These are strange days indeed. Along with the rest of the world, schools, teachers, pupils and parents are rapidly having to adjust to new ways of working, leaving most people somewhat at a loss to know what to do with themselves.
Sociologists have a word for this kind of situation: anomie, a state where the usual rules no longer apply.
For us supply staff, as members of the gig economy, it’s a particularly nervous time. So far, for teachers with long- and medium-term positions, many schools are, thankfully, agreeing to pay their wages as normal.
Not everyone’s going to be so fortunate, though, and I’ve heard worrying tales from other supply teachers that not every school is offering to do the same.
Day-to-day supply teachers who weren’t on long-term bookings will be facing very troubling times. And, as for so many employees on temporary or zero-hours contracts up and down the country, the picture right now remains decidedly unclear and none too optimistic.
How coronavirus has hit supply teachers
The various agencies I work for have all sent around emails trying to reassure us, but they know as little as everyone else.
One of the agents I regularly deal with called me yesterday to find out what arrangements my school had made for me. It ended up being the longest conversation we’ve ever had (it’s usually pared down to him: “Do you want to work at this great school today?” Me: “Sure” Him: “Can you get there in 20 minutes?”).
The phone conversation began with him checking that I was doing OK, and offering what support he could. But it ended with me hearing all about what an exhausting and stressful time he’d been having. He’d spent the past few days having to call a number of the supply staff he worked with to let them know they weren’t going to be paid for the foreseeable future.
It’s always been the downside of supply teaching, of course: never being sure there’ll be a full pay cheque coming in each week. It’s the trade-off we make for not having to put up with all the hassle that comes with Ofsteds, continuous lesson observations, office politics, being stuck in one place permanently, and so on.
The downsides have been magnified
Now the downsides have been magnified, as the insecurity, which might ordinarily just mean not getting much work at the start of term (the permanent staff can usually make it through the first few weeks before they start going off sick), has been extended indefinitely.
There is some hope of continued employment for us cover teachers, however: I’ve already started to receive requests for supply staff who are set up to offer home learning for the thousands of children all stuck indoors.
Although the prospect of prying these children away from the opportunity to play Fortnite or watch Friends around the clock, with the only available sanction for non-compliance being to message them with an angry-face emoji, might prove too much. Even for us supply teachers who are surely the undisputed experts in getting children to do work they don’t want to do.
One interesting thing I’ve learned during this first week away from the office and with a little extra time on my hands is that apparently some of the most common Google searches right now – just below people looking for symptoms of Covid-19 – have been things such as the methods for calculating mean, medium and mode averages and how to use an apostrophe correctly. BBC Bitesize has also had a sudden surge of page views.
I suppose this might be the pupils getting stuck into home learning, but my bet is that it’s parents, suddenly faced with the prospect of having to be teachers and realising that teaching is a really hard job.
If there’s a silver lining to all this apocalyptic madness, it is perhaps that, when everything returns to normal, teachers – along with the NHS and reliable news outlets – may finally be given a little more of the respect they deserve. We can but hope.
The writer has recently taken up supply teaching after 20 years in a full-time teaching job