MY TAKE: Supply Teaching in London

Half a term down, here’s what I’m thinking

First things first, just to clarify, ‘supply teaching’ is what we call ‘relieving’ back home in NZ; ‘supply’ = ‘reliever’. Since I’ve started pronouncing ‘ten’ as ‘tan’ and ‘head’ as ‘had’, I’m enough of a local to go with the term ‘supply’ today (I swear I don’t say ‘tin’ and ‘hid’ but apparently that’s what our Kiwi accent sounds like to ears over here).

GIF credit: Gifer

I never thought that I’d be the type of person who’d want to do supply teaching; I’ve always loved organising things, sticking to a schedule and knowing what’s coming up well in advance. I’ve always envied the spontaneous type who could waltz in somewhere and go with the flow. Somehow or other, I’ve been dusted with a dash of that magical confidence.

Take my first proper day of daily supply in which I didn’t know where I’d end up in advance: Received a call at 7.23am, got given a postcode, cycled 50mins somewhere up north I’d never been before, arrived at the new school and realised that there was zero planning with children set to arrive in 10mins...and I wasn’t worried.

Is this me I’m talking about? Gratefully, I’ve reached the point where I’m alright with improvising and coming up with activities on the spot. (Although put me in any other context and improvising is the last thing in the world I want to have to do).

One half term down already and it hasn’t been too shabby. There's been some form of work every day despite the extra precautions schools are taking and their otherwise tight 'bubble' systems. So now we've established that supply teaching is still viable over here even with thousands of new cases a day (I can see all of you Kiwis shaking your heads), let’s delve into some of the perks so far:


👍 The upsides:

Arrive late and leave early

Get in at eight, out before four AND you get a lunch break. Sign me up.

I’ve found that there are very high expectations of teachers working here in London and that the work culture is to arrive early and finish late. Back in January when I was teaching full time, I was arriving as early as 6.45am and leaving at 6pm on most days. This isn’t much fun, especially when winter sets in and the whole day is swallowed up into darkness. You might as well live at school.

It’s been the best feeling stepping into class with only an expectation to teach; no planning to be done before or after and no getting stuck in a staff meeting until 5pm before said planning could even be started.

I also love how, aside from doing a quick mark of books, my lunch times are actually my time to unwind rather than being gobbled up by parent emails, student action plans, meetings, daily planning, report writing or frantically preparing to host an assembly I’d forgotten about. Maybe I could finish reading my first book in 5 years...


What goes on at school, stays at school

Walk out at the end of the day and never see the little monsters again.

Walk out at the end of the day without a planner or a single book to mark.

No parent emails to answer.
No RAMS forms.
No reports.
No pressure.


You’re not alone (most of the time)

One of the great things about teaching in London is that you almost always have a TA (Teacher Aide) or LSA (Learning Support Assistant) in your class or at minimum one who goes between the classes in your year group. Having someone who knows the school and students is invaluable. It’s an absolute lifesaver when there are challenging students and even just the times when you need someone reliable to fetch something from outside of the class. Shout out to all of the amazing TAs who’ve made my life ten times easier! 💖


Variety is the spice of life

Getting to visit a range of schools turned out to be quite exciting. It gave me insight into the ways schools and classrooms are run and exposed me to different topics and activities that I could use in the future. I’ve been able to meet lots of lovely teachers and it’s handy to know what’s out there if I decide that I want to settle in somewhere - I've already scoped out a couple of schools I'd be first in line to approach.

Being able to teach a range of year levels also helps to keep teaching ‘fresh’. There’s the bliss of older students’ independence but when they become too unruly to handle, there’s the chance to recharge with the unbounded enthusiasm of the younger students.

This half term went by pretty quickly and I think that’s credit to having this variety in my teaching and never getting stuck in the mindset of ‘This is a slog, when do I get a break?’.


Little angels do exist

I’ll have to admit I’ve come across some absolutely dreamy classes that would be a cinch for any teacher. Despite being adamant that I wouldn’t get locked in to any school or class, I found myself getting attached to one class that I covered for a longer period of time and was actually quite sad about leaving on my last day. It is extremely revitalising to actually be surrounded by students who enjoy school, want to learn and have manners (what an ask!).


Achieve a work-life balance

I can’t claim to have optimised my extra hours in the day effectively this term (I just ended up getting home, eating, browsing the internet and then realising it was dinner time), but I’m glad the time was there if I wanted to use it.

