I’ve now spent six weeks supply teaching in mainly central London schools. I’ve had some short stints of continuity a couple of times and many one off days covering everything from IT to Spanish. It has been quite an experience and I’ve got some observations:
A good measure of a school is how the students treat supply teachers
Causation is a dangerous game to play in matters of education; however, without explicitly suggesting as much a trend is very clear. Schools where I’ve found the students treat supply teachers with respect tend to uniformly be schools that are welcoming and well organised. This means meeting both HR and a Senior Leadership Team member or appropriate Head of Department on arrival, receiving key information like a school map and overview of school systems, and appropriate access to the necessary classrooms or staffroom via a key or swipe card. The offers for assistance, frequent ‘check-ins’ and smiles in the coridors are all forthcoming as well.
On the other hand, schools where the students have more problematic behaviour offer a contrasting experience. The vibe of the school is clear from the reception where sign in procedures are offer unclear, the discourtesy can start with the office staff before a student has been sighted, and the important half an hour of preparation before classes is often wasting waiting in reception. These are the schools where cover work is sometimes hard to find: buried in a colleague’s email, left in the wrong classroom, requiring ICT access that a supply teacher doesn’t have, or simply non-existent. Often it is not meaningful – pages from a textbook which the students have no prior knowledge of, or worksheets that might be pitched entirely at the wrong level.
A day of relief offers a very small window. But I feel as though that experience is more than a little bit telling.
To survive there is a right level of care to bring to each day
When I began relieving I approached each day with an intent in the same ballpark of the way I approached each school day in New Zealand. Less than a week later I reached a feeling of rock bottom as the constant failure to reach my expectations weighed so heavily. It wasn’t necessarily the battle with the students to behave in a respectable manner, it was more the battle with myself. I found myself ill-equipped with the skills needed to deal with such challenging behaviour, shouting in the classroom for the first time in a very long time.
After deep soul searching I changed how I approached each day in order to survive. I became far more relaxed and flexible in terms of what each lesson entailed. Specifically this meant responding to behaviour issues by passing it on rather than feeling responsible, and being responsive in my expectations so that students may not achieve any meaningful learning outcomes, but at least they didn’t break anything.
You may only know them for an hour, but relationships are still the key
The more relaxed approach opened up the space for classroom conversations that I was far more used to. A student off task watching a football video under the desk got a football chat before being asked to put their phone away. A conflict between students was dealt with using humour rather than separating them. The result was less confrontation and more meaningful interactions.
Part of this was how I grew to set up each class. The pattern I developed was to introduce myself before introducing the work. This meant saying I was from New Zealand, asking what they knew about my home, whether they knew of our two official languages (te reo Māori and NZ Sign Language), teaching them to say “kia ora” and delivering my mihi. This made me more than a supply teacher, it made me a person and it enabled conversations that mattered a lot more than many of the worksheets I then had to pass out.