Last month, Charlie Taylor (former CEO of the NCTL) sat down with Tara Elie from Pivotal Education to talk about how best to integrate supply teachers.

It is not uncommon for supply teachers to feel neglected in the working environment, so nothing is off limits in this podcast episode with both Charlie and Tara having previously worked as supply teachers. If you’re wondering how difficult it is for schools to better integrate their supply teachers, apparently, not very. Just a few simple actions can go a very long way and make a huge difference to getting the most out of your supply staff.

Listen to the episode here or read the full transcript below:

Tara Elie
It’s really good to have you on, I think this is going to be an interesting area for teachers, headteachers, and of course our supply teachers out there. Charlie Taylor from Zen Educate. I know that you’ve got some interesting research and experience of how supply teachers are succeeding or maybe sinking in schools. I’m just trying to gather from you, as a little introduction, what impact can supply teachers actually have on a school?

Charlie Taylor
Well, I mean it’s interesting because I’ve lived this from all three sides really, of this question. I’ve been a supply teacher myself way back when I first got into teaching, and I was going to go and do something else, and I couldn’t decide what to do, and I did a bit of supply teaching on the side and really enjoyed it, and ended up getting a job. I’ve also been a teacher, of course, in which supply teachers have come in and looked after my class when I’ve been away. And I’ve also been a headteacher else well who’s had supply teachers, and dealt with agencies, and people coming in and out of schools as well. So, I’ve seen it from every angle really, this.

And I think supply teachers, when they’re effective, when they’re well looked after, when they do a good job, can be fantastic. These are new people coming into the school, they’re enthusiastic, they’re interested, they’re coming in with new ideas. And critically, importantly, it’s a great source of new recruits. I know as a headteacher, and I know many other heads listening, will say, “I’ve had some of my best teachers I’ve recruited through them coming in for one day as a supply teacher or more.” And I can just think back to one particular teacher who came in, and this is when I was running The Willows, which was a SEMH special school, so we needed a very particular type of person.

Brilliant teacher came in. And I remember by about half-past eleven that morning, one of the teaching assistants came to see me and said, “Charlie, this person is brilliant. You’ve just got to come down and have a look.” And I went down there, and sure enough she was absolutely fantastic. She had a great rapport with the kids, and we recruited her pretty much there and then on the spot. And she went on to be one of my finest teachers. Supply teachers are a great asset to the school system, as long as, I think, they’re treated and looked after in the right way.

Tara Elie
I too, Charlie, have experienced all three parts of this story. I’m quite grateful for my experience as a supply teacher because that’s what took me into an alternative profession, at a pupil referral unit, where I went in for a day and never looked back, because of that… It was a really compatible matching. As soon as I went in there, the deputy head came down and said, “Would you like to stay?” And I’m so glad, because I never saw that potential in my career, to go down that road that would say specialist. And so yeah, it is really interesting for people to recognise what it’s like from every angle.

Typically, there can be mistakes made, because there might be supply teachers listening here going, “I didn’t have that incredibly positive experience that Tara and Charlie are speaking of.” What are those mistakes that can be made when bringing in supply teachers or teaching assistants?

Charlie Taylor
Well, I mean, it’s a really good point and there’s a couple of things here. It’s one of the things that we thought long and hard about at Zen Educate, is how do we make sure we match the right teachers with the right school? Because we’ve both talked about experiences that we’ve had where we’ve gone into a school or we’ve had people coming into our schools and it’s worked brilliantly. But what you can find is, particularly in an SEMH school, or particularly within the challenges of an inner-city school, or whatever, that actually a great teacher just doesn’t work out in that place. And it doesn’t mean they’re not a great teacher, and it doesn’t mean they’ve got great talents and can go on and do good things.