Yes, if you’re organised, you can work full time and still have a life. BUT with supply teaching, you are stripped clean of that guilty feeling that permeates through you when you are doing something for yourself instead of doing school work. You’re also not subconsciously trying to calculate how to rearrange your seating plan to prevent little Timmy and Mike biting each other’s heads off the next day while taking into account ability grouping, proximity to the board, parent requests and all the web of relationships within the classroom.

Your time is your time.


So supply teaching saves you time, but at what cost?


👎 The downsides:

Behaviour

Cast your mind back to when you were a student and you realised that your teacher wasn’t at school...PING! No teacher = No work today. Time to kick my feet up on the table, doodle and pass notes to my friends. Kids these days may be a different generation but this is not an area of change; it’s deeply rooted in every child’s genes to take advantage of the substitute teacher. Can’t blame them for that.

As a supply teacher, you’re on the back foot from the outset so you just have to go in expecting to deal with challenging behaviour. It is essential to have a range of behaviour management strategies up your sleeves ready to draw on. If you come in with your ranged bow and arrows only to find it’s an on-the-ground battle, you need to have your sword at hand, with heavy armour to protect you from the onslaught of thirty enemy soldiers. Sometimes a blow of a buffalo horn is enough to entrance the enemy soldiers into falling into line but if you’re caught off guard, you need your secret dagger tucked away as a last resort. Okay, hold fire on arming up with a bazooka. The point I’m trying to make is that you should be mentally prepared to assert yourself as the supply teacher and have strategies for managing students who challenge you.

TAs and LSAs are great but if you haven’t got a good handle on the class, you’re in trouble once they leave for their breaks. The students ALWAYS notice.


Pay

Obviously there’s a pay cut going from full time work to supply. Depending on your years of experience, this will be a more or less significant pay difference. Typically, teaching agencies can offer a rate of £130-£135 for daily supply and £150 if you commit to guaranteed supply work. Imagine getting paid the same rate in NZ...too bad this is London.

You also need to account for the inevitability of getting sick and having to take days off without pay. Essentially a contractor, you’re on your own here.

If only I could use my 31 days of sick leave I’d accrued back home...


Uncertainty

Unless you have been booked in for an assignment at a school in advance, you don’t know where you’re going to be heading. You could end up somewhere just down the road - my closest assignment has been at a school 15mins cycle away during morning rush hour. On the other hand, you could end up on the other side of London after an hour commute on a bus or multiple tubes. Luckily, I’ve managed to get everywhere by bike so far, with my longest commute taking an hour in the rain...but I lived to tell the tale.

When you arrive at new schools, you’re overwhelmed with introductions to various members of staff - ten names you forgot instantly because you were too busy trying to orientate yourself. There’s also the uncertain feeling of being the lost deer in the headlights stumbling through new schools looking for the bathroom or printer (don’t let a door label saying ‘Music storage room’ put you off checking there...just sayin’).

Choosing to do supply work meant choosing job flexibility over job security. Not ideal during a pandemic. I am in a tricky situation if schools close and the city is plunged back into lockdown. Schools closed = No work = No income. It’s a reality that I’m hoping I can avoid but that’s at the hands of the government.


Relationships, respect and rapport

You don’t have the time to get to know all of the children, earn their trust and get your class working in harmony. You’ve got to get in and get the job done while creating zero collateral damage. Sometimes you still get the warm fuzzy feeling that we love as teachers, but it will come more scarcely. Generally, I’ve found that students over here are harder to connect with than students in NZ and it takes much longer for them to accept and respect you as their teacher. It’s a win if two students say “Good afternoon Miss” when they leave at the end of the day. They’ve already moved on. Interestingly, I have noticed that students who have heard of NZ or recognised my Kiwi (or at least guessed at Australian) accent, have been much more receptive and engaged.

To sum up this section:

Blood + Sweat + Tears = True satisfaction and fulfillment from seeing students grow throughout a year.

Badgering + Somewhat settled students + Ticks = Daily satisfaction of another job completed.


🤙 Takeaways:

Supply teaching gets a yes from me today! A step back from the responsibility of being the classroom teacher and time to pursue other interests is exactly what I want right now. I’ve felt monumentally less stressed this term than I have at any other point in my teaching years and substantially happier than I did teaching full time earlier this year. Yes, there are the odd occasions that spike the cortisol levels ready for fight or flight, but that’s probably inescapable in any job.

I’m sure there are going to be more sucky days where I’m caught in the crossfire of an eternal shouting battle, but if an average of only three bad days in seven weeks is a good indication, I’ll take those stats to the bank.

Teach the students something ✅ Feign some sense of order when the headteacher (principal) walks past ✅ Ensure the classroom is tidy and books are ticked ✅

Job done. Go and have a life.

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at the minute

2021