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The Supply Teacher's Lot
Derek Gillard
March 2003

copyright Derek Gillard 2003
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Gillard D (2003) The Supply Teacher's Lot www.educationengland.org.uk/articles/21supply.html

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The supply teacher's lot is not a happy one. Typically, the phone rings just as you're eating your lunchtime snack. They want you to cover for someone who's just gone home with the flu. You stuff the remains of your sandwich in your mouth, gulp down the dregs of your coffee, grab a few worksheets you keep handy for such occasions and set off for the school.

You arrive with a few minutes to spare, report to the school secretary and then find a child to show you where Miss Bloggs's classroom is. The room is a tip - she definitely wasn't feeling well this morning. You rummage about a bit and find she's left you a page of indecipherable scribble, apparently referring you to her lesson plans for the week, which you are unable to locate.

The kids come screaming into the room - they're always at their worst after they've spent their lunch break stuffing themselves with E numbers and kicking each other to death in the playground. You start to shout at a particularly vicious young thug but then realise you don't know his name so he doesn't notice it's him you're shouting at ...

You get the picture.

In case you think I'm exaggerating, here is my account of an actual afternoon's supply teaching. I promise you every word of it is true, though I have, of course, changed the names to protect the guilty.

Afternoon school starts at one, so I arrived at 12.45 and went straight to Rose Simmonds's classroom. My immediate impression on entering was of total chaos. There were pencils and rubbish everywhere, books scattered around the floor in the 'reading corner', and chairs and tables jumbled around as though a herd of hippopotami had just passed through in a hurry to get to the nearest watering hole. To make matters worse, the last lesson of the morning had clearly been unexpectedly interrupted by lunch, as the tables and floor were covered in large pieces of sugar paper in various stages of being cut into shapes.

I put down my bag, hung my jacket on the back of a chair and began clearing up the mess. I soon discovered that the problem wasn't just paper. The children were having to eat their meals in the classrooms for a week because the hall was being used as a storage area for the builders. In this particular room one of the children had obviously been eating sweetcorn and several had been eating chocolate - something with chocolate chips in, I think - so most of the tables were sticky with food. I found a cloth and wiped them as best I could.

Having restored some limited semblance of order to the room, I looked around for the list of the afternoon's work which Rose had promised to leave for me. I eventually found it amongst a pile of books on the floor by the white board. First, she wanted me to read the class the story of Florence Nightingale (book provided) and then get the children to draw a picture and do some writing about her - A4 sheets with a rectangle at the top (for the picture) and some lines underneath (for the writing) had been photocopied. So far, so good.

Next, I was to get the children 'round the computer' and 'show them Greenpeace'. Presuming that this meant the Greenpeace website, I went over to the computer and switched it on. After telling me that 'this computer was not shut down properly last time' it asked me for my password. I looked at my sheet of notes again. Nothing about a password. I looked at my watch. Nearly one o'clock. I decided to go to the office to ask if anyone knew the password. Half way down the corridor I met a young teacher who told me to type in 'manager' and then, on the next screen, 'changeme' (all one word). I went back to the computer, typed in the suggested words and, sure enough, it worked. I opened Internet Explorer and looked at my sheet of notes again. Nothing to indicate what the URL of the Greenpeace website was, so I guessed 'www.greenpeace.org.uk' and, to my surprise - and relief - the Greenpeace website appeared.

By now it had gone one, so I went out on to the playground to call the class in. Twenty-six six year olds, Year Two. They came in fairly noisily - not quite badly enough to make them go out and do it again - and sat on the carpet. I started calling the register. Moshin, a Downs Syndrome boy, wrapped himself round one of my legs and seemed reluctant to let go. His LSA (Learning Support Assistant), a large middle-aged woman, arrived and tried to be helpful by telling various children to stop talking. Unfortunately, her helpfulness actually caused more disruption than the children's inattention. But you get used to that with LSAs.

I picked up the book about Florence Nightingale and explained that I was going to read them the story of her life. Arran, a little American boy, called out, 'We've had that three times.' 'All right', I said, feeling confident I could catch him out, 'so when was she born?' '1820' he replied. I looked down at the book. Damn! So instead of reading the story, I talked it through with them, and it was quite obvious that they did indeed know virtually every detail of Florence Nightingale's life. I was impressed. Or I would have been if I'd been able to concentrate on what we were doing, but this was difficult as during those five minutes or so we were interrupted three times by various volunteers coming into the room to ask for particular children for individual reading practice.

