The final line of the email should have been a sign that this was going to be one those days, although, in the end, I didn’t get to read it until it was already too late. Along with the cover work for the day was a message from the teacher I was to be replacing. It read: “My voice has now completely gone. I am feeling extremely unwell and run down. I’m not sure when I’ll be back.”
The reason I saw the email at all was that the school I ended up in that morning provided a laptop to supply staff on arrival, with cover work, registers and access to the on-call system. Which all sounds like a great idea until it became apparent early on in the first lesson that the laptop didn’t work.
The lesson had already been going on for 10 minutes when I arrived. Arriving at a lesson after it’s started either means another teacher has been drafted in, allowing me to take over seamlessly with the students already engaged in their work, or there’s no teacher and the class is in total chaos. This time I came across a third scenario – another teacher had started the lesson and it was still in total chaos. The teacher was on the point of summoning the on-call support to deal with the situation, but at my arrival simply stopped shouting in mid-sentence and bolted.
As luck would have it, the lesson was in one of my subject specialisms, and once I’d made the discovery about the laptop and found there was no cover work, I conjured up something vaguely relevant on the sociology of deviance. I’m pretty sure I was the only one to enjoy the irony of the situation.
Lesson two was a small class taking a functional English course. With the non-functional laptop, I was once again on my own with regard to work, but the TA managed to find a nice picture of a market to put on the whiteboard and we soon had the kids naming vegetables while I tried to find some tech support. My second stroke of luck was to find the classroom was next door to the IT office, and soon the IT guy was on the case. And then the luck ran out. Two girls came bursting out of the classroom opposite, gesticulating wildly and chanting those words familiar to playgrounds (although less frequently classrooms) the world over: “Fight, fight, fight!”
I followed the chanting girls to the scene of the commotion and a classroom of large teenagers shouting at each other. To be fair, only a small number seemed to be actually involved in the fight, the rest looked like they were just taking the opportunity to let off a little steam.
“Where’s your teacher?” I asked one of the students still gamely trying to do some work. “She’s in there”, he replied, pointing at what I could now just make out to be an adult in the middle of a lively rugby scrum. I tried to establish some order, but I might as well have been invisible for all the notice anyone took. I went back into the corridor in the hope of finding someone with more authority. Another teacher approached and I began to explain that her help was required, but got no further than a few words before she’d swept past me with an apologetic smile that seemed to say “Not my problem, buddy”. A moment later, to my relief, another teacher appeared on the scene. “What’s going on?” she asked. “Don’t ask me, I’m just a supply teacher,” I replied. “Yeah? Me too!” she said. Thankfully, at this point