What makes a good supply teacher? Former head Bob Jelley draws on some memories.

Retirement for me has meant several sea changes; some of them, like an Eccles cake in the morning and listening to Humphrey Lyttleton shows on internet radio, seem utterly decadent; some have been about earning money to top up the pension. The chief earner is supply teaching, which seems, incidentally, to net about £110 daily.

I approached supply work with some grim concerns. What would it be like? In the months before retirement I looked carefully at the supply teachers who worked alongside me. The best of them were superb teachers, some I had known for decades, but coming in as a supply there were extra indignities and precious few props. I watched, asked and listened with increasing interest to those colleagues, trying to gain from their experiences.

The best…

One supply teacher was an ex-headteacher. Val came in to an unfamiliar Key Stage 2 and did everything right. She arrived early; she was friendly and unassuming to every member of staff; she eagerly sought out the day’s planning and was grateful to her year team colleague for all her preparatory work. Although Val had been responsible just a few months earlier for the entire performance of an infant school, there was a clear sense of humility in the way she approached her new colleagues.

Val asked those questions about routines and procedures which you need to have answered if you are to slip into a school (insinuate, you might say). To whom do you pay tea money? Do other staff have school meals? Do they sit with the children to eat? Do the chairs go up at the end of the day? She quickly ascertained times and timetable and how she would be prompted into each phase.

Best of all, Val was positive about everything. She expressed enjoyment at being in our school and – whether you met her in the corridor or the staffroom – there was a smile. This approach was refreshing to staff and children. We had all groaned under the weight of several supply teachers who just hadn’t been able to do the job.

…and the worst

Worst of all were those colleagues who seemed not to have realised the basic survival techniques; the teacher who arrived late, ringing at 9 am to ask: ‘Where exactly are you again?’

The most experienced of teachers would want to spend time in the school and in the room sniffing out the surroundings, sifting through resources and reading the planning several times until the writer’s intentions were quite clear. If the established staff needed that level of preparation then how much more would the supply teacher? Being prepared and organised, before the arrival of the first child, are prerequisites for a successful day.

Then there was the supply teacher who had once taught at a prep school and measured all subsequent other experiences by the docility of 16 well inclined Year 4s during one golden week 10 years ago. It doesn’t help to be told by a visitor that there are some challenging characters in your school. You probably know that quite well already and you will still be there tomorrow.

Teaching involves eternal optimism; we have to believe that the sun is just about to break through the darkest of clouds. How we like to hear a visiting teacher tell us what is good about our school.

So what I ask of myself is what you might well be asking of your supply teacher?

As a supply teacher I try to be:

  • early and well prepared
  • positive about the children
  • appreciative of good planning
  • aware of who’s who, procedures and routines
  • and I try always to mark the work.
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