Teaching during a pandemic: a view from a supply teacher

I am writing this on my dinner break on my last day as a supply teacher. After losing my job in 2020, due to Covid-related job cuts, finally using my PGCE became an obvious and hopefully useful fallback so I could keep a roof over my head. It was especially ideal because it was easy to fit around the Master’s course I had wanted to do for a while and finally taken the opportunity to sign up to.

The whole experience has been extremely useful, if not always fun (having a glue stick chucked at me is one experience which springs to mind).

I have had the chance to cover lessons across the curriculum, in fact, I don’t think there are many subjects I haven’t covered. I have covered key stage 3, key stage 4, sixth form and even a little bit of primary. I have worked as a cover supervisor, learning support assistant and cover teacher.

I have worked in around 30 different schools in the last year, including academies, community schools, a PRU (my personal favourite) and a middle school (I have definitely been persuaded of the primary, middle, high school model). I have seen how different schools do things, what works, and what sometimes doesn’t, and I have seen what different challenges different schools face.

Ultimately, all this experience is what enabled me to find a permanent and more secure job in the education sector, however, that is not to say there are no problems with supply teaching.

It is important to note the value of supply teachers. They have always been vital to ensure that lessons can continue as normally as possible when a teacher is unable to come in due to illness or whatever other reason.

However, during the pandemic when high numbers of teachers are off due to Covid-related reasons, all at once, supply teachers stop schools from having to close completely. They have kept the education system going.

Despite this, supply teachers (and especially supply cover supervisors and teaching assistants) are still on a relatively low wage (particularly day-to-day and medium term covers). We get holiday pay within our day rate and then don’t get paid during school holidays or when there’s no work available. Some agencies offer some staff guaranteed work and if there is a drop in demand, they still get paid for those days. But this is rarely for five days work a week.

In the North East, if a supply teacher did actually manage to get work for every school day, paid at the teacher rate, they would earn less than a permanent NQT and about what an ‘unqualified teacher’ would earn. During lockdowns when schools were closed, whether or not a supply teacher was furloughed was up to the agency, as with any employer. From January to schools re-opening in March, I was not paid at all and just about managed on the little bit of student finance I was entitled to.

For most of my time on supply, (former) agencies refused to pay me as a teacher, instead paying me as a cover supervisor (which involves doing literally the same work as a day-to-day cover teacher, but for a fraction of the pay) as they didn’t recognise my qualifications and experience.

If I had worked every school day, I would have earned approximately half the salary of an NQT and much less than a full-time minimum wage job.

I was very thankful that I found my most recent agency, I just wish I had found them earlier. Although I was still paid less than an NQT, they at least recognised the qualifications and experience I have and paid me the same as every other supply teacher.

I am going to miss supply and the very wide variety of experience it has given me. However, I am not going to miss working in an industry which hugely undervalues its frontline staff.

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