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Hard choice and not a soft option

After the anxiety of stepping into one strange class after another, supply teacher Judith Fryer finds the streamlined nature of learning support to be a revelation

Cushions and curtains and other home projects or teaching a roomful of pre-pubescents for five hours a day? A year ago, after weathering my probation year in a priority area school, the thought of sitting quietly at my sewing machine in my own workroom, radio on in the background, making soft furnishings for grateful clients, seemed by far the preferable option. I even went so far as to enrol in an interior decoration course, which I loved.

Two years earlier I'd embarked upon a PGCE, confident that teaching would be the route to a more fulfilling work life than I had become used to in public relations. The learning curve had been steep and fulfilling moments rare, but cushions and curtains were an avoidance strategy. As one PGCE friend put it: "We've got to slay this beast".

So, with trepidation I put my name on the primary teaching supply list and waited for the phone to ring. It's a measure of the pressure under which the teaching profession finds itself that any supply teacher will feel very popular between 8am and 9am Monday to Friday. A day will seldom go past without a request for help.

Tip 1: Don't even answer the telephone unless you're feeling bright that morning.

Tip 2: Don't contemplate taking on a day's supply teaching without a ring-binder full of worksheets spanning levels B to D. Divide this into maths and language, with an extra section of miscellaneous goods and, as long as you are feeling bright, you will be able to march into any primary classroom with bravado, at least.

Once in, don't feel obliged to follow the timetable unless there are detailed plans to hand. I found it invaluable to take a few children's novels, such as Goodnight Mister Tom by Michelle Magorian or The Silver Sword by Ian Serraillier. These offer language activities to suit anything from P2 up, from reading a description of a setting and then getting the children to draw it, to encouraging the children to imagine themselves in the story and then write a letter home to their parents about what is happening to them.

I take my hat off to supply teachers who trawl different schools, year after year. I taught in only a couple, then settled into long-term supply in one place where I was used chiefly to cover non-contact time. But it was long enough to make me realise the importance of my next tip.

Tip 3: Do not attempt a physical education, drama or music lesson with a class you do not know. It gives the children the ideal opportunity to lead you a dance.

I attempted a drama lesson once with a class without even knowing where the drama room was. The children led me along to the music room. There the rowdier elements refused to keep their hands off the cymbals and drums, while others kept running in and out. Finally, I came to my senses and marched them all back to class, gave them a good talking to and a worksheet to complete.

This session, I'm much more settled; I job-share two days a week plus offer learning support as a supply teacher this term.

On the penultimate day before the summer holidays, the local high school heard it had money for extra learning support because of the number of children on the autistic spectrum starting in S1. I was on the verge of turning it down (two days is quite enough, thank you) when my curiosity won the day. I headed straight into town, had a chat with the head of department and we agreed terms.

It's great! After the anxiety of stepping into one strange class after another, following someone else's plans and working out who is in which group and which work they should all be doing, the streamlined nature of learning support is a revelation.

The relationships and problems I am dealing with are complex, but because I am never working with more than three or four students I can concentrate on their needs rather than struggling to find my way through the logistics of teaching a differentiated lesson to three or four groups while keeping on top of the crowd control in classes of 25 to 30 or more.

At the high school, I am based in learning rather than behaviour support but, as any practitioner knows, the two often go hand in hand. I have always found in my dealings with children who have learning or personalemotional behavioural problems that they are fine on a one-to-one or even one-to-two basis. But as this is almost impossible to engineer as a class teacher, developing a constructive relationship can be a case of one step forward and two back.

In learning support, whether in the classroom or working in a small group at the learning support base, we get through our work in a relaxed way. The pupils appear glad to be there, usually tune in relatively quickly to the tasks in hand and I know I am able to help them much more than if I was having to keep my eye on 25 others.

This is how it should be. It would be a waste of money if it wasn't, because this is an expensive option. It is another steep learning curve; back to those nights lying awake and replaying a certain lesson when you know you could have done better but you are still puzzling out how.

For instance, it is tempting to seize the pupil's pencil and keep showing them what to do. It feels like you are saving time, but learn to hold back: it is their work and they will remember more if they complete it themselves.

At least this time I feel consoled that I am already in the foothills of the mountain I am to climb, rather than starting from sea level.

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