But sometimes there is something about fitting horses for courses, and that’s been a really big thing that we’ve done at Zen, is making sure we get the teachers with the right skills and experience going into the right sorts of schools as much as possible. So I’d say that’s the first thing, it’s getting that matching right. The other things are about the way that the school looks after the supply teacher. There is something about whether you’re treated as a sort of auxiliary staff member who’s there just to keep the kids quiet for the day, or whether you’re treated and included as a real member of staff. It’s such a fascinating one.

I’m thinking back to the days when I supply taught, and the difference in the way that you felt when you went into different schools. Where some schools, there were three types actually. There was one type, which was kind of chaotic but quite fun. And no one knew who on Earth you were, no one knew what was going on. But it was like, “Great to have you here, I think you’re supposed to be in class X, go along.” It was all a bit chaotic, but it was quite a fun day. You got some schools I went into, a couple of cases where you really just felt like you weren’t welcome. Where you weren’t shown where the staffroom was, you weren’t shown where the loo was for goodness sake.

I remember going into one room, and I sat in the wrong person’s chair, sin of sins, and drank out of the wrong person’s cup as well.

This is bad. In some staff rooms you get that sort of terrible… I remember one time I didn’t answer the phone, was it a secondary school, I didn’t answer the phone. And I’m sitting there on my own and the phone started ringing, and I was waiting to be sent to the class I was going to. And the phone started… and I thought, “Well, do I answer it or not? I’m not quite sure, I don’t know what do.” So I was sort of sitting there dithering and someone came in, they gave me such a withering telling-off for not doing that. So the way in which supply teachers are welcomed, I think, is a really critical thing that, you know, you’re a fellow profession, you’re someone who we’ve got in here because we’re expecting you to do a great job with our kids. And if you’ve got that expectation of someone and you look after them in that way, you’re going to get the best out of them. I mean, it’s the same with any member of staff really.

Tara Elie
Yeah, absolutely. I just recall going to a school near where I live now and there being a pattern. So I would end up in the same school on the same day for the same person’s timetable, and realising that this member of staff had five consecutive classes of the most challenging students again, and again, and again, and two duties. And I thought, “I can understand why they’re not able to face this day.” So there can be a quite a story there of not only supporting the supply teachers, but supporting those members of staff as well.

Charlie Taylor
Yeah, and it’s really interesting, you could almost feel the kind of challenges that the class teachers are facing when you look at the work in the classroom, you look at the way the kids are operating, the way in which the work of that teacher is still viewed round the school. It’s a really interesting insight into what’s going on in a school.

Tara Elie
Yeah, absolutely. So you’ve had experience of being a supply teacher?

Charlie Taylor
Yes. I loved it, I have to say, I mean, I had some terrible days. And I was straight out of college and I didn’t have a clue what I was doing, and I had some fantastic experiences, and I had some awful experiences. The great thing was that the bad experiences, you could walk away and you could compartmentalise and say, “Okay, what went wrong there, how can I learn?” And I just learned so much. I remember an amazing time, I went to a school and it was the time when there was a really bad recruitment, I mean, not dissimilar to now, but probably even worse actually in the ’80s in recruitment in London.

And I was in this class and they said, “Oh, it’s PE now.” And I said, “Oh gosh, okay, what do you want me to do for PE?” And they said, “Oh, well they just go and play in the playground for PE, we can’t… PE’s kind of fallen apart a bit at this school [inaudible 00:09:19].” So I went out there and there was a kind of adventure playground, and suddenly I looked up and there were these two year six girls at the top of the climbing frame and they were beating seven bells out of each other. And all the other kids were standing around and it was all the drama. So I thought, “Okay, what do I do here?”

So I sent someone off to the office, “Please get help.” Send someone to the office. And I thought, “Well, I’ve got to do something about this. I can’t just let them, at the top of this climbing frame”. So I climbed up, but of course, I could put my arm out and stop one of them taking swings at the other one, but I couldn’t stop both at the same time because I had to have one hand for holding on. So no sooner I’d stopped one, put my arm in front of one, then the other one was piling in, so then I was swapping hands. And this seemed to go on, I don’t know if it’s true, but it seemed to go on for about half-an-hour before finally a teacher came out, very ambled out, then the headteacher ambled out there and said, “Oh, what’s going on here girls?” Kind of thing.

