Relief teachers: Is your induction program up to scratch? (Part One)

07 April 2016

This is the first article in a two part series on relief teachers. In this series, Craig D’cruz, National Education Consultant at CompliSpace, explores the legal obligations of schools regarding the induction programs used for relief teachers. In Part One of this series, Craig will be examining how some schools currently tackle this issue and why their approaches may not be sufficient.

Schools engage relief teachers (also known as casual, substitute or supply teachers) in a casual capacity nearly every week of the academic year. This is because, unlike in many other businesses, a school simply cannot have a class without a teacher. They are usually employed to replace teachers on unplanned personal leave or to replace teachers absent on camps, tours and excursions, professional development or sporting events.

Relief teachers are engaged because it is not always possible to have other teachers within the school take up the extra sessions for the missing employee. This can be for a variety of reasons including but not exclusive to:

  • not wishing to add extra work to another teacher’s daily schedule;
  • specific Enterprise Agreement requirements; and
  • school timetable constraints.

Ad-hoc employment: Common features

Although most non-government schools have their own unique policy in relation to relief teachers, there are a few commonalities regarding the sometimes ad-hoc daily employment of relief teachers:

  1. Relief teachers tend to be offered employment on the morning of the day of the absence: The offer is made after the permanent teacher calls in with the request for personal leave. Usually, calls are received by the school between 6 a.m. and 7 a.m. on the day. Calls are then made to engage relief staff. Sometimes many calls need to be made by schools to engage only one or two relief staff as, although it depends on many external variables, schools rarely have relief staff who work only for them. Note that there are now mobile apps available that assist with this service where relief teachers log their details onto the app and schools send out text messages. The first teacher to respond often gets the job. This in itself opens up a Pandora’s box of issues. For example, the text message from the Deputy Principal goes out to all relief teachers who use the app- this could be over 100 possible relief teachers. The first to respond is usually offered the position and, once accepted by the school, the others all receive a message that the offer of employment has been filled. Do schools have any control over who this person may be? Is it possible to personally check every teacher who uses the app for possible employment?
  2. They do not have a formal written contract of employment: It is usually a verbal offer of employment from the Deputy Principal or equivalent. The verbal arrangement becomes a common law contract of employment for the day and, unless there is a specific school policy or statement in an Enterprise Agreement, the conditions of the relevant Award will prevail regarding contractual conditions such as hours of work, salary, notice and so forth.
  3. They arrive usually at a pre-determined time but usually no more than 30 minutes before the commencement of class time: Then they leave at the conclusion of the school day, usually after reporting back to the relevant Deputy. Sometimes, if an employee calls in late, they may be engaged to attend immediately – the duty of care for the children is placed as the first and foremost responsibility of the school.
  4. Mornings in schools are incredibly busy: There are children arriving, parents wanting to discuss issues, staff with urgent queries and, more often than not, the Deputy Principal, responsible for the employment of the relief teachers, may have anywhere between 1-10 teachers absent. With all the chaos of a school morning, the process of getting timetables and lesson plans to several relief teachers all before the commencement of the first scheduled lessons can be rushed.
  5. The relief teachers get limited time (if any) for induction on the day of employment: Other than having the Deputy Principal check that they are registered to teach and that they have a valid Working With Children Card (WWCC) – or equivalent. This is particularly true if they are employed directly by the school, and not through a relief teacher agency. The Business Manager may ask them to complete any tax related documents and to pass on details of their bank accounts and their superannuation details.
  6. They are usually given a full day of work (with no Duties Other Than Teaching (DOTT) time): This often occurs because schools generally want to make full use of the relief teacher for the day. Giving them DOTT is often perceived as a waste of resources and money. If the permanent teacher has a DOTT session, the Relief Teacher is often given the class of another teacher who may be present but deployed to take on another task that requires their attention.
  7. They can also receive playground duties to complete at recess and/or lunch time: This depends on the requirements of the school duty roster.

An internet search for school-based policies relating to the induction of casual or relief teachers in schools finds few examples of induction processes for relief teachers. Many non-government schools have well documented and excellent staff induction programs but it seems that not as many include casual relief staff in this process.

Sample policies

Some State education departments have developed excellent policies and procedures on this topic. For example, the New South Wales Department of Education (NSW DET) has created a number of pages on its website, devoted solely to relief/casual teachers and the expectations that the NSW DET has of them. Clearly, any relief teachers are expected to have read and understood their obligations before they are employed to work in any NSW government school.

Headings used in their induction policy include:

The Department of Education and Training Queensland offers a similar set of expectations.

Current practice: Room for improvement

Anecdotal evidence provided to the author has revealed that it is rare for non-government schools to have a formal induction process for their contracted relief teaching staff.

There may be other schools that provide relief teachers with a form of formal induction, however the anecdotal evidence indicates that, in many other schools, one of two things occurs. Firstly, on a relief teacher’s first day at a school, there may be a hurried 5-10 minute conversation at the commencement of the day as they are walked to their first class. Secondly, more regular relief teachers (who are engaged several times in a term or semester) may be expected to learn by a process of ‘osmosis’ over several weeks or months, where they develop an understanding of the school ethos and the other highly important issues such as codes of conduct, OHS/WHS and so forth. However, not all schools consider this level of induction to be an integral component of relief teacher employment.

Schools need to be aware of the high risks associated with the employment of relief teachers who, although they may have valid State/Territory registration and a WWCC, know little to nothing about the school or the expectations the school has of them. There seems to be an underlying assumption made between both parties that the relief teacher knows how to behave and how to manage and care for children (simply by being a teacher), whilst delivering content in a subject area that may be totally foreign to them. In order to ensure that relief teachers meet the expectations of the school, there must be a structured method to deliver this information to them.

In part two, we will discuss the need for an organised and thorough induction process and strategies that can be used by schools to reduce the risk of ad-hoc employment practices.

Craig D’cruz

With 37 years of educational experience, Craig D’cruz is the National Education Lead at CompliSpace. Craig provides direction on education matters including new products, program/module content and training. Previously Craig held the roles of Industrial Officer at the Association of Independent Schools of WA, he was the Principal of a K-12 non-government school, Deputy Principal of a systemic non-government school and he has had teaching and leadership experience in both the independent and Catholic school sectors. Craig currently sits on the board of a large non-government school and is a regular presenter on behalf of CompliSpace and other educational bodies on issues relating to school governance, school culture and leadership.