As a supply teacher, I wake up to countless requests for cover each day

Life as a supply teacher pre-pandemic (the good old days!) was getting up and dressed in your best wear for 7am and watching the phone like a boiling kettle – only for it never to boil.

But the current situation in schools has changed absolutely everything, as teachers fall absent and kids are left with a broken education.

As with any freelance job, work is never guaranteed; it’s a double-edged sword as making plans is almost impossible and it’s all or nothing – you can have several days with nothing and then three jobs come up on the same day.

And don’t get me started on the swift need for Google Maps when you get a job last minute and have half an hour to find it.

I have been a supply teacher in both primary and secondary schools for three years. The diversity of the students, environments and abilities makes it the perfect fit for me. I love each day being different and I love being adaptable to any given challenge. 

Well, I have learned that I have to be careful what I wish for.

Earlier this week, I received an email from just one agency containing 21 placements that were available. I am assuming that it went to all supply teachers on their books as many of them were for the same dates.

The email carried with it a note of desperation – including exclamation marks – like a parent realising they don’t have a babysitter for the night they’re out on the lash.

Gone are the days when an agency would carefully go through their roster of teachers and find the ones who were most suitable to the roles. It’s now just a matter of getting a body in a classroom to try and make up for the estimated 25% shortfall of staff due to illness.

Of course, it’s important to keep the schools open (and doesn’t damage my bank balance) but the lack of consistency children are currently getting means they might as well have just stayed at home.

Having a new face every day trying to get to know them and predict their individual abilities can only be frustrating and each day must be like Groundhog Day, going through similar processes several times, often in a week.

When I arrive in schools, I am seeing stressed-out teachers hastily trying to adapt their lesson plans

I am mostly a primary teacher delivering numeracy, literacy and human skills to very young kids. But recently, I found myself in a woodwork lab trying to keep a lid on a group of upset teenage boys who were rightly annoyed that they had to do worksheets because I wasn’t insured for them to use the tools. 

If I was a student buzzing to make some wooden bookends, seeing a seemingly clueless primary supply teacher walk into the class would make me sneer. Luckily, you can’t really tell beneath the face masks. 

Frankly, it boils down to so much more than extra placements. Students are not getting educated by people who are the most skilled and appropriate for them and that is no fault of schools or agencies. 

Given the fact that the Government has issued a plea for teachers to come out of retirement and get into the supply pool (good luck with that), it’s clear that the workforce is not equipped or bountiful enough to deal with this crisis.

The blame lies much further up, with the Government failing everyone from schools to the NHS. At ground level, there is nothing we can do about it except to accept we are all in this together and do our best.

I am a mother of two and I feel the frustrations of other parents – the parents of people I myself (try to) teach. I don’t want my boys being taught algebra by a PE teacher, who is dynamite on the field but is not sure how to find the value of x.

Just like I wouldn’t want a maths teacher trying to get involved in a rugby scrum if they don’t know the rules of the game, or are frightened of catching the ball, like I would be.

Headteachers are under a lot of pressureWhen I arrive at schools, I am seeing stressed-out teachers hastily trying to adapt their lesson plans because their classes have suddenly merged with different age groups.

The absence list on the wall is like War and Peace and many times, I have been put down for more than one class at once as the administration staff have so much to manage.

The overall feeling and atmosphere of school life has been massively diluted. There is hardly anything about developing lives, nurturing personalities or thinking outside of the box with independent learning – it is sadly a management exercise, and it’s failing the next generation.

School is now about encouraging lateral flow tests and face coverings, making sure kids know which class they are actually meant to be in, trying to keep the peace with mindless work – as planning is out of the window – and dealing with all of the mental health and behavioural issues that sadly arise from it.

In the supply game, we know that we are needed more than ever, but I long for the days when I am needed for my skills, my knowledge and, obviously, my outstanding charisma.

It’s even worse for the kids, robbed of the joys and tribulations of a normal school life where they can develop socially, spiritually and intellectually

Being needed for your vocation is very different from being inserted into a gap desperately needing to be filled.

In the classroom, there is a shared feeling of exhaustion between pupils and staff and that helps nobody. Students lack enthusiasm because they are just tired. Interaction and project work has lost its way and behavioural kickoffs are regular and honestly understandable.

It seems a bit hypocritical to tell a student off for being frustrated when we all feel exactly the same.

If we are going to have to live with this disease for some time, then we can’t go on like this. If anything, the pool of supply is likely to go down over the long term rather than increase.

I personally know that I want to teach and if my career now looks set to be a supervisor telling kids to wear their masks properly, then I might need to transfer my skills elsewhere. Leaving the profession is the last thing I’d ever want to do but I will have to keep revisiting it because the feeling of dread that my dream job has changed irrevocably is hitting hard.

What keeps me going is the knowledge that it’s even worse for the kids, robbed of the joys and tribulations of a normal school life where they can develop socially, spiritually and intellectually. We will be churning out disheartened and uninspired young adults into an uncertain world that has already treated them poorly.

It must be a priority to find ways to engage them beyond safety measures, an endless supply of teachers and tests every morning to ascertain whether they are even allowed through the doors. 

It’s a big ask and the longer that the mishandling of the virus continues, the harder it becomes to even think of a logical or practical solution to this. Education is by no means the only sector impacted so those of us wanting to make a difference have to helplessly wait until the root cause of all of our issues is dealt with higher up.

But to my students and colleagues in the meantime, I say this as we all are in the same rickety boat.

We’ve got this together, guys. I just wish that the ‘this’ had a more clear ending in sight.

As told to Claire Lindsay

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