By Stuart Foxman
Photos: Matthew Liteplo
When he was a young student, Corey Way, OCT, says the day was different when the regular teacher was absent. “We thought a supply teacher meant a free day. I was probably more talkative than usual [on those days] and not on my best behaviour,” he jokes.
Today Way has a different perspective on supply teachers: he completed his teacher education in 2015, and was an occasional teacher (OT) until this past September, when he was hired as a full-time, permanent Grade 6/7 teacher with the Brant Haldimand Norfolk Catholic District School Board. But as an OT, he faced the challenges, and reaped the rewards, of being in new schools and classrooms all the time.
“You see how different strategies work within certain environments,” says Way, “That allows you to reflect on your own practices.”
Supply teaching is a reality for many new teachers — even as more and more new graduates are finding full-time employment. However, as these five occasional teachers can attest, it can also make you a better teacher. Here are 10 lessons they have learned on the job.
In teaching, much growth comes from understanding the range of personalities and styles in the classroom, and absorbing professional advice. That’s true for occasional teachers too, but in their case they turbocharge those learnings.
OTs have access to a much broader palette of students and colleagues in any given year. “You get to see what works, and you’re just soaking up so much information,” says Way.
Working with a few boards and many schools as an OT, Eddy Rogers, OCT, witnessed a wide range of traditional and experimental pedagogies. He was able to see how each did (or didn’t) work best.
During interviews for long-term occasional assignments at the Simcoe Muskoka Catholic District School Board, Rogers was asked about his impressions of various teaching methods. He had a wealth to draw on — not just the theory but actual experiences. “I received practical exposure to the benefits of different approaches,” he says.
From September through April during the 2016–17 school year, Kaitlyn Fitzpatrick, OCT, put almost 40,000 kilometres on her car because of work. The occasional teacher lived in Huntsville (she now lives in North Bay) and took assignments in 60 different classrooms at 27 schools within the Near North District School Board. Most were just one-day assignments; the longest was three days.
As the year went on, Fitzpatrick got assignments the day before, and sometimes weeks in advance. But often she’d get the 6:30 a.m. call and have to head right out the door.
The schedule forces you to be flexible and embrace new opportunities and ideas quickly.
“Being adaptable is beneficial in a professional sense,” says Fitzpatrick. “It’s easy to get stuck in a routine and become rigid. For an OT, every day takes you out of your comfort zone.”
Going from school to school helps OTs to store an array of strategies they can later implement, whether in other short-term assignments or eventually in their own classrooms.
For instance, on one assignment Rogers was exposed to a very high-tech classroom in which the students worked independently. He incorporated some of those techniques into a subsequent class.
Fitzpatrick was ready to implement the “shiny new methods” she learned in her teacher education program. Inquiry-based, 21st-century learning is important, she says. Yet through her range of OT roles, Fitzpatrick also saw the advantages of more structured “old school” techniques, like some rote activities. “Sometimes you need to give students certainty, knowing if they’re right or wrong,” she says.
Supply teaching has given Fitzpatrick a more complete range of tools to deploy. “It’s one of the best things about being an OT. You get [exposed to] many awesome ideas,” says Fitzpatrick.
The first time she was an OT in a high school, Carol Anglehart, OCT, met a teacher who told her about a certain art project he did with his students. It stuck in her head. When she was at another school, she remembered it and had him forward her the resources. Such sharing of ideas can happen anywhere, but given their schedules, occasional teachers can quickly develop large contact lists.
At every school, Anglehart picks up tricks of the trade. She has done mostly occasional work, with the odd long-term assignment. She has worked for the Conseil scolaire public de district du Nord-Est de l’Ontario (where she now has a year-long contract) and for the Conseil scolaire public du Grand Nord de l’Ontario, becoming close with principals and staff in at least 10 different schools. “The connections are there,” she says, and OTs can use them to connect with students.
Once she was exposed to different age groups, Anglehart took Additional Qualification (AQ) courses for the Intermediate and Senior levels to help her get ahead. “I was able to use the downtime for professional development.”
Knowing he didn’t have the same demands as a full-time teacher, Rogers, too, dedicated himself to expanding his qualifications. He thought it would help him to “hit the ground running” if he secured a long-term contract.
During the six months between his graduation and getting on the supply list, Rogers obtained an AQ in Special Education. Once he started as a supply teacher, he pursued another AQ in intermediate education. With time during the day and in evenings, he also took free professional development courses online.
Rogers had his first long-term assignment from April to June 2016 (just over a year after joining the supply list) and two since. With his busier schedule, he realizes how useful it was to use so much of his downtime on continuous learning. “I miss the leisurely time I had to just gather professional knowledge in a relaxed manner.”
Taking command of the room is part of teaching. With every new assignment, OTs get a crash course in classroom management. “I pay close attention to the interactions between each person. You have to be good at sitting there for a second, assessing your group, finding the median and engaging immediately,” says Fitzpatrick.
Sheldon Reasbeck, OCT, knows something about using your training to be game-ready. He played Junior A hockey and is now a Hockey Canada certified instructor. Reasbeck runs a hockey development business in Kapuskasing, Ont., called PowerPlay Hockey and has been an OT for the Conseil scolaire public du Nord-Est de l’Ontario and the District School Board Ontario North East.
“As a hockey coach, I have to size up the game and players and make an impact,” says Reasbeck. It’s no different in the classroom. At school, too, he loves the challenge of having to think on his feet and perform at a high level. Every day is like a new game.
