Supply/substitute teaching can be really a tough job.
Managing the learning, relationships and behaviour of children that you’ve just met; deciphering another teachers’ plans and resources; learning routines, timings and procedures of the school (not to mention – where is the toilet?); and occasionally, dealing with with school staff, parents and students, who speak down to you because you’re not a permanent member of staff. Side-note: I was once in a secondary school, whereby the minute I’d finished my cup of tea, a teacher stormed over to ask if I’d finished and snatched her cup out of my hand. Apparently, I’d unknowingly drank from her cup. GASP!
With that said, supply teaching can also be rewarding, fulfilling, exciting and freeing, for you and the children you teach! It’s just about approaching it in the right way.
Here are my Top 10 tips to help you and your students get the most out of your day:
Introduce yourself, and set out expectations at the beginning of the day.
Wherever I teach, I provide a little introduction for my students about who I am, what we’re going to cover that day (especially important if you have autistic children in class) and what my expectations are. I tell them that I’ll do my best to learn names and keep things as close to normality as possible, but remind them that I’m only human and may make mistakes or require support from them. I find that showing a little vulnerability – in primary supply at least – results in a lot of students wanting to guide you through the day. It makes them step-up.
Learn names quickly.
This was isn’t easy, but it’s so important. Remember, to many students, you’re just a stranger, brought in to do a job. As far as they’re concerned, you have no real reason to get to know them, care about them, listen to them or understand them. Learning and using a child’s name, instantly creates more of a connection between you – and it’s a pretty handy tool for behaviour management too!
Learn names in lightning speed by:
a) Trying to remember distinguishing facts/features – e.g. Josh has the wild hair. Ella has the mischievous grin. Clayton and Braydon and twins, and their names sound alike. Emily read out that incredible simile! Tom A has brown hair. Tom C loves Harry Potter.
b) Using the information above, build up your memory bank through the day. Each time you hold class discussion, challenge yourself to use three more names. If you’re teaching multiple classes, then you’ll have to be realistic: unless you’re Derren Brown, you won’t remember 150+ names in a day. Just try and remember 6 names in each class, and make a conscious effort to remember names of some quiet, hardworking students, ensuring you’re not always just praising the super-confident or nagging the poorly behaved.
c) Find some time early into the day, to jot down names on a seating plan. If it’s a tricky class, kindly ask support staff to do this, or a sensible child. When I say sensible, I mean someone who will write down accurate names in correct places, avoiding you dolling out a detention to a year 9 ‘Donald Trump.’ Clear handwriting is equally important, to avoid you giving a detention to a year 6 ‘Dynald Troompt.’ I have a pack full of these hideously scruffy plans so that when I go into a school and a class that I haven’t seen in months, I can go in armed with names. Using a child’s name, who you’ve met once two months ago when you were in on supply, will honestly light up their entire face. It’s priceless!
If you have support staff, appreciate them for the god-send they are.
If I wasn’t already convinced as to the value of TAs, I am now! Through the course of my adventures on supply, I’ve received different levels of support from TAs in class (when you have one); but the particularly amazing ones have helped me to understand work set, timings of the school, policies and procedures, and yes – where the toilet is! More importantly, where you have a member of staff attached to a specific child or class, they will give you vital information about the students which will help you pre-empt what may go wrong and take steps accordingly. Be kind of them – their support may make all the difference in how you feel at the end of the day.
Show genuine interest in your students.
On supply, there are plenty of points in the day when you have opportunities to find out more about the class you’re teaching, and build up a rapport. In primary, most students perform quiet reading first-thing. I love to go around and listen to them read, while asking questions about books that they’re reading. Again – you’re showing them that you care and you’re interested. And it feels really good to get to know them. The major upside of this too, is that children are much more willing to work hard for people that they like. Just be sure that you really listen to the answer. If you’re just asking for the sake of it, while tallying up dinner orders in your head, they’ll know it’s fake interest.
Win over tricky students as early as possible.
Every class has its own, unique mix of personalities, often sprinkled with a few trouble-makers, lovable rouges and occasionally, straight-up psychopaths. It’s really important to get these children on-side as quickly as possible. Use their names, show an interest, give them jobs to do, ask them questions about school routines. I know that at times, you might feel like you shouldn’t have to go the extra-mile for students who choose to behave poorly, but in reality you’re just trying to get the best out of a child and class that you’ve just met. Failing to at least attempt to build up a relationship with these characters could lead to a very frustrating day for you, the student in question and the rest of the class.
Act like you’re SUPER-CHILL, even if you’re not.