At 1.20 I told the class to go and sit at their tables and I would give out the paper for their work. This immediately caused uproar. When I managed to quieten them down, I asked what was so difficult about sitting at the tables. It was a simple enough instruction, wasn't it? 'Well,' said one, 'is this literacy or numeracy?' 'It isn't either,' I said, my sense of exasperation rising. 'Why does it matter?' 'Because we have different places for literacy and numeracy,' they said. 'Well let's call it literacy,' I suggested and, eventually, most of them sat down and I began to give out the papers.

Before I'd even finished giving them out, three children had come up to me and asked for new sheets. In each case, their first sheet was already covered with dirty marks. 'How has that happened?' I asked. They showed me their filthy hands. I sent them to wash and gave them new sheets, hoping there'd be enough to go round. When I gave Kevin his paper, he threw it across the table and said 'I'm not doing it.' I would have tried to explain that school work was for his benefit, not mine, but my attention was distracted by a fight going on behind my back - Jamie was wrestling William for ownership of a pencil.

For a few minutes most of the class got on with their work. I say most, because Kevin and Moshin were arguing about a rubber and Won Jun, a Chinese boy who constantly grinned at me as though he knew something I didn't, was drawing a silly picture which had nothing to do with Florence Nightingale, at least as far as I could see.

Things began to deteriorate at about half past one. Ashley, a small fair-haired boy, was in tears. Kevin had thrown a pencil which had hit him on the head. I assured him that there was no visible wound and suggested that if he kept crying at that rate the classroom would soon be flooded. He calmed down and got on with his picture.

I began going round the room encouraging the children in their work. Not that this was easy. The tables were so badly arranged that once children were sitting at them it was virtually impossible to get from one side of the room to the other. As I was discussing somebody's picture, I heard another disturbance. Jamie and Kevin were fighting over the use of the pencil sharpener - one of those gadgets into which children put a new pencil and then turn the handle at break-neck speed until there's about two centimetres of pencil left. I told them to sit down and carry on with their work, which was difficult for Kevin because he hadn't actually done any yet.

At 1.42 Kevin threw another pencil. I told him off again. A minute later he threw another one. This time I gave him a final warning. 'If you do that again, I shall send you to Mr Mathews.' He said 'OK,' and made a face which said 'I don't care.' At this point, Ashley started crying again and I discovered that the reason Jamie had wanted to sharpen his pencil was not because he wanted his work to look neat but because it made a much more effective weapon for stabbing people in the arm. In this case, Ashley's arm. I comforted him again and made Jamie apologise.

A minute later, Ashley started crying again. Kevin had thrown another pencil and it had hit him on the head. I was beginning to think that this child must have some strange magnetic attraction for flying pencils. 'Right, Kevin, I warned you. To Mr Mathews. Now!'

Kevin left the room with no discernible look of contrition on his face. I looked round. 'Where's Jamie?' I said. 'Under the table,' said several voices. I had to tell him to come out three times before he eventually did so.

At 1.49 Hayley came to tell me that Hannah had torn her paper up. I asked her why she'd done it. She looked defiant but refused to answer. I began to explain that she'd have to make do with the torn sheet because I hadn't got any new ones, when my attention was distracted by another commotion. With pencil-thrower-in-chief Kevin out of the room, William and Jamie had decided to take on his role. They'd hidden all their group's coloured pencils. I told them not to be so stupid, and they produced all the pencils - and promptly threw them all over the table.

At 1.52 Wayne threw a pencil - his first for the afternoon, I think. Fortunately, it didn't hit anyone.

At 1.55 I gave up on Florence Nightingale and told the children to stop work and gather round the computer. This simple instruction, despite being repeated several times, took them nine minutes to complete. I showed them the Greenpeace website (at least, the first page of it). The text was, of course, much too small for any of them to read, but we did manage to identify a picture of a wind turbine and several of them talked - quite sensibly - about the environment and pollution.

At 2.15, with the sun now shining, I told them that we were going outside for ten minutes' break. 'Now listen carefully,' I said, and several of them did. 'This is your chance to go to the loo or get a drink. Don't come in afterwards and expect me to let you go then.' We went outside and enjoyed ten minutes in the sun. Or most of us did. Moshin sat in a patch of mud and wouldn't get up even when I explained how painful piles could be.

At 2.25 I called them in and they all came except William, who sat in the middle of the field and steadfastly refused to move despite repeated requests. Eventually, as the rest of the class had gone in, I left him there. Needless to say, as soon as I did so he got up and followed me in.

