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The Secret Diary of a Substitute Teacher: ‘I press the panic button. But nobody comes’

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I feel the eraser bounce off the back of my head, shortly followed by another. For the first time in this lesson, I feel anger really welling up inside. I’m used to difficult kids, but throwing things at me when my back is turned feels a bit like bullying. It may have been par for the course in the 1980s, but not in this day and age. Gaudy ties aren’t even acceptable these days, so I’m not sure I should stand for this.

“I will press THE BUTTON,” I say, trying to exude calm as I threaten the “nuclear option”.

“Go on then, Sir, press THE BUTTON,” sneers one boy who has been disrupting the lesson for the past 30 minutes. He is clearly not afraid of THE BUTTON (it's actually an icon on a laptop screen rather than an actual button – but that’s not as poetic).

“I will,” I say, “I’m doing it now.” My finger reaches towards the metaphorical “panic button” – which, I have been told, will scramble another member of staff to help me out of my disciplinary quandary. With a pang of shame and a sense of failure, I press it.

There are no sirens or bells and the assistant principal (behavior) does not appear in a puff of smoke.

Indeed, 10 minutes later, nobody has arrived. It seems there will be no rescue committee and I am on my own.

I accept my fate and struggle through to the bell. I am still alive, and the eraser-throwers, hecklers and cheeky know-it-alls pour out down the hall. Hopefully, I will never see them again.

Thankfully, even as a subsititute teacher, this scenario is rare. In most schools, consistent behavior policies mean it’s more than possible to stop a class getting out of control for the whole hour.

But it does happen, and the support isn’t always there. On the few occasions when things have got out of hand, I’ve simply battled on to the end and sent a report to senior staff. I try not to lose sleep over a bad lesson, even if it is tempting to lie awake snivelling into my pillow.

But I’m learning. The same classroom management techniques apply for permanent staff as well as subs, but when so many variables are out of your control you have to be ultra-vigilant. Flashpoints I have now identified include:

  • Lessons held in computer rooms (they hide behind monitors, fiddling with the mice and keyboards).
  • Lessons where I have to take the whole class to the library (it’s an epic journey across the school, quite literally ANYTHING can happen).
  • Lessons with very low-ability kids where I’m teaching a subject I know little about (for example, economics). When both teacher and students are flapping around in the dark, there’s likely to be trouble.

But, despite my failures, I already feel proud that I am gaining this wisdom. Not every teacher has experienced this kind of hard-knocks pedagogical bootcamp.

I think I will survive, flourish even, eventually. Perhaps I don’t even need THE BUTTON.

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