“You’re in different environments, with different grades, teaching different subjects. You have to be quick at reading people, realizing what kind of students you have and seeing how they learn. That’s important for developing as a teacher. It’s like an extension of your training,” says Reasbeck.
Any teacher will try to relate to students and learn how to respond to them. Occasional teachers, however, don’t have the luxury of time. “With supply teaching I have two minutes, not a month,” says Way.
From the start, Way will ask the students questions — What did they do the night before? What do they like? — which helps him forge bonds quickly. It serves the purpose and reminds him of what can be most important for teacher-student relationships.
“In teaching we try to label so many strategies. But I’m going cold into the classroom, and the first thing I do is try to get to know the students,” explains Way. “It’s making personal connections; that’s my strategy.”
Supply teachers are in and out of multiple classrooms in multiple schools, here today and gone tomorrow. Therefore, they don’t always get to track the progress of students and see the fruits of their labours. For Way, that situation is actually an incentive to give it his all every day. It’s about focusing on the moment and the professional ethic.
“If you want to be successful, a trait in any job is to take pride in your work,” he says. “You put your best foot forward. You might not [get to] see the result, but it will help you become a better educator.”
When you teach the same children every day, progress can often be imperceptible. It’s precisely because Fitzpatrick doesn’t go to the same schools or classes every day that she has a different perspective on how students have developed since the beginning of the year.
Fitzpatrick has met students who were struggling in the fall. She has returned as an OT in the spring and has seen how the same students have improved immensely. It hits home that with effort and a thoughtful teaching practice students can change for the better, something you don’t always appreciate on a daily basis. “It’s a motivator,” she says.
This is always important, and being a supply teacher reinforces that. Way says some students will assume that the usual routines don’t exist when an OT is present. So he made an effort to read up on the regular teacher’s notes, grasped the classroom procedures and kept them consistent.
That reminded him that structure influences student success. “Students often struggle with change and it can take their focus away from lesson content,” says Way. His objective: “Make sure the class achieves the goals set for them.”
Dealing with the same students and same classrooms day after day has its advantages. You get to know the children well. Yet that can also place them into “boxes.”
“I don’t know anybody when I go into a classroom, so I don’t have any biases,” says Fitzpatrick. “I’m able to be fair with every single person. The kids know that I’m not there to assess them. They can just be themselves. I see them at their most real state.”
That highlights the importance of being open-minded and objective with students. Fitzpatrick isn’t influenced by what came before. “Every day is a new day, and I like that,” she says.
When studying to become a teacher, Rogers was most interested in teaching kindergarten. As an OT, he has taught a wide range of age groups and also spent time with a Section 23 alternative program. “You start to appreciate things beyond the grades and subjects you originally became a teacher for,” says Rogers. Proving the point, he is now teaching Grades 7 and 8 in a full-time, permanent position with the Simcoe Muskoka Catholic District School Board.
Anglehart, who has taught students from JK to Grade 12, says, “In the first few years I got to see what age groups I prefer, and where I feel more comfortable.”
In a way, being an OT can also fuel your enthusiasm. Without the extra work of a full-time teacher, “I come in fresh all the time,” says Anglehart.
She says that a lot of new teachers become stressed worrying about full-time jobs. Take a breath, take the work you can get, and learn from it, she says: “It really broadens your mind and your horizons.”
To Reasbeck, it’s all about attitude. You get to see different school settings, programs and ideas in action. Full-time employment might be the goal, but in the meantime the broad span of experiences helps to inform occasional teachers about the kind of teacher they want to be, and prepare them for that next opportunity.
“You’re a better teacher for it,” says Reasbeck. “When you start as a supply teacher, you have the mentality that you want your own classroom. I would say just embrace the challenge of it and the learning curve.”
From the start of his teaching career, Andrew Shedden, OCT, had his own classroom, and by year two was working as an intermediate numeracy and literacy coach. He has come a long way — and went a long way to get there.
For his first teaching job, Shedden flew from Toronto to Thunder Bay, took another flight north to Sioux Lookout, and went another 425 kilometres north to Sachigo Lake in northwestern Ontario. “It was an exciting adventure and a great opportunity to jump into teaching with both feet.”
Rather than seeking OT jobs, Shedden, who’s from Peterborough, tried an alternative career path. He taught for six months at the Sachigo Lake First Nation, then moved to the Kashechewan First Nation on the north shore of the Albany River, 10 kilometres inland from James Bay. The community provides housing, and Shedden lives a two-minute walk from the on-reserve Francine J. Wesley Secondary School.
As he has taught, Shedden has also learned, including the Cree language (he describes his skills as “terrible, but I can understand more than I can speak”) and First Nations traditions. He’s a musician, too, and has played guitar at community jamborees and at a New Year’s celebration with a Cree fiddler.
Just as the community has embraced him, so have the students. “They know I’m there because I want to teach them and care about their learning. They can sense that I’m genuine,” he says.
From the beginning, Shedden had the chance to develop his own classroom management strategies, assessments and evaluation. He’s adding to his qualifications by doing a master’s program part time (through the University of British Columbia) in educational technology.
The full-time postings have fast-tracked Shedden’s career, but that wasn’t his main motivation for taking work in two northern Ontario First Nations communities. “It’s a teaching experience like no other,” he says.