British trained teacher Sam Clark tells of the trials and tribulations that come with supply teaching.

Why did I spend that extra ten minutes in bed, I thought as I barged past a disturbingly large primary school child to receive my first reprimand of the morning. “Mr. Clark, I presume?” came an officious voice from behind the “Welcome” Desk. This office worker didn’t acknowledge the rain/sweat that had soaked my morning look and clearly indicated my travel turmoil. Oh yes, a toxic cocktail of tardy trains, faulty escalators and a road closure had all colluded to force me, a teacher of the supply disposition, to sprint 1.2 miles (google maps told me so) to beat the armies of tiny adversaries who were marching menacingly into class.

Over the months, I have learnt that supply teaching is like jumping into a freezing cold swimming pool. Not even remotely appetizing at first but when you are reluctantly pushed into it by the not-so-holy Trinity of guilt, money worries and that tedious Jeremy Kyle, many riches can follow. Here are a few tips to navigate the freezing waters and locate the bag of rubies.

1. Time: Give yourself enough time.

There is a temptation to be minimal with your preparation time. ’Nobody knows me’ and ’I’m only there for a day’ are two thoughts never far away as you contemplate whether to hit that snooze button for a fourth time. The last thing you want is to be arriving with the children. No time to get your bearings, no time to discuss the schedule, no time to go to the toilet, no time to find the toilet! These can all come back to haunt you. Ban that snooze button!

2. Early skirmishes.

All teacher manuals stress the significance of those first five minutes. The chance for you to set the boundaries when the children are at their most susceptible. Unlike serene September where children are desperate to impress their new teacher, you get a splintered morning where opportunity is oozing out of the class. Not an opportunity to win house points, or an opportunity to display some impressive collaboration, but rather an opportunity to punish the naïve supply alien with a savage slice of lawlessness.

So, what do you do when faced with this choir of scheming yodellers? You return fire with an enormous dollop of positivity. Draw a smiley face and a sad face go on the board (a tick and cross for Year 6- “we don’t need no smileys!”). Explain to your audience that “the smiley equals good things… but…” and emphasise the BUT here. “If you have a tick by your name…” keep them waiting… “you get a choice” – children love choice!- “either you get a happy letter that goes to your Head Teacher or your carers.” At this point you ask the cherub of the class (these are easily identifiable- sitting up straight with a finger over their lips) to write their name under the smiley face. A delightful murmur follows. “Ooh, this teacher means what they say,” floats delightfully around the crisp orderly air.

3. Register

So, you have laid down the law and you have the class where you want them. Momentum must be maintained. These days schools have an odious electronic enemy in the form of a register called SIMS (Supply Idiot Must Suffer), which, without the necessary planning can leave you in a ghastly mess.

Before school ensure that SIMS is up on the screen and the password has been sought. It’s too early to be wandering down the corridor trying to find the class teacher so if you have register problems send the aforementioned smiley face child down the corridor to find Miss. When SIMS has allowed you access then explain that you are going to make mistakes with pronunciation. You might even get someone’s name entirely wrong and that the sad face will be looming for anybody who finds these mistakes entertaining. Nominate ONE child to correct you so that you don’t have a tsunami of amendments knocking you off your chair.

Once the register is complete (type N for anyone who is absent) give a little fist pump because you have passed the first major obstacle on your way to a day of peace and tranquillity.

4. Lessons

Literacy and Numeracy will confront you in the morning. You will usually get plans from teachers but unless you- 1. Are in a perfectly behaved school (rare!) 2. Have Superwoman/man as your TA (very very rare!)- these plans will be of the last minute variety.

It’s a known fact that supply teachers get the lessons that the normal teacher doesn’t want to do. Always do the work you’ve been told to do but have golden activities up your sleeve for when these lessons finish. These golden lessons should be accessible for any Year group and require no resources and even little marking. Here is one I made earlier:

Colour Poem

Blue is
Red is
Black is

Admittedly, not the most inspiring, but it requires no resources and nearly EVERYBODY can participate: use of metaphors and imagery for your Oscar Wilde’s in Year 6; capital letters and full stops for your Paris Hilton’s in Year 1. Although simple, this activity seldom fails, particularly if you scatter some Pie Corbett writing games throughout the session. Look up Mr. Corbett, he is a supply teacher‘s soul mate.

