The life of a (supply) teacher is hard, but rewarding, and other complaints…

Just a little note to all my teacher colleagues: beep you! Yes, that’s right, you read correctly, but hear me out first before you click x or put this article, or whatever you’re reading it on, down. You see, I mean it in the nicest possible and most respectful way. I mean it in a sort of collegiate way. In the same way you might say to yourself, when you’ve done or thought something stupid and perhaps you’re trying to shock yourself out of the mental stupor that created said thing.

I feel your pain; I know your sorrow. I too, worked hard for my degree and a heck of a lot harder for my teacher qualification or QTS. I too, often, wake up at 5 am, or earlier, to make sure everything’s done, ready and all is in order for the day. I too, realise it’s 3pm and I haven’t eaten anything except milky coffees and chocolate. I too, am still up at midnight, marking or trying to think up a way to keep my year 10s on task, engaged and making progress for a double period the next day. I too, have found my free period stolen by some ‘incident,’ or my breaks broken because I have to give Billy a detention, or my lunches engaged by clubs, and my plans for the evening scuppered because of a last minute notification of a meeting after school. Let’s face it, I don’t need to go on anymore, teaching is hard, very hard, and no matter where you are, or how long you’ve done it, it’s something that has a massive and unrelenting impact on your life. You have no time, too much pressure and the added pressure to do even more with your lack of time is farcical; and I say this as someone who has worked in lots of other sectors and jobs. The lack of focus on what is important that can often then ensue and the resulting problems that can follow (pick up any “news worthy” article about education to understand what I mean) is therefore not only to be expected but should highlight the “Insane stage” of evolution that the education system is now in.

Even ignoring this, can anyone say that they are truly happy with the system or profession as things now stand? I really don’t think so, and my many and varied conversations with others confirms this statement with 100% rates of confirmation, as does the “lack of teachers” problem currently plaguing the profession. Even if you are happy, and I know that there are lots of you, I bet you know lots of teachers who aren’t. For sure, there are some elements that might be unchangeable or expected, but there is certainly lots of room for improvement. And yes, let’s talk about the white elephant in the room, there are lots of teachers who shouldn’t perhaps be teachers, who need to retrain or take a break. However, I have to still say that most teachers are quite frankly ubermensch and should be paid the same as doctors. Overall, there’s lots of problems, it almost seems silly to point at any individual issues and I have the utmost respect for all the educational professions who work in one of the most difficult and taxing jobs in the world.

Having said this, I’d like to remind you of my original point: f**ck you! You see, by 16 I was working in and managing clothes shops and a body of staff, and at around the same time I was doing work experience with Estelle Morris (bless her cotton socks). I’ve got a masters, worked for over 10 years in the “real world” and my PGCE is a masters level one from the IOE. I went to a few different types of school myself from an average prep in Woodside Park to Highgate School and Le Rose in Switzerland. I’d done work experience or visits or been a TA in over 10 schools (primary and secondary) before I’d even got my first job. That was at Archbishop Tenison’s in Oval, where I completed my NQT and worked a second year after that. I got mentioned in the LA magazine, made head of this and that, and so much more. I worked hard, cared a lot and was always someone who saw the importance of doing things properly, excellently and in the best possible way. Now, before you throw up all over the place from this self-adulation, there is a reason I’m telling you this. After that second year at ATS I decided I wanted to see what other types of school were out there before I, I thought then, likely settled down into one school for at least 7 years, and after a chat with Angela Wright from King’s student teacher program, I went supply and moved to Brighton. After a year and a half of long term/short term supply teaching in school’s up to an hour’s drive from Brighton, I moved back to London and continued supply work and I have been as such, pretty much since. I like what I do. It’s honed me, sharpened me and made me better. I can walk into any class, one that I’ve never met before, and get everyone to be engaged, have fun, make progress and often leave saying I’m “the best supply they’ve ever had”…wait a minute…no…wait…ok, some (a lot) of them were just being nice but they can’t all be having me on, can they?

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Um, anyway, I’ve been going now for a total of 9 years in education, 4 to 5 years supply, I’ve had about 6 ‘Ofsted are coming” posts and 3 or 4 ‘oh s**t, Ofsted are here’ ones and I’ve now been in over 60 schools, many for significant periods. Yes, I was observed, yes, I go to briefings, duty, parents evening, follow up stuff, hand over, and yes I do mostly do 6 period days 5 days a week. Yes, cover work is sometimes there, but I deliver it, rather than write it on the board and read the paper with my feet up, and yes, I do often, have to plan my own, or think on the spot. I can “teach” (it’s a broad word) any subject to any board or syllabus (thanks to years of side work as an examiner and subject expert for Ofqual amongst other things). I don’t “cheat,” I follow the rules and training and I make sure I quickly learn the school. But it’s all made me better. Supply teaching is literally the best, especially if you are really into teaching (what I like to call an educationalist). It makes you one. It’s like the “Top Gun” of teaching and you are all missing out. But I don’t just mean because of the enhancement of your practice and positive impact you can have with the kids. It’s also because it’s 29th January and I’m still on holiday. It’s because I don’t have to stay til 6pm, preparing or attending meetings. If there’s something I don’t like or don’t think in my professional opinion (remember when that counted for something?!) is necessary, I don’t have to do it. I can be a professional again. I do the things that I think are important and I don’t have to do the things that aren’t (SLT have to do it if they think it is so important!). I have to volunteer for everything, and, even though I mostly do, the restatement of my personal power as a professional is beyond liberating. It’s right and good. Colleagues are grateful of your efforts, rather than expectant. I am free, and there is always work available, especially if you aim for complete satisfaction, like me. Now this only works if you live strongly aligned to your professional code, pedagogy/training and current educational developments (which I do, and I mean it) but this is so much better since it is self-applied and policed and so trumps any totalitarian regime, in efficacy. Just imagine it. You can be a teacher again. You just need to go supply.

