‘This school was the textbook version of dysfunctional’

When the secret supply teacher was simply given a list of lessons (no map, no behaviour policy, no timings) on arrival, he suspected the worst... and he was right


Coronavirus: What's it like for supply teachers going into different schools?

It was quiet. Suspiciously quiet. To the uninitiated, quiet might seem like a good thing, but something didn’t feel right. Functioning schools are not supposed to be quiet.

As it turned out I was right to be cautious. Although it’s perhaps unfair to pass judgement on a school after only spending a day there (although that’s pretty much Ofsted’s standard operating procedure), but this school turned out to be the textbook version of dysfunctional.

I was met by a cover supervisor whose flustered demeanour gave the impression that he’d only been at the school for about five minutes longer than I had. He provided me with a list of the lessons I was scheduled to teach… and that was it. No map of the school, no timings for lessons and breaks, no safeguarding procedures, no flow chart outlining the thirteen stages of how to manage behavioural incidents – as the Year 9s I was due to have for Spanish lesson four might say, nada de nada. And there was no cover work either. This would, the flustered cover supervisor assured me, be waiting in the classrooms. Even he didn’t sound convinced.

As we headed to the DT corridor for my first lesson, I asked about the school’s procedure for having difficult students removed from a class. He nodded earnestly, clearly recognising this was a vital piece of information to know. It was a vital piece of information he wasn’t currently in possession of, but which he promised to find out about as a matter of urgency.

By the time I opened the door to the DT room, he‘d already disappeared down the corridor, so he didn’t hear me ask: “should they be doing that?” I was looking at a roomful of twelve-year-olds all brandishing tenon saws, and although I’m no DT teacher, I’m fairly sure it was with scant regard for even the most basic of safety procedures. I had to admire their enthusiasm, to crack on with the work in the absence of a teacher, but I figured the chances of someone losing a finger were higher than I deemed acceptable, so the first order of business was to get them all to relinquish the hardware. They were a little disappointed to be sure, but they were pretty philosophical about it and five minutes later the saws were back in the box (should saws just be stored in a box?) and everyone was sketching 3D shapes onto harmless pieces of paper.

Lesson two was DT again, this time with Year 10. I was a little concerned that if they got their hands on the saws before I got to them, there might be more of a struggle to get them back again. As it happened it wasn’t a problem at all. The room was locked, and by the time I’d found someone to open it and got the class inside, their regular teacher had arrived. He was at a loss to explain why he’d been assigned a cover teacher but assured me I wasn’t needed. I thought about slinking off to the staffroom and keeping my head down for the next hour, but felt duty-bound to report to the office and see if they wanted to deploy my services elsewhere. I waited while they tried to raise the cover supervisor on the phone and when I finally got to speak to him he thought about it for a few moments and then told me to go to the staffroom and keep my head down for the next hour.

Where lesson two had suffered from an excess of teachers, lessons three’s issue was too few students. None, in fact. I waited in the room for the Year 11 students to come, but no-one showed. I asked a passing teacher if they had any idea where I might find them and they suggested the art exam might have taken a few, as for the others, who knew?

Lesson four had a full complement of students and no teacher, so we were on solid ground at last. It was all going fine until a grouchy-looking kid kicked the door open and strolled into the room.

"Can I help you?" I asked.

"I’ve been excluded," he replied, a little less troubled about this matter than I’d have liked. I waited for him to explain how this related to his arrival in my classroom.

"I was sent here, innit," he continued, as if I was the idiot.

It turned out that the faculty exclusion system had my lesson down as the repository for any miscreants from other classes for that hour. I silently questioned the wisdom of a policy that dealt with a student who’d disrupted one class by sending them to another class to start again, with a fresh audience as it were. At least I now knew how the school behaviour system operated.

Lesson five combined some of the problems of earlier in the day, assigning me to a class with a teacher already in place and only one student to teach. We were just deciding what to do when the fire alarm was set off and the three of us trooped outside. In the end, the issue resolved itself, as once the fire alarm was dealt with and we were allowed back into the building, I was the only one who found their way back to the classroom.

The writer has recently taken up supply teaching after 20 years in a full-time teaching job

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