As I was getting them to settle down, Louise Hudson, the Deputy Head, came in with three boys and asked if I would keep them for the rest of the afternoon. They had apparently misbehaved and were being deprived of some rare treat. They didn't seem to mind.

I started to explain to the class that they should get their handwriting books out. Jamie came up to me and asked if he could go to the toilet. Patiently, I reminded him of what I'd said before I let them out for break. 'But I need to wash my hands,' he said. 'They're dirty.' 'Let me see them,' I said. 'No,' he replied, firmly. 'Well you're not going to wash them unless you let me see them first.' He gave me a withering look and walked off.

I wrote some words on the white board for the children to copy into their handwriting books. They started work, except for a group of boys who were on the carpet apparently doing magic tricks. I was just about to tell them to sit down when Mr Mathews, the Head, came in with Kevin. 'He's got something to say to you, haven't you Kevin?' he said, hopefully. 'No,' said Kevin. Eventually Mr Mathews managed to get a mumbled 'sorry' out of him.

The Head and I stood talking for a moment. We watched Jamie as he stood on the carpet, with the group of magicians, swinging a plastic metre rule about. Eventually there was a sharp cracking sound and the rule broke in half. Jamie picked up the pieces and put them back under the table where the other metre rules were. 'No, Jamie,' I said, 'bring that here.' He looked round. 'I didn't break it,' he said. 'But Jamie,' said Mr Mathews, 'Mr Gillard and I have just stood here and watched you do it. We even heard the crack when it broke.' Jamie walked across the room with the broken metre rule and handed the pieces to the Head. But he absolutely refused to admit that he'd broken it.

Hayley came up to me, looking puzzled. 'What does that say?' she asked, pointing at the white board. I looked, and was puzzled too. 'It was Won Jun,' said someone. Apparently, he had gone up to the board, rubbed out some of my letters and inserted some of his own so that the words were now gibberish. I told him to go and put it right. He grinned at me again.

At 2.50 I told them to put their handwriting books away and come and sit on the carpet for a story. They managed to do that by about three o'clock and I read them five or so pages of Mr Ape. I might have read more, had it not been for several interruptions as children arrived back from individual reading sessions and a parent who came in and had a loud conversation with the LSA at the back of the room, apparently oblivious of the fact that I was trying to read the children a story.

It was 3.10 at last and the children gradually departed with their parents. I put all the chairs up and picked up all the pencils and rubbish from the floor. I hate leaving a classroom untidy. By the time I'd finished, all the children had gone and I discovered that one of them had thrown hundreds of little pieces of card all over the carpet. So I picked those up, too.

I left the room at 3.25, happy in the knowledge that, for this afternoon of supply work, I would, after tax, receive the princely sum of 39.

On another occasion I arrived at the school and was met in the corridor by the teacher whose class I was due to take. 'It's painting this afternoon.' she said, smiling happily - presumably at the thought that she hadn't got to do it. 'I've left some big sheets of paper ready for you,' she said. 'They can paint big patterns.' 'Fine,' I said, and wandered off down the corridor.

I entered the classroom. Sure enough, there were some large sheets of paper on one of the tables. I looked around for the painting things and quickly discovered that there were no water pots so the children would have to use mixing palettes instead. These were very shallow, so the children spilt most of the water on the floor. I spent most of my time trying to stop them walking on the new carpet which had just been laid in the 'Quiet' corner.

Half an hour later the classroom was in such a mess that I decided we'd better stop or I'd never get it cleaned up. I took them outside for ten minutes' break, then sat them on the carpet to read (which most of them did) while I cleaned up the desks, chairs and floor. Unfortunately there were no cloths and no paper towels. I asked the LSA where I could find something to clean up with. 'There's a floor mop in the caretaker's cupboard,' she said. I thought she might offer to go and fetch it, but she didn't. So I walked hastily round the school to the caretaker's cupboard. There was no floor mop. I returned to the classroom and, after more searching, I found a small sponge, not much bigger than a matchbox. It took me forty minutes to restore the room to a reasonable state. It was a warm day, and by the time I'd finished scrubbing the floor with the sponge, the sweat was dripping from my forehead.

During this extraordinary afternoon, the LSA sat in a corner of the room sorting through a pile of papers. Not once did she offer to lift a finger to help.

So there you have it. As I said, the supply teacher's lot is not a happy one!