holiday work is unavoidable to the contracted teacher. But it’s something that a supply teacher (unless on a long-term contract) need not try to squeeze into an already busy home life.

Supply teaching suits my current requirements from my job. I fit my working week around the needs of my young son and revel in the fact that I can sometimes do the school run with him or attend his school celebrations, instead of missing them in favour of coordinating school events at my place of work.

This flexibility of work, added to the excitement of teaching in a variety of schools and meeting different children and staff, makes supply teaching an ideal working option for me, as it does for plenty of other teachers. But remember that we are hardworking teachers too, just with different demands on us on an everyday basis – and please don’t misjudge us.

At the end of an exhausting, but rewarding day, when a fellow teacher, or teaching assistant, gushes, ‘But you are so good! You should be teaching full-time!’ I just smile my thanks. I know they mean it as a compliment, but it just serves to remind me how misjudged supply teachers are.

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