From Favourite to Fill In

Reflections of a supply teacher…

This month I have been experiencing supply teaching. Where’s miss? What’s wrong with her? When will she be back? Much like the separation anxiety experienced by small children, teenagers do not like to have their favourite teacher taken away. Changing perspective from being the favourite to becoming the fill in has sent me back on a learning curve. In my old school, I was well known to most pupils; in this school I am just a supply. Researching for the emergency curriculum, I want to use this experience to help remove some of the barriers to learning created by long term staff absence.


In my old classroom, we had a culture of learning. When pupils entered, they knew learning had begun. Relentlessly, I would accept nothing less than 100%. It was clear from lesson one that this culture of learning could not be forced upon a class that has experienced a string of supply teachers. They have already tried out their best disruptive moves; they are practiced in the art of disruption without detection; any attempt to assert authority is shot down in a blaze of pack mentality. It’s us against you miss!

Tasked with filling in for a whole month, knowing that they would be primed for a fight and knowing that I would be outnumbered, lessons needed to be structured to allow me to observe learning behaviours and relationships (while also maintaining authority and control). The more I knew about the way they worked, the more likely it would be that I could form working relationships and convince them that learning is better than anarchy.

My plan was to quickly evaluate the circumstances of the class so that I could engage them as swiftly as possible in learning. The following method can help teachers, who are tasked with taking on a class that is not always theirs, to place emphasis upon learning. It can support in building relationships that lead to high levels of engagement. This approach could be taken if you are taking over a class part way through the year, if you are on long term supply or in any situation where the pupils already feel they have ownership over the space. I am armed with the school’s behaviour for learning policy and know the expectations of tackling poor behaviour. This is not my opening line… this is in my mind for my own confidence.


The following information was projected onto the board “YOUR controlled assessment preparation.” The emphasis was upon “Your.” This is not my class, their success depends upon how well they deal with their teacher’s absence. Context is key; I know where they are in their learning and where they need to be. This is clearly not a filler task designed to keep them quiet but a continuation of necessary learning. I have made all of this clear in my written instructions, enabling them to make a positive choice to engage.

The process was clearly written out on the board. They were asked to gather information on three key areas – themes, structure and storyline of Romeo and Juliet. They were given blank A3 pages stapled into a booklet to use as a resource to gather information. It was important that both myself and the pupils were enabled. They should be able to work independently so that I am able to observe their behaviours. Ensuring that instructions were clear, resources were accessible and learning could begin promptly was key to success.

Around the room were envelopes containing printed information on each of the three research areas. Pupils were told that if they demonstrated any of the five Rs (reasoning, resilience, reflectiveness, resourcefulness, respect), they would be rewarded. The five Rs were all over the school, in posters on planners so I knew pupils would be familiar with them. Schools often have foci such as this, whether it is PLTS, five Rs or other, it is worth finding out what the culture is and using it to your advantage. Pupils were given a time limit of three lessons (roughly one lesson per key area). Off they went…


Observing how they interacted allowed me to research them as individuals and plan effective learning in later lessons. What were their names? Who worked well with who? What engaged them? What annoyed them? Did they have a culture of learning or a culture of apathy? What did they want to achieve when they left school? What were their thoughts about English? Which other lessons did they talk about? Any other information I could find out about them? This information was used to plan support, challenge and engagement into later lessons. Any poor behaviour was quickly and quietly dealt with. Pupils needed to know that I knew their behaviour policy inside out. Any faltering with this and this lesson may not have worked at all.


During lesson one, there were lots of questions asked about the task. Once the question was asked, I was needed. Not demanding to be heard removed any chance of confrontation; they were asking for my help. Examples had been prepared in anticipation of misunderstanding. When they are the ones asking the questions, they are more willing to listen to the answers. Having planned to promote the school focus of the 5 Rs, five different coloured sticker dots came in handy. I awarded stickers to pupils demonstrating effective learning. Quietly, I explained why each sticker was rewarded to the individual. This had a knock on effect of pupils copying positive behaviours and less pupils behaving negatively. Stickers have a strange effect; no matter what age the pupil, they want one!

Extra credit questions were introduced part way through the second lesson. Each question was based upon one of the areas of research. If pupils had worked hard, they would feel able to engage with and earn from the extra credit questions. Pupils could choose to answer these questions to show that they were reasoning through their research as well as performing the research itself. Questions were set at three levels: gold, silver and bronze so that pupils could choose their entry level into this work.


In three days, a class of aggressive, unresponsive teenagers were no longer apathetic or avoiding work. They were searching for meaning and making meaning for themselves. Pupils were enabled to work as everything was easily accessible. They were engaged in positive learning behaviours through a tool already familiar to them (5Rs) to bring in praise. What worked well was the lack of confrontation, an understanding of their specific context, an understanding of who I was to them and what I could actually do for them that would create a culture of learning without imposing myself too heavily upon their own culture. When teachers need to fill in for significant amounts of time, this approach of evaluate, enable, observe to engage could be beneficial in avoiding lost learning.


One thought on “From Favourite to Fill In

  1. Pingback: I have mostly been reading… #28daysofwriting day 6 (delayed!) – blog. mrstacey.

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