Occasional Teachers; Unsung Heroes

Unfortunately, I have had many health challenges this year that have necessitated having to take a significant amount of time off of work to recuperate.  These absences have provided me time to reflect on my practice as a classroom teacher and about how important occasional teachers are in our practice.  I had the pleasure of working in our local ETFO office as a released officer for 3 years alongside the incredible Marsha Jones, Occasional Teacher President extraordinaire.  She taught me a lot about Occasional Teachers, the obstacles they face and the little things that I could do to make their days go easier.  I thought I would share a few of my insights.

Occasional Teachers that come to our school like to return because of the friendly atmosphere.  In the staff room, they are included in our “tea days”, people engage them in conversation and always ask how they can be of help.  It sounds like a simple thing, but many of the Occasional Teachers that come to our school comment on our friendly staff.  So the next time you see an Occasional Teacher in your school, smile and say hello and ask them how their day is going.

Do NOT ask an Occasional Teacher “who” they are for the day.  What an insult!  You can ask who they are in for, who they are helping out, who they are rescuing or replacing, but they are themselves each and every day they come to work.  We should appreciate the fact that we have access to qualified teachers to replace us for the day so that we can take sick days when we need them or go to conferences for professional learning.

Speaking of insults, please try not to call Occasional Teachers “substitute” or “supply” teachers.  We rely on these colleagues. “Occasional Teacher” is their job title.  Be respectful of it; we rely on them.

Remember to have a few days of “emergency” plans in advance of your absence.  It takes the edge of having to type up plans in between trips to the washroom when you have the flu.  Leave them in a place that is easy for the Occasional Teacher to find.  This makes your life easier too.

If you generally have an active classroom that engages in centres, activities etc., then TRUST your Occasional Teacher and leave plans that include those lessons.  Chances are your students know how this stuff runs and will let the Teacher know.  It may mean giving up a bit of control; deal with it.  If you leave all day seat work that you’ve photocopied or a movie that isn’t connected to anything that they are doing in the classroom, it will not be enjoyable for the students and likely your Occasional Teacher will have more behaviour issues.  Consequently, you will not get the quality of work that you normally see from your students. Don’t have huge expectations.  No matter how wonderful the Occasional Teacher may be, they are not you and the students know that.  We also need to remember to trust the judgment of an Occasional Teacher.  I’ve heard it and I’ve said it; “The ‘supply’ didn’t follow my day plan. I worked for hours on that detailed plan.”  We don’t know what kind of a day that teacher had with our students.  They may have experienced a lockdown, fire drill, class evacuation, pizza money, scholastic money, a student injury or even a skating field trip.  (My sincere thanks to Occasional Teacher Rachel Johnston on that one!)  We need to remember that they are qualified teachers and they have the right to exercise their professional judgment in order to keep the class calm and engaged.  Let them do their job and thank them for it.

I write my day plans on my computer for myself each week.  This makes writing a day plan for the Occasional Teacher much easier.  I have all of my emergency information, how to deal with specific students, who to count on and the general rules and routines in a separate document to attach to daily plans.  I always attach a class list.  Try to keep your plans as close to the regular routine as possible.  If I am going to be away for a meeting I will try to find out who will be replacing me for the day and I email them the plans in advance and ask if they have any questions.  I include my cell phone number in case they can’t find a password or an item and few of them ever use it but if they do then I know that they care about my students and the plans that I have left for them.

Finally, show your gratitude.  Some Occasional Teachers drive an hour to get to our school and in bad weather.  Some are called at the very last minute, through traffic, to an unfamiliar school using GPS.  Their mornings are often stressful before they even arrive on site.  So when an Occasional Teacher has done a great job and your classroom is still standing when you go in the next day, write a quick email and say thank you. Occasional Teaching is often a thankless job but we can’t be sick without these wonderful people.


Updated: December 28, 2017 — 6:04 pm

The Author

Michelle Fenn

I am a teacher with the Kawartha Pine Ridge District School Board and I have been teaching for over 20 years. I am an Instructional Leadership Consultant with the portfolios of Innovations and NTIP. I have the privilege of working with new teachers and their mentors as well as helping teachers develop 21st Century learning competencies with their students. When I grow up I want to be Ms. Frizzle from the Magic School Bus.


Add a Comment
  1. Marsha Jones says:

    Thanks, Michelle, for this thoughtful message!!

    OTs will definitely value the suggestions you have provided.

    (Thanks, too, for the compliment to me!!)


    1. Michelle Fenn says:

      Giving credit where credit is due!

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