This is another one from Teach Secondary Magazine – you can subscribe at and you’ll get a very fine magazine with features, articles, hints and tips all to do with the weird and wonderful world of teaching. Then, at the back, there’s me.

Just weird.

Supply pic


Have you ever seen Quantum Leap? Shut up, I don’t care how old you are; get it watched. That’s what supply teaching is like. You magically jump into someone’s place for a limited period of time, try not to screw up too bad, maybe even do a bit of good and leap out again. Only difference is that Sam Beckett didn’t have a sign round his neck that reads: ‘He’s new – destroy him.’

Supply teachers get a pretty bad rap. I should know; I was one for 9 months and I’ve got ears. It’s the strangest thing but if you’re not a permanent fixture in an educational establishment you become a translucent, ghostly figure ignored by a good many in the staffroom. It can lead to somewhat of an existential crisis as people have conversations about the low-quality of the supply staff whilst the low-quality supply staff sit opposite, looking at their arms to check that they haven’t dematerialised.

In fact, the only people that really notice your presence are the kids. And god help you when they do. The arrival of supply staff invariably signals a special strain of chaos reserved only for those precious moments when they realise that they’re going to get to play with someone who is not their normal teacher:

‘What’s your name sir?’

‘No, your first name sir.’

‘Fine sir. Be like that then sir.’

‘Where’s Miss [insert name here] sir?’

‘Is she dead sir?’

‘Did you kill her sir?’

‘Are you sure sir? You certainly look the type sir.’

Et cetera. Et cetera. Ad infinitum.

And that’s just the schools that have got it together. Go into the rougher ones expecting anything less than total, all-out carnage and your naïvety will be rewarded with a series puncture wounds inflicted from an expertly wielded compass. And you’d deserve every one of them, rookie.

But it isn’t all bad. Despite criticism and/or indifference from permanent staff, the kids doing their best to re-enact last year’s Super Bowl (minus the time-outs, protective clothing, and the listening to those in authority) there are some real benefits.

If nothing more, it prepares you for dealing with uncertainty (and in these strange times, I think we could all do with brushing up on that particular soft-skill). A phone call in the morning means you get paid. No phone call means you don’t. Some days I used to pray for that phone call because there were bills that needed paying but if I’m being completely honest, some days I didn’t. Sometimes I ignored the phone completely for a leisurely breakfast with my gorgeous wife. That’s another benefit. I love breakfast.

You have no reputation but at the same time you are a wild card. You have to adapt to something new every day whether that be the subject you teach or the actions of a student or how exactly is it that you’re supposed to get there for 8.30am and believe you me when I tell you there is nothing, absolutely nothing, better for brushing up on your behaviour management strategies. This stuff is important no matter what kind of teaching you’re doing.

Sure, you give up security, you worry about making rent payments or being able to afford the shopping and, if you join an agency, you have to deal with people whose descriptions of schools may be about as honest as the most desperate of estate agents. However, on the plus side (to an extent) you give up the shackles of expectation. No-one got hurt? Good job! They stayed in the room? Come over here and marry my sister!

I had a hell of a time as a supply teacher. It was like being a hired gun in the old west but nobody needed you to clear up the town. Every teacher should do it for a bit at some point in their career. It’s like a tour of duty; it hardens you, but it also opens your eyes.

Basically what I’m saying is be kind to your supply teachers. Yes, they may not get through all the cover work. Yes, they may repeatedly ask you what’s the best way to get to the same bloody room three times in a morning and yes, they may not be as good as as the person who they’re temporarily replacing…but at least they’re in there, doing the job.

(That is until they’ve put right what once went wrong and leap out.)

Thanks for reading









  1. LJ

    Reminds me off the time when, as a student teacher, I went to collect some materials at lunchtime and discovered a supply teacher eating his fish and chips in the art cupboard… I thought it a bit odd but perhaps he’d had the kind of experience you’ve described!

    • tstarkey1212

      Bloody hell – wish I’d have thought of that. it was probably his only form of sanctuary after being ignored in his many requests for directions to the staff room just like that bit in Ghost with Patrick Swayze.

  2. headguruteacher

    This is great. I’ve been there too – 1991-92; a whole year as a supply teacher, finding my feet in London. Hardest job I’ve ever done. It got better when I got to work in the same school for a few weeks. Bitter memories of walking down a corridor in tears after being humiliated by a Year 9 class and realising that literally no-one cared. Indifference of permanent staff is the killer – you’re spot on there.

  3. Penny

    I do supply at the moment. I love it most of the time – especially the walking away at 3.30, day over. You’re right it is great experience although the holidays lose they’re shiny lustre when you’re not being paid for them.

  4. tstarkey1212

    I can understand the reluctance to emotionally invest in supply (there’s so much going on regardless) but it did seem at times like I’d fallen in the cracks of reality. You’re very much out there on your own and I had a number of experiences like yourself. On the up side, it’s a great way to see the true nature of a school without the professional sheen and it also means you can experience a vast range of educational environments. And then run away if they’re too scary.
    Thanks for the comment!

  5. CT

    This is brilliant! What’s even worse is being a cover supervisor. You get left cover work, if you’re lucky, but you are not teaching. You’re just a glorified baby sitter. In fact not even glorified! The students know the work they’ve been set will never be marked so they see no point in doing it. All you can do is make sure they (and you!) are in one piece at the end of the lesson. You think supply teachers are ignored in the staff room? Try being a cover supervisor! In all my time working as one I’ve only been thanked once, ONCE, for stepping in!

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