Experiences of being a supply teacher

meLaurence Hoppen’s qualifications are as an Accountant  (F.C.C.A.), an assessor NCFE level 3,and as a further/adult education teacher (City and Guilds 7307). He has  recently graduated with a level 7 degree- a post graduate certificate in higher education at ifs University College.

Having qualified and worked as a professional accountant for many years and then obtaining an adult teaching qualification to work in FE and HE, I ventured into supply teaching between 2001 and 2003, having somewhat recovered from major back surgery.

Coming from my background into supply teaching was a major culture shock. I had expected to be engaged in real teaching work, but on several occasions I was being used as an over-qualified child-minder. Not that the pupils themselves could recognise this, because in the vast majority of schools, where I was engaged, the pupils would ask me whether I was qualified (as if the agencies would dare send anybody unqualified). The school staff were very respectful in this area, but the pupils, perhaps from previous experiences, would question my qualifications often as soon as I introduced myself. However, the agencies had a different agenda. Although they require their teachers to register with specific teaching subjects (in my case I selected Business Studies and IT as the most likely subjects, where I could find work in schools) they sometimes asked me to cover at schools for subjects in which I knew nothing e.g. design and technology. In one or two cases, schools were also asking me to cover for classes, not only where I knew nothing, but in subjects, where with a bit of personal questioning, they had no right to place me, e.g. imagine asking a Jewish teacher in a Church of England School to teach religious education on the topic of Mass. That was me, who does not even believe in the concepts of Christianity. I handled that class by letting the students carry on with personal study on anything they liked, as long as they behaved themselves, which they did. On another occasion I was asked to teach an art class-where my skills at art can be expressed as obtaining 5% in an end of year exam. In contrast one of the most enjoyable occasions was when I was given a maths class to cover, where I was able to demonstrate my numeracy skills by having a race with the students by adding up columns of figures (selected by the pupils) in my head, while they used calculators (a lovely party trick, in which I won overwhelmingly). I was able to prove why it is unsafe to rely on calculators and to demonstrate the benefits of doing sums in their head.

To be fair to most of the schools, in most of the classes I was provided with pre-set work to distribute, where students could just carry on from their pre-set instructions. At least this was organised, but it did not provide me with the stimulus of teaching anything. Far better on the rare, but fortunately lengthy bookings, where I was teaching my chosen subjects and was able to provide my own material towards their syllabus.

Referring back to the culture shock, this comes in the form of the behaviour of the pupils and how different schools handle these matters. In my very first class, a school in Harlow, the class welcomed me by throwing paper aeroplanes about the classroom, a couple of which hit me in the face. Not only had I little experience of disruptive students, I also had no formal training. One can only sink or swim, and it is vital to learn as quickly as possible. I have always been fairly street-wise, having been brought-upon Hackney schools in the early sixties, but had never seen anything like this in front of the teachers, who were generally (but not always) strict and would threaten with the cane for so much as looking at a teacher even in a scared way that the teacher disapproved. The pupils in my class at school, during the height of the Krays were budding protection racketeers (seriously) and we also had a dog race fixer, who put chewing gum in a paw. During a fight in the “private study room”, one of the pupils in my year threw a jack-knife into my foot and when the headmaster asked him what job he was going into he said “Hackney Police Force”. I digress. So the way I handled my first supply class was to prevent them leaving the room at the end of the lesson until they had made the room look tidy-no matter who had made the mess. This was pupils taking responsibility as a team

Coincidentally, I have found that in respect of misbehaviour, it always seemed to happen when I worked in schools in a borough beginning with the letter “H”. Harlow, Havering, Hackney, Hornsey, a nice job for Eliza Doolittle here. More about the behavioural issues in the next article.

Because of the behaviour of some of the pupils, I have had enough of supply teaching and will hopefully never go back to it, until I am really destitute.




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