Keep Calm and Don't Let the Kids Die!

August is a magical time of year.  You've been on holiday long enough to have stopped thinking about school for maybe a day or two; the sun has put his hat on (this year it was a Wednesday); and you get paid... for being on holiday (I know, I know, we are salaried and the August paycheck is actually our hard-earned money divided into twelve... don't @ me!  I always enjoyed telling my non-teacher friends that I got paid in August, just to see the look on their faces). That is, unless you do not have a full-time, contracted position. If you're a supply teacher, it can be quite a different matter.

I tried to find out how many supply teachers there were in the UK and for some reason, I could only find a rough estimate for the supply teachers in Wales (~4500).  Four and a half thousand in Wales alone. So I'm going to do a rough estimate and say that there are significantly more across the whole of the UK. Supply teaching is big business... for the agencies.  For the professionals who provide the service, not so much. In London, the average supply teacher can expect to earn between £140 - £180 per day (that's around £17 - £22 per hour) depending on which agency you are with and your experience level.  Well, I say it depends on experience, in reality, since the agencies can charge the school up to £200 a day (in my experience, it tends to be between £160 and £180 in London), there is a cap on the daily rate you can expect.  Requesting more because you have years of experience is likely to result in someone else getting the slot. I recently supplied for a term (I took a sort-of-sabbatical to do an MA full time) and thought that over a decade in the classroom, most of it in Year 6, with English and Computing coordinator roles and lots of SLT experience would be an advantage.  

It was not.

Well, not so far as the agency paying me is concerned.  When it came to moonlighting in a different class every day, it was a big help.  More on that later.

I think the most important thing I learned was that, as a supply teacher, you are not the client; you are the product.  The client is the school.  And the agency makes its money from the client.  They do not care about you. They care about their reputation with their client.  IF you have a bad experience, sure you can tell the agency and they will listen (they may even sound sincere in their concern) but at the end of the day, they will side with the school because it is the school who pays them.

That sounds harsh and I am not saying that supply agencies are mercenary bastards who would rather throw you under the school bus, but I think it is worth remembering where you as a supply teacher stand in the greater scheme of things.  Most agencies will want to make sure you are treated well and they will listen to concerns involving how schools have managed things like your arrival and safety but they are a business and businesses need to be paid. Sorry to harp on, but it's important that we're realistic.

Sometimes though, that perfect job interview didn't quite work out and we find ourselves in August hate-liking Twitter, Facebook and Instagram posts about how fabulous new classrooms are looking.  And we'll congratu-hate friends on their wonderful new Year 2 position. And September looms. And the bills keep coming. And you have spent so long becoming a teacher that you are not prepared to wait on tables or work in Boots.  So you supply-teach. But where to begin?

Allow me to take you on a bit of a flashback (or epilepsis - this is an educational blog, after all).  If you just want supply advice, scroll down to the next subheading. If you're up for a bit of contextual history, make 'twiddle-dee-dee' noises and wave your hands in front of your face as I take you back in time...

It was 2007, a different time - Gordon Brown was spending our money; the pound coin was round; and I had just moved to London after completing my PGCE.  Fresh-faced and full of that naive enthusiasm so prevalent to the newly graduated, I was ready to take on the work of education and make it better. I'd seen Dead Poet's Society and Dangerous Minds; I knew what I was getting into.  'Bring me your young,' I challenged those mean streets, 'for I shall make them knowledgeable.'  And then I didn't get any jobs.  

To be fair to me, I wasn't even sure where to look.  My PGCE was in Cheltenham as were all of my contacts and I must have missed the class on 'How to actually get a job.'  Oh wait, no I didn't - there wasn't one. Useful.

Anyway, I had bills to pay (London bills.  Which are ever so much bigger than Cheltenham bills).  I had no idea how to get started so I did what any sensible person did in the early 2000s, I sent a message to AQA (Any Question Answered - Google it).   The advice I received was to register at a supply agency so I went to the library (I hadn't even managed to set up my own internet) and did a google search.  Hedging my bets, I registered with three. I had to register with each of them; interview with each of them; and answer the same questions with each of them.

But it got me my first job.  And I was lucky (so much of life is luck - remember that when you're hate-liking!) in that I had a very good first day and the school were looking to replace a teacher who had left quite abruptly.  The school invited me back the next day to teach a different class and then bought me from the agency. You read that right, as a product of a supply agency, schools can buy you. And it isn't cheap either.

Flash-forward to 2019 and I'm supplying again (it's okay; I'm also a student again).  So I registered with more supply agencies. Fortunately, it is a very different world now and it is much easier to get on the supply radar.

How to get an agent without even trying

Online resume banks, like CV Library, are a very useful tool.  Make sure you CV is up to date and relevant.  I'll be posting about how to write a golden CV in a few weeks, so look out for that.  I'm lining up some interviews with HR leaders of international companies. It's going to be good.