5. A second wind for the afternoon

Fatigue, irritation and playground dramas can all dampen the magical powers of the smiley face after lunch. It is now time to unveil a sparkling new bribe, I mean…incentive. Draw a circle on the board and explain to the class that if five golden time minutes are won then forget work, the last half hour will be spent playing a Drama Game. Cue mass improvement in the state of class sitting and return of title as best supply teacher ever. Don’t ever get complacent.

The afternoon is a marathon and we haven’t tackled a supply’s most perilous activity of the day: guided reading. The problem with this nefarious discipline? There are lots. A perfect Guided Reading session has the teacher reading with one group while the other four groups work harmoniously on a reading activity (these vary from handwriting, independent reading, comprehension, spelling, laptops). What really happens is that the children confuse their groups and nobody knows anything, other than that it’s their turn on the laptops. This all equals uncertainty that can swiftly translate into chaos. If disaster strikes there is no harm asking everybody to read independently. So divisive is Guided Reading that it can turn angels into rogues, your carefully constructed utopia becomes purgatory!

6. The Home Straight

Once the Guided Reading books have been shoved disdainfully into their folders, you enter the home straight. A reminder about the Drama Game goes down well at this point. The most likely “other” lesson you will get is PSHE. For those of you not versed in SEAL this equates to getting the children in a circle and giving everyone the chance to talk about their problems/goals/getting on/falling out/changes/bullying. Arguably, one of the most significant lessons if taught well, but in supply mode, it‘s a tough ask. You barely know the children’s names, let alone their emotional backgrounds. Once the discussion/input is over, model what the children have to do.

An example of this would be to draw four personal goals and then write a sentence about the picture, using ‘because’ for the Oscar Wilde’s. That should do. Now, because you are such an expert supply teacher, the children have earned their five minutes golden time and have qualified to spend the last 30 minutes playing the Drama Game (it has NEVER failed- the rules are explained below). During this game show children one of the letters you have written to Miss Perfect and then remind all of the children who are on the smiley face that they are one good piece of behaviour away from making their Mum’s day.  An example:

Dear Parents/carers,
X has been a joy to teach today.
She has listened well and been very helpful.
Well done.
Kind regards.

Mr. Y
(sign it- kids love that!)

7. The Countdown

However wonderful your contingent has been, take extra care for the countdown. With fifteen minutes to go, start planning the end of the day. The drama game is a guaranteed hit. Don’t be influenced to let it go on so everybody gets a turn. Rushing is your enemy here so give yourself enough time to execute your evacuation plan without panic.

Children tidy the class and then get their coats, bags and reading books. Search for the dictator in you and get your line organised with military precision. Ultimately, home time is the only time of the day when you could get in serious trouble as their guardian angel and explain this to your class in kiddy language. Children have to be picked up and this has to be done in a manner that would make any Health and Safety inspector smile cheerily (is this possible?).

Ensure that every child is picked up by an adult that knows them. Repeat this after me: No child leaves your supervision without eye contact from the person the child is pointing to! Ignore the infant complaints and accept that your class will be the last to disperse but this concern is nothing compared to what could happen if you rush.

The main pitfall is children who go home by themselves. Don’t allow this to happen unless the teacher has already given you the green light. If the child does go home by themselves then the office can confirm this once the other children have left. If you have any doubt play it safe. Take the situation to the office and they will take it from there. This is not a time to take risks however desperate you are to get to the pub.

8. Behaviour

The elephant in the article. I have intentionally left this to last because if you follow the strategies above then you won’t come to much harm. It’s best to know about the behaviour of your class as soon as possible. Ask questions on arrival. Usually you will get generic responses like “they’re lovely” or “they’re fine, so long as you are firm.” This is good news. Alarm bells should ring if you hear: “you will be there 3rd teacher this week” or “sorry, there are no plans, the teacher has been at home all week with stress.” Time to get out the body armour… I have grouped the different types of classes you will face into categories.