That was a tricky day, but in terms of behaviour management, wow, you learned so much from supply teaching, because you’ve got to think on your feet, you’ve got to be sharp, you’ve got to be really tuned in to what’s going on within the school, and you’ve got to be adaptive. There’s no point in coming in just with your own views about how the class should run because if that class is run along someone else’s lines, you’ve also got to adapt and fit in with the routines and the rules, and the way that that school operates as well.

Tara Eli
Yeah, absolutely. I remember, one of my favourite tricks was to give every student, as well as their book and a piece of paper, and I asked them to write their name on top of it, which they would think was for a test or something. That’s so I could have a grasp of names. As soon as you are able to use a name in the classroom, everyone’s like, “Oh my god she knows us. How does she know my name?”

Charlie Taylor
Yes. Yeah, if you know the names, I used to try and know all the names of the kids by morning break, that was always my challenge. I’m far too old to be able to do that now, but that was always my challenge. The other person is you need to know the names of a couple of senior teachers, because if you’re able to say Mr. So-and-so, the headteacher, or Ms. X is coming round a bit later on today and she’s asked me to check that you’re doing this really well. Then immediately it looks like you’ve got a link to the authority chain within the school, and you’re not this isolated… because you know, sometimes you can see some kids will lick their lips when a supply teacher comes in, particularly if it looks like they’re projecting that vulnerability and body language isn’t quite right.

Tara Eli
And we’ve started to talk about the things within a school or a college, I’m going to use the word culture, that make it easier to integrate supply teaching. I mean, there’ll be headteachers listening who are desperately wanting to know what to avoid. To show things that don’t go wrong. What advice do you say, just avoid doing these things just to make it a bit easier for you, your students, and the supply teacher.

Charlie Taylor
The thing to avoid most of all is isolating someone, leaving someone on their own without understanding the rules, the routines, and how the school day goes. So I think that’s the worst feeling in the world is where you drop someone in, you leave them your own, and you expect them to produce a brilliant days teaching. And there is something here actually for headteachers and for class teachers as well, and we see this in Zen a lot, if you have a supply teacher and you have a bad day, then often you’ll spend the next day sorting out behaviour, you’ll end up sorting out issues that have come up the day before, you’ll have all kinds of, the work won’t have been done the way you wanted it to be done.

So the more in which you can set up the day and give that supply teacher the support, the more they’ll be able to go in and do a good job. And I’ve always done the best jobs in schools at times when the school has been really clear about what they want from me, and they really set me up to succeed. So that for me is the critical thing. And the other thing is the timeliness, so getting people into school as early as possible. Particularly with the traditional agency model where there’re endless phone calls and here and there. And I’m glad with Zen that we’ve got round through an online platform where bookings can be made at any time of day or night.

You’ll end up at 10 o’clock at a school, because it’s miles away and agency hasn’t been completely clear about how far it was, and that can be a real difficulty. The other thing, and again, this is really important, it’s like which is the right entrance to go to, how do you get into the school, and who do you ask for? Because it’s amazing how many schools, on the map it’s looks like they’re on the postcode is X-Y-Z, but actually the real entrance to the school is round the back. And that can be an awfully long walk in some cases.

Tara Elie
I can totally empathise with those teachers who have had problems with timing because I’ve been given a call at 10:00, turned up at 10:30 and the school are furious because they expect you at 9:00

Charlie Taylor
When it’s like that it’s a very clunky system, that way of working. So yeah, I think that the better the communication is, the more someone is treated like a professional, the more likely the day is to go well and be successful. Meaning that you won’t be sorting out a mess the next day, you’ll be sorting out a class who’s had a really great day, that’s where you want to be.