Anyway, get your CV online and then sit back and wait for the phone to ring.  And it will. A lot. I left my phone at home while walking the dogs one day and when I checked it later I had 17 missed calls.  I felt like a celebrity. And they're always so nice:

Hi Carl, I've just come across your CV on CV Library and I've got to say; it's really impressive...

I mistook this 'I've just got to say' bit as an expression of how impressed they were, but on reflection, I think they genuinely have to say it.

... I've actually got a few schools that I work with who are looking for someone just like you, so if you have a moment, can you give me a call back on 07***********.

That's pretty much the script.  I was a telemarketer for a day back in the dark-ages and had to read from something similar.  Be prepared to get a lot of these calls.  

And for your inbox to become jammed with email versions.

They are clever, these agencies.  Remember, the agent is paid relatively little but receives compensation for every successfully placed product, so they will talk to you like they are your best friend.  I'm not saying don't enjoy it. Embrace it! Be friendly with them. Laugh and joke (and be honest - more on that later) but never forget what it is. Agent - Product. My favourite ever email from an agency began thus:

Dear /getlist:#client: (FIRST)+(LAST) 

So personal.  I was moved.

Once you have agreed to meet with an agency, you will have to schlep into their corporate offices to have a welcome interview and perform a live version of your CV's Greatest Hits.  It's annoying but it's what they have to do. Be prepared also to bring in so many forms of ID (had I been mugged on the way to one of these interviews, my identity would have been cloned without trace!).  Three proofs of address, passport, driving licence, QTS, NQT, Degree certificate, DBS (portable or they will charge you)... I ended up putting everything in a folder and making sure I had that with me. I also created digital copies of ID (passport and driving licence), which were mostly accepted.  But don't get excited. This is not a job. This is only a first date. They won't even start looking for jobs for you until you have gone through this. Even if they say they have already lined something up. They haven't. They have schools who need supply teachers. It has nothing to do with you (even though you're awesome.  Heck, even I recognise that!).  

Tips for dealing with these first Agent interviews

Be honest.  If you don't want to teach a certain age group; tell them.  
They like teachers who can drive, but schools in cities rarely have parking so be prepared to take public transport or cycle.
Ask what courses they provide for their teachers.  Some agencies run lots of CPD - mostly web-based now - that (they say) can beef up your CV.  In reality, they'll provide some ideas you may not have considered.
Have a cup of tea.  The coffee is often dreadful (I'm not a coffee snob but I know what bad coffee tastes like.  You can't mess up a cup of tea).
Take a pen - it makes you look prepared and theirs often don't work.
If you can, take a tablet computer with access to a DropBox or Google Drive that contains all of your information (CV, application form, any agreement forms they have emailed you).  This will make it quicker and easier to sign things or email fresh copies if they have lost them (it happens... a lot).
Be polite.  Even if you're as cynical and jaded as I am.  These people are just doing their job and they will find you a place in a school.

Getting Paid

This can differ from agency to agency.  Some will go straight down the PAYE route.  This will sort out your tax and is the path of least resistance.  I would always go for this because it's easier.  

Some agencies will offer to pay you through an umbrella company.  This means that they pay a separate company, who deal with your tax and NI etc., then forward the money on to you.  This option seems like a better deal because you seem to take away a little more than with the PAYE route, but I have been advised against it in the past.  I'll be honest, I don't understand it myself. Back in 2007, I took this route because you could claim all sorts of expenses (I was claiming around £25 a day for clothes, food, working unsociable hours, using my home as an office.  Ah those heady Gordon Brown days...) but that well has pretty much run dry. Although you can still claim tax back on things like school clothes and stationery. Probably even a new laptop if you're using it for school. It'll make those trips to Costco even more exciting!

Some agencies will offer to withhold a percentage of your daily earnings until holidays so that you don't have to fight the dog for food during the half term.

None will pay very much.  It's just a fact. School budgets are getting cut left right and centre and many schools are deciding that training an HLTA  is better value.

I've got a job booked!  Now what?

Woohoo!  Go you! Your agency will email you details on how to get to the school and who your point of contact is.  It can be a bit overwhelming. Don't panic. All you need to know is what year group you are covering and where the school is.  Take your DBS with you and some ID. It is a good idea to get to the school by 08:45 at the latest so that they can show you around and you can get a feel for the room.

You should/could bring:

  • A pen (I take a green and a purple frixion pen - I'm a left-handed boy; my handwriting often needs an erasable pen!)
  • Stickers (crack for children)
  • A 'marked by supply' stamp (it'll save so much time)
  • A travel mug with a lid (I have a collapsable one to save space)
  • A deck of cards (trust me)
  • Refreshments or some cash (a selection of 20p and 50p coins.  Some schools ask for a donation for tea or coffee)
I also take a tablet (my trusty Asus Chromebook Tab10 - not a valium) and an HDMI connector.  Not essential, but I've had classroom desktops lock me out requiring password that nobody knows.  I've also been wonderfully briefed on lesson flipcharts only to have the teacher take their laptop with them leaving me stranded without these fabled flipcharts!