  • Parish Meeting Class = (“They are lovely.”)  All children respect your role as the leader. You can relax and just worry about teaching them properly.
  • Protest Class = (“You might have to sit on them a bit but they are fine.”) Often these are the best. You have a bit more energy but your authority isn’t questioned. You will have to deal with a little low level behaviour but nothing that can’t be handled.
  • Riot Class = (“The class teacher is very strict with them. There are two children on behaviour reports.”) When asked you will describe this class as “Energetic”. Usually there will be one or two children who push at the boundaries and require a sanction to manage them. If this works then you will survive without too much stress but you may have to think about removing them from class if they continue to cause trouble.
  • War Zone Class = (“They are a difficult class. Send out the difficult ones to Mr Strong WHEN they play up.”) There will be numerous children who think they are untouchable because they have got into the habit of doing largely what they want without consequence. There will be calling out, fiddling while your talking and the occasional bout of backchat. Deal firmly with the main perpetrators and the rest should back down.
  • Apocalypse Class = (“Good luck!”) There is nothing more lonely then looking at the clock and seeing 27 minutes remaining… of the first lesson. Let’s leave it at that.

Promise me one thing. Don’t ever let an Apocalyse class make you question your competence. The Apocalypse class is created because there is no consistent presence and it’s impossible for anyone to become that presence in one day. Survival is the only thing on your mind. Find out the behaviour policy and ensure you know what happens if the naughty ones push too hard. Above all, remember these three rules. 1. Don’t shout. 2. Don’t touch. 3. Don’t take it personally.

Self Assessment Supply teaching is challenging. There will be days when you come home wondering why you bother. However, the rewards are much greater than the odd Apocalypse. There are the discernible benefits: you are involved in the best parts of the profession without the mundane. No staff meetings, no assessment, no disgruntled parents, no planning (Hallelujah!) and a day that ends before 4 o’ clock. But there is also the camouflaged goodness. Unlike the vast majority of teachers, you don’t get stuck in one school, adopting the same style and approach for the rest of your career. You see an awful lot of creative innovative strategies that you can store away for the future as well as seeing inspirational managers operating while strutting their stuff in assemblies. It also doesn’t take long to cater your lessons to Year groups. You learn how to get the best out of a chatty boy in Year 6 on Tuesday and make a homesick Year 1 child enjoy a day without their mummy on Wednesday.

Needs and wants are confusing for any teacher. Supply teaching gives you a real life breath of experience rather than just reading about it on the TES website. You can throw yourself into every strand of education, ranging from Special Needs Schools to Pupil Referral Units. The exposure to all educational challenges provides an opportunity to pinpoint the next step and puts you in the shop window every day. In this way, supply teaching is a mirror. If you are brave enough to look into it, you can demonstrate your worth to the school, and the school can demonstrate it’s worth to you. One day the two will match and you will have found the next opportunity in your educational journey.

Sam Clark
Supply Teacher 2013 – Present
Smart Teachers

The Drama Game (that never fails)

  1. Put five chairs in a row at the front of class.
  2. Ask five children to sit on these chairs.
  3. The children on the chairs are characters and have to act out an action each. Child 1- King/Queen- hands on imaginary crown and says “this is my crown.” Child 2- Prince/Princess- hands on cheek saying “Pretty pretty”. Child 3- Hero- flexes bicep muscles and roars. Child 4- Magician- waves a wand and says “Woosh”. Child 5- Villain- mime beheading with hand and say “chop chop.”
  4. Once children have memorised their action, explain that they have to say their action and then do the action of another character. Eg. The King says “this is my crown” and then “pretty pretty”. It is now the princess’ turn and she always says her action first and then somebody else’s. Eg. Pretty Pretty- “chop chop”. Then it’s the villain’s turn.
  5. If one of the characters gets it wrong or hesitates they are eliminated and all the characters move up a chair leaving the villain’s seat empty. You then choose one of the children on the floor to fill the villain’s chair and the King starts again.
  6. The winner of the game is the child who spends the most time in the King/Queen chair.