Three Schools in One Week: or, if it’s Wednesday it must be Stalham.

By Bruce, a supply teacher in Norwich

The life of an itinerant supply teacher is a strange one; like a fireman, you find yourself dashing out of the house just after switching on the coffee machine and preparing for a leisurely breakfast. Rather like Wallace from ‘Wallace and Gromit’, sometimes I would like one of those tubes you jump into and emerge at the bottom wearing a shirt, tie and trousers. The strangest time is that between 6.30 a.m. and 8.30 a.m. if you haven’t got a pre-booked assignment. You get up, make that first cup of tea, have a shower, and think about putting your gardening clothes on, when the phone rings………

Teaching in three different schools in one week, as I did recently, can be confusing. I drove a quarter of a mile in the wrong direction; right direction for one school, just not the one I was meant to be going to. On one day, I taught four year eight music classes. The next day, I received my timetable for the day. I didn’t recognise any of the year eight pupils on the class registers; again, two schools fifteen miles apart.

Having left full-time teaching four years ago, I am still getting used to being asked by conscientious pupils ‘What is the WILF today?’ or its partner, WALT. They sound like a couple of elderly American uncles.

As supply teachers, we sometimes feel like vultures circling over the educational savannah, waiting for a teacher to fall, and then we dive in to scavenge what slim pickings remain. When in schools, we must maintain a diplomatic sympathy for the absent member of staff, whilst secretly thinking, ‘I hope it’s nothing trivial’. As winter approaches, I am first in line for my flu jab.

The pleasures of supply teaching are sometimes hard to fathom, but for those of us with many years of full-time teaching behind us, we need to remind ourselves that we have a more equitable work-life balance. We can take holidays outside of the school holidays (note to myself: don’t go to Crete in October ever again; biblical rain and half the country on strike). The other balance is of course, that between time and money. I recently asked a full-time colleague how much does he get paid an hour. He said he couldn’t possibly work it out as one does the hours necessary for the job. He had worked out that last year he had probably done an extra hundred hours on top of the statutory time which is the equivalent of another three and a half weeks on the school year. As a supply teacher, I know my exact daily and hourly rate. This means if you are stuck in the middle of a difficult class, you can work out exactly how much you are being paid for your agony. Bad lessons always seem appalling at the time and of course very little learning takes place (apart from you learning never to teach that lesson again) but in retrospect, it can be hard to pinpoint the problem. Some would gain that Ofsted judgement that for some reason doesn’t appear on their observation forms: ‘Nobody died’. Time can seem to stop and sometimes it would be fun to call in the caretaker to check the clocks; it would at least take a few minutes.

Recently, the best lesson I have taught was a blues-song writing exercise in a music lesson. I spotted a guitar and managed to knock out a reasonable impression of a blues. I offered to play back to the class any verses they made up. The enthusiasm was infectious and it was that rare lesson; one in which it seems a shame to stop.

The real pleasure of supply teaching is the general acceptance of you by the vast majority of pupils. As long as you dress like a teacher, act like a teacher, and then they will accept that this is exactly what you are and behave likewise. Other pleasures include being a listening post, like a taxi-driver or hairdresser, for other teachers when a colleague has been absent for some time. Of course, you also meet up with other wandering supply teachers. You build up a network of contacts and gain an overview of schools, constantly surprised at how different schools can be when only a few miles apart. Inevitably, you put the various schools into a rank order according to various criteria; quality of cover work; quality of tea, coffee and biscuits; state of the teacher’s desk and stock cupboard; pupils with the largest number of badges for good work, leadership skills, etc.

Of course, none of this could happen without the agency. A friendly, sympathetic voice at the end of the phone; sometimes a persuasive voice first thing in the morning. A sense of trust and mutual understanding is important along with a good relationship with the client schools. However, I have the feeling that ‘Go home and drink a large glass of red wine through a straw’ might be the default advice for any panicky phone-call.

Finally, I have had the delight this year of having taught Harry Potter, Laura Ashley, Katie Price and Jack Daniels (absolutely true! Their names were on the printed class lists).