Tara Elie
Absolutely. We’ve identified there’s a few parties involved, aren’t there? We might have some people who are listening who are teachers, thinking, “I might take a bit of time out of being permanent and go into supply teaching.” I’d quite like some tips for them, but I’d also like some tips for schools to be more inclusive to supply staff.

Charlie Taylor
I think that first thing about the welcome is really important and about giving as much information as possible. What’s the timetable for the day? Where’s that available? How can I find out what’s going on over the course of the day? Who else is going to be in the room with me? That’s really critical. I mean, I find also that if it’s a planned supply day, i.e., someone’s on a course or something, it’s really nice when you walk in and there’s a note from the teacher just saying, “Dear So-and-so, have a fantastic day.” Or an email or whatever it is, just saying, “Have a fantastic day. This is what we’re doing.” If the person isn’t able to do that, at least having access to planning or an understanding of what’s been going on before. Understanding the routines of that classroom, so there are some critical moments in the school day.

For example, what are the arrangements for getting the kids in and out of lunch, how does that work at lunch time? You may have a TA who’s going to boss that for you, but you may not. How do you get kids in from the playground? Those big Victorian schools with endless staircases, that can be a chore in itself getting kids in from the playground. What’s the routine for getting kids in, are they expected to line up? Are they expected to go up the stairs in silence, how are they supposed to be, what’s the expected level of behaviour that you want? Because what you can’t do as a supply teacher is come in impose some completely artificial standard that no one will recognise there. At the same time, what you don’t want to do is set the bar lower than the class teacher sets, because then immediately you’re putting yourself in a difficult situation.

But with a bit of support you can get it bang on track again, and it doesn’t make you a bad teacher if something like that happens. I had a class I used to work with every week, and it was a really lovely, leafy school, and I loved going to this school. And one school, I don’t know, I got off on the wrong foot or something, and for two weeks… I was going to cover them every afternoon when it was a PPA cover or a leadership cover, and I went in there every week. I had about the first two weeks and they were just all over me, and I don’t know what I was doing wrong, but I was doing something wrong and I was getting it. And the teacher came in with me, and I said, “Look, I’m really sorry to bother you, I know you’ve got your time off really. Can you just come in with me for five minutes and just see what’s going on here?” And she did and she gave me some tips, and she talked me through a couple of things.

And after that it was great and I had a great experience with that class. But they could just as easily have not bothered and left me to it, and it would’ve been a horrible experience, and those kids wouldn’t have learned anything. So that sense of being backed and looked after. And I think the other thing is about including people. So, inviting them along to things, just because they’re a supply teacher they’re not a teacher, you know? Making sure they’ve got a cup of tea, if people are going for a beer after work or whatever it is, actually it’s really nice to be asked, if you’re a supply teacher, and I’ve had some thoroughly enjoyable nights, I’ll say no more. Just going out at the end of a week of supply with a good bunch of staff.

And those sorts of things just make the experience better. And the next time you see, well on Zen you’ll see the booking come in online, but the next time you’ll see a booking from that school, you’ll think, “Yeah, right. I really want to be in there.” There are some schools that people are really keen to go back to. And one of the schools I’m thinking of, actually, is the school that has been in special measures, which has had a really, really tough run, and yet our teachers love going back there. Why do they love going back there, is the behaviour perfect? No. Is the school perfect? Absolutely not, there’re all kinds of big issues. But is it a wonderful, welcoming, inclusive place and is it a school that’s going somewhere? Yes, absolutely it is.

So it doesn’t have to be the most perfect school in the world, but it just has to be a place where people are made to feel welcome, and made to feel like a professional who’s there to do a great job.

So just as much information as individual children. So-and-so’s mom will pick him up at the day, make sure you don’t let so-and-so go with his dad because there’s been an incident, and he’s not allowed to, whatever it might be. It’s some of that communication that really makes things better. The other thing that is really lovely too, is just checking in on the person. Where you get the head, or the deputy who just comes in, the beginning of the school days are always unbelievably busy, but half-way into the morning or whatever it is, they just put their head round the door, they come and say hello, they’re friendly. It lets the kids know that you’re their man, or you’re their woman, but also that you’re just feeling welcomed.

So just being checked in on is really lovely. And then I think backing people up if something goes wrong, if a teacher makes an appalling, terrible mistake, well that’s slightly different, or obviously if safeguarding or something like that. But just back them up if things are going wrong, just be prepared to spend a bit of time in the classroom, give them a little bit of support in order to do it. Rather than assuming that if something does go wrong, it’s all the teachers fault and that you write that person off. Because very often, you can make a mistake so easily as a supply teacher, and things can unravel quite quickly.

Tara Elie
And I really like the fact that you’ve said there Charlie that you as a supply teacher felt like you needed help and were actually able to say, “Can you come and have a look for a moment?” The question that I really like asking guests is, What’s the best thing a student’s ever taught you?

Charlie Taylor
I’ll tell you what I think. This is the thing that really struck me. When I first took over my school, whenever a teacher was going to leave, the habit had been in the past that because the kids became… it was an SEMH primary school, the kids became incredibly attached to the teacher. And what the school used to do was that if a teacher was going to leave, was not saying anything about it until basically the last day of term. And then they’d tell the kids then. And the kids where all hyper and emotional anyway, and you would get the pain out of the way and that would be it. And that was the tradition of the school.

And I remember this happened at the end of my first term with a teacher and I felt really uncomfortable about it, I thought, “We’ve handled that really wrong.” And the kids said to me, one of the kids who was really attached to the teacher, he said, “Why didn’t you tell us that she was going?” It was this cultural habit the school had got into, and what it was really was avoiding the pain and the complication of saying goodbye. So after that, whenever we had a child leaving the school, we would always let them know… Sorry, when we had a teacher leaving school, we would always let everybody know as soon as we possibly could, and we knew that that teacher would get a really hard time, and that they would get lots of pushback, and the kids would feel let down. But they would work through that.

And then when it got to that final day when we sang our song and we had our little saying goodbye song, and we said goodbye to the teacher, it was a really lovely experience and it had been done properly. So I think that was the thing that I probably can think of that I learned so much.

Tara Elie
Yeah. That people do deserve, after that investment of relationship, and the trust, they do deserve an opportunity to say goodbye.

Charlie Taylor
Of course, and the habit that the school had got into was doing things to make life easier for the staff rather than doing things to make life easier for the kids. And that’s, should never be what we’re about.

Kevin M
And now, it’s time for Charlie’s Pivotal pause.

Charlie Taylor
This passage is from one of my favourite books. Dubliners by James Joyce, and it’s from the last story which is The Dead. And it’s the last few paragraphs.

“He stretched himself out cautiously under the sheets and lay down beside his wife. One by one, they were all becoming shades. Better pass boldly into that world, in the full glory of some passion, than fade and wither dismally with age. He thought of how she who lay beside him had locked her heart for so many years that image of her lover’s eyes when he had told her that he did not wish to live.

“Generous tears filled Gabriel’s eyes. He had never felt like that towards anybody, but he knew that such a feeling must be love. The tears gathered more thickly in his eyes and in the partial darkness he imagined he saw the form of a young man standing under a dripping tree. Other forms were near. His soul had approached that region where dwell the vast hosts of the dead. He was conscious of, but could not apprehend, their wayward and flickering existence. His own identity was fading out into a grey impalpable world, the solid world itself, which these dead had one time reared and lived in, was dissolving and dwindling.

“A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right, snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen, and further westward, softly falling on the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.”

Tara Elie
So, Charlie, it’s been, I just think it’s so invaluable to look at the people who are part of our cultures, and we invite in day-to-day and expect to perform. And having your voice and the experience of Zen Educate as well that you’re bringing to this podcast has been very useful. Thank you for your time.