Naturally, my tendency towards panic means that I’m probably one of the people you’d least like to have with you in an emergency – but after years of practice, I’ve developed a teaching persona of a calm, relaxed and laid-back teacher. Basically, I’ve learnt over time – after many mistakes – that nothing is ever gained from shouting at students and escalating problems. A lot of students who behave poorly crave attention, so by reacting loudly or emotionally, you’re just adding fuel to the fire. Certain things can be tactically ignored, and in instances where action is required; a look, a firm tone of voice, a hand placed on someone’s desk, a name written on the board mid-class discussion (without explanation) can work wonders. If a break-time argument threatens to spill into your literacy lesson, assure students that you’ll absolutely deal with this right before lunch, but you’d be so impressed if they could put their argument on hold for the lesson, so you can fully investigate at lunch. This way, your students feel like they’ve been listened to, you haven’t fallen into the trap of reacting too quickly, based on limited information or assumptions, and you can get on your lesson!
Uphold rules and routines fairly, as a professional.
As a supply teacher, behaviour is usually your biggest challenge. Most children relish the challenge of seeing what they can get away with saying, doing or not doing, when a stranger is in charge. To maintain the class’s trust, you uphold rules and apply them fairly. In this respect, I’ve found that being a new face also has its perks! For one – you’re without any emotional baggage that some children might use against you i.e. You always blame me for talking, or you never tell her! And for another, when a child reacts badly to something like a warning on the board, you can really push the point that you’re just an outsider, who has a job to do, and you have to follow the school rules. It’s nothing personal – it’s just that this student has chosen to demonstrate behaviour that doesn’t fit with the school rules, so you’ve had to follow procedure (it’s even better if you can link this in to what the students themselves told you at the beginning of the day.) This should de-escalate their reaction, along with the fact that your tone of voice and attitude remains nonchalant, telling them that with any luck, it’s just a blip and you’ll look forward to seeing their behaviour return to the excellent standard that you’re sure they’re normally capable of.
Recognise that some children will be stuck in a pattern of poor behaviour, spending most days ‘in bother’ and having a set image of themselves as a ‘naughty’ child. As a new face, the actions you take and the words that you use, could provide a clean slate for this pupil; a chance to be earn rewards, complete work you’re proud of and show what you’re capable of, if even just for one day.
Provide feedback for the teacher and the class.
As part of my introduction, I always tell the class that of course, I’ll be leaving notes for their class teacher to say who had behaved exceptionally well and of course, anyone who really lets themselves down. I always make sure I do this, sometimes adding suggestions for class or school-specific rewards. I do this because I want children to receive praise for behaviour or effort the following day, or consequences for poor behaviour so that they learn from their mistakes, and because I said I would. I also mark their books. Ok – so I know that some schools now have Oftead-ready marking expectations that would make even the robust supply teachers shudder in horror, but this aside, it isn’t a big ask that you mark the work that you’ve taught. Do what you can within a reasonable time-frame, focusing less on the highlighting and whatever hieroglyphic-like codes you’ve been asked to write, and more on giving quick, effective, specific feedback for the students. Knowing that you noticed that amazing word they used in literacy, or that they actually managed to solve that Maths challenge they’d struggled over, will only continue the good feelings even after you’ve gone.
Learn to think on your feet.
Just as I’ve had to work on the act of appearing laid-back, I’ve also had to work on thinking on my feet. Working as a short-term supply teacher forces even the most rigid of people to become more spontaneous, because often you don’t know what’s going to happen until minutes before it actually happens!
It’s always a good idea to have a few lessons up your sleeve – preferably ones that can be adapted to suit different age groups – for the times when the planning has gone walkabout. In this sense, you can prepare to be quick-thinking. Honestly though, I think that when it comes to supply work, preparing to just take things as they come, preferably with a sense of humour, is the best you can do. After all, that’s all part of your super-chill persona.
If you act like you enjoy your job and the company of your students, they’ll notice. Remember, you’re an unknown entity, so they will watch you closely. If you model positive behaviour, enthusiasm and cheerfulness, your class will respond well. Of course, sometimes you’ll feel that you’d rather be at home, bingeing on ‘Stranger Things’ as you devour your weight in ice-cream, but on these days I set myself a challenge. I tell myself, “Today, I’m going to be the best supply teacher these kids have ever seen.” It doesn’t always work, but it’s worth trying.
Are you currently working as a supply/substitute teacher? Do you agree/disagree with my points here? Have you anything to add that other supply teachers might benefit from? Comments welcome: