Supply teacher. Occasional teacher. Substitute teacher. Guest teacher… Whatever the term, the job is the same: replacing permanent classroom teachers when they are away.
For some people, it’s a temp job. Other folk are what I refer to as “career supply teachers,” as the job is flexible enough to allow for balance in a busy life. In my case, supply teaching is an entry-level position, the first step to obtaining a permanent contract and a classroom to call home.
I’m now in the thick of my third year, and thought I would share a few tips and tricks to those just starting their education careers, or those considering this vocational path. My experience comes from the public system, but these tips could easily be applied to private schools.
Step one: Get organized
It can get a little complicated because I’m on both the elementary and secondary supply lists for my board: elementary jobs are distributed via a call-out system, whereas secondary jobs are usually booked by the individual teacher or administrator. Organization is the key to my sanity, given multiple schools, random hours, and everything else I have to track.
- Every single school is a contact on my phone, in case I need to connect with admin in a hurry.
- Develop a working knowledge of how to get to school: I use public transit or walk/bike to work, but also have driving routes in mind in case someone offers me a ride.
- Keep track of jobs on multiple calendars: my wall calendar, personal agenda, an online calendar, and the wall calendar at my mum’s house because she cares for my daughter on my teaching days.
Step two: Get ready
I aim to dress in a manner appropriate for the subject area — clothes that can withstand mess for kindergarten, outfits that facilitate movement for drama, etc.
- My wardrobe is a streamlined ones: lots of sweaters, blouses, and cardigans that can be paired with neutral bottoms.
- I have three pairs of black work shoes: sneakers with non-marking soles, flats, and low-heels (there are days when I need the confidence boost that only the click-clack of heels can provide).
- Layers help, as I have taught in everything from frosty portables to tropical kindergartens.
- If you are an elementary school teacher, you’ll want to consider outdoor clothing for yard duty. (I’m Canadian, so winter wear is a must! Last year marked the first time I have worn snowpants to school since the sixth grade.)
I usually try to eat a decent breakfast before teaching, but it’s not always possible with last-minute calls. My giant lunch bag is the solution to that problem.
- Bring food — bring more food than you think you will need.
- A typical lunch includes: leftovers (or a microwave dinner in a pinch), fruit, veggies, dairy, a couple snacks, and a giant bottle of water.
- You may or may not have access to a fridge, so an insulated lunch bag with cool packs is a good idea.
- Not all staff rooms are created equal: microwaveable containers and cutlery is a must as far as I’m concerned.
- Eat well. Teaching is a difficult job, and it becomes even more challenging when hangry.
The final part of getting ready is packing your bag. My supply teacher toolkit contains all the things I need to survive and thrive. Get these items, and add your own:
- Lanyard and whistle
- Water bottle (get one with a distinctive design so you’re less likely to lose it!)
- Lip balm
- Unscented hand sanitizer and hand lotion
- Cliff bars for food emergencies (opt for nut-free)
- Cough drops, antacids, painkillers, and other meds as needed
- Gum, mints, travel oral hygiene stuff. Do not be the supply teacher with garlic breath!
- Period stuff if necessary
- A journal or log book to track your assignments
- A binder full of lined, blank, and grid paper. This is optional, but it helps to reduce the “I can’t do my assignment, I don’t have any paper” excuse.
- More pens, pencils, erasers, and sharpeners than you know what to do with. They will be used, borrowed, and lost.
- A book to read during prep, lunch, commutes, or other downtime.
- Emergency lesson plans and activities. Shit happens: teachers have emergencies, technology can and will fail, rooms get double booked. Have a backup plan in place.
Step four: Let’s do this thing!
Know your rights and responsibilities as a supply teacher. I cannot stress this enough. What does your school/board/district expect of you? What about your union? Your regulatory body or professional organization? Knowing these rights and responsibilities (when to refuse work, when to fill out an incident report, etc) is key to success as a supply teacher.
Get to know your school. Supply teaching can be incredibly stressful, and incredibly isolating. Introduce yourself to your neighbours, connect with the principal. Don’t spend lunch eating alone in your class — go to the staff room and join a table. Get on the good side of office administrators and custodians: they hold the figurative and literal keys to the kingdom.
Think about professional development. Your board or union may offer PD sessions specifically geared towards supply teachers, so take advantage of it. Develop your skills related to classroom management, differentiated instruction, special education, and integrating technology and the arts. If your board is following certain learning programs or goals, learn the lingo and what it looks like in the classroom and in your own personal practice. Reflect on your own teaching in order to improve it.
Have fun (and shake it off). Teaching is in no means an easy profession, and supply teaching adds extra stresses and challenges. Laugh when you can. Take downtime when you need it. Relax and re-energize at school if you need to — leave the property for a brisk walk at lunch, do some sun salutations in your classroom, play your favourite songs. You are doing an important job, and need to take care of yourself in order to be successful at it. My worst teaching day was followed by one of the best meals I ever made: I de-stress by cooking Sunday dinners on a weeknight.
Find what works for you, and build it into your routine. Good luck!
Any other substitute teachers wanna give up their survival tips?