But what? That’s a problem is it? You don’t want to go supply? And do you know why? Somewhere, hidden, in your list of reasons, will be the reason I swore at you. “Oi, we’ve got a supply!” Ever heard that and done nothing? How about seeing a teacher struggling with a class’ “behaviour for learning,” realising it’s a supply and ignoring it? Or even worse, “step in” and settle the class yourself? What about the head teacher who said “Thank you for being the best supply we’ve ever had.” Sorry, but when did I stop being a teacher? A supply? My years of experience and skills just got diluted to an inanimate object. Why don’t you complete the upstairs downstairs analogy and call me “the help.” But it’s not just the labels, it’s the thinking that goes behind it too. You see, one of those times another teacher walked into the rare occasions that I’m “struggling” (another broad term) with a class (or the class is “acting up”, you choose) and proceeded to “settle” them and set the work without so much as acknowledging me the entire time.

He not only ignored me, he undermined me. When he left, the class just did what they wanted again, but worse, now I wasn’t there in their eyes. Not cool, or safe for that matter. Think about it. Would you do that to a fellow teacher? Would you do that to a student teacher (within reason)? Well, you shouldn’t if you answered yes, and you actually understand that teaching is about relationships if you answered no…or you’re lazy, ahem, or…more likely, too busy. Now, I’m not saying that we shouldn’t support each other or get involved when a teacher is “struggling” (perhaps I should have chosen a different word) with a class, indeed, it is vital that the kids know the teacher is not alone and there are consequences outside the classroom and the personal relationship between teacher and student. But that’s collaborative and collegiate. It’s not, “now an actual teacher is in the room so forget this guy and do what I say.” So I went to this particular SLT member and for the first time in my life I spoke up. I explained similarly to the above, my years of service and the history of my relationship with the class in question (i.e. it was a difficult one but it’s a process isn’t it…?) and how he had likely set me back 3 lessons, if not forever, with said class. And do you know what he said?!! “I’m sorry, but we do get a lot of really rubbish supply teachers.”

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Really? So…because of Dr. Mengele and Shipman I should beware of all doctors and locums? So…because young black people are over represented at all stages of the criminal justice system, I should think of all young black people as criminals? So…because some terrorists are Muslims, I should assume all Muslims are terrorists? Doesn’t that sound like something? Don’t we use a word to describe that thinking and another word to describe the acting on that thinking? Prejudice and discrimination are insidious, pervasive and easily overlooked. There’s lots of times it’s ok to do (choosing chocolate cake over another cake) and lots of times, illegal or not, that it isn’t. Is it any wonder we lose our way sometimes? But that can’t be an excuse rather than a warning. We have to stop ourselves making and following rules based on a limited (or ignorant) experience. Unfortunately, from my experience as a “supply” teacher, this sort of thing is rampant in schools. It’s so pervasive that I feel confident at swearing at all of you. It’s in the ignoring in the staff room. It’s in the lack of some sort of induction for supply teachers. It’s in the shoddy cover work. It’s in the lack of access to SIMS (or whatever system you use). It’s in the thought that what the kids are doing with the supply teacher, doesn’t count or isn’t important; and so much more. It’s also in the thought that, because I’m not permanent or full time, that I’m not serious.

This is also so much more than a rant though. In my understanding, no teacher should want any adult in a school to be disrespected, ignored or anything other than respected, listened to and followed. No teacher should want any lesson to be a wasted opportunity. No teacher should want any work done by students to be unimportant. No teacher should want any bad behaviour to not be followed up on. No school can afford to waste any skills. I could go on. There is so much good in a school having all parts of that school working well together, all adults and children are listened to and respected, all lessons are ones where kids are engaged and making progress. Do you want any weak links in the chain? And it is a chain, make no mistake, schools are chains to success, life and societal happiness.  I’ve met “supply” teachers who were doctors or professors in their home country, I’ve met “supply” teachers who are experts in education, and I’ve met “supply” teachers who are absolutely awful. But I don’t judge anyone without knowing as much as I can about someone, and that is one of the messages here. The other message, is about using supply teachers properly so the profession can be improved and there is no distinction between teachers and “supply” teachers. The final message is to all of you, if everyone quit their job and went supply (it’s honestly great), schools would be forced to hire you privately through agencies, on your terms and we could take back the profession. It only works if you all do it though…