A school should supply you with:

  • An outline of the day - break times, lunchtimes and home time.
  • Almost a whole forest of safeguarding material.  Some might ask you to sign this - that's fine, sign away.
  • A brief tour of the building.  At a bare minimum, you will want to know where the nearest toilet is.
  • An introduction to the staff room (this is not always provided. Ask though, you are staff for the day and have a right to use the room).
  • A day's worth of lesson plans
  • An introduction to a TA or other adult in the room.
Those last two are really important.  It is unreasonable to leave you completely alone with a class of children you've never met in a school you don't know.  It doesn't make you incompetent. The teaching you can do with your eyes shut. The day-to-day running of the school is a different matter.  If you are left completely alone, let your agency know. If you're really uncomfortable, tell the Headteacher and ask for some support.

You should be left with lesson plans.  I used to leave entire flipcharts for my supply teachers.  The lessons were almost self-teaching. I briefed my TA on everything (I love TA's, a good TA is absolute gold) and I also briefed the children.  Essentially, I wanted my supply teachers to be there as a token gesture. That's how it should be. 

Imagine my horror on the other side of the fence.  I am an upper KS2 teacher. I was placed in a Year 1 class and the lesson plan provided for English was: 

Chn to edit work.

That was it.  These 5-year olds were supposed to edit their work.  For an hour. I asked the TA, she didn't know what it meant because a) the children had never edited work before; and b) she wasn't the class TA.  The lesson did not go well.

The maths plans were even better:

After break.  Maths.

That was it.  After break the class and I would just... math?  We ended up playing a lot of tables games but it was hard work.  

The majority of schools will leave plans that are a little more detailed than that though, so don't panic.  If you do find yourself in a plan-less situation, I have created a selection of resource-light activities that can take up entire lessons and require no planning (or marking).  They can be found, for free, via my website (; near the top left corner - click on Supply Closet.  You're welcome :)

At the end of the day...

I realise that subheading is a Les Miserables quote - don't read anything into it; your day will be fine..!

Hometime can be tricky as a supply teacher.  Who walks home alone? Who gets picked up by Uncle Nick?  Who is actually going to a club? Again, this is unreasonable and is a breach of most school's safeguarding policy.  Request that your TA, or some adult who knows the class, is at least close by. It is not your job to know all of the parents and carers.

When the children are gone, if there is work that needs it, it is good practise to mark it.  If I were you, I would have the children do as much of the marking as possible during the lesson.  This is neither cheating nor lazy. Self- and peer-marking is a legitimate skill and should be built in to most lessons.  If you can, walk around while the children are marking their work and stamp the top left corner with your 'marked by supply' stamp.  That's all most class teachers will care about; evidence that they were not responsible for the lesson that day. It sounds merciless, but it's true.  

Of course, if you like the school you're in and you hope to maybe work there someday, then put a little more effort in.  Overall though, so long as there is some sort of evidence that the work has been looked at when SLT flick through the pages, it'll be fine.  'Marked by supply' is code for 'does not count'.

Then you're done.  Most agencies will ask that you stay in the school until 16:30 but this is silly.  If you're done, go home. The school either won't care or won't notice. It's polite to say goodbye to the people you've met but realistically they might be busy.  A courteous 'thanks a lot, please say goodbye to everyone for me' at the office will be fine.

You mentioned a Supply Closet...?

Yes!  This is where that deck of cards will come in handy.  My website now has a Supply Closet.  At the time of writing, there are 29 different activities for maths and English that are just a click away.  Many of them update dynamically, meaning that a simple refresh of the page will result in completely different activities.

You are welcome to use any of the resources.  If you like them, please get the word out there using #supplycloset.  If you want to add to them, there is a form on the website to submit ideas.

I am so keen to have a central point for supply teachers to pool resources and experiences.  It's a difficult job and the least we can do is club together to make it easier. In a perfect world, we wouldn't need it but look out of the window.  The world isn't perfect!

In closing...

I couldn't leave it on that note!  I want to end by saying thank-you to everyone who reads these blog posts.  I started writing a few months ago on my wife's advice (wives are amazing) and never really expected anyone to read them.  But you are! You wonderful people! Please keep spreading the word. And feel free to leave a comment... or a question... hell, troll me a little if you want to!  Those comment sections are looking a little barren. I'll start off this week. Check the comments for a bonus question...

Thanks again, whoever and wherever you are.  It is currently raining where I am; I hope it is warm and sunny where you are.  As always, be nice to each other and look after yourself. have a cup of tea. Stop for a moment.  Breathe... You're tops.

Carl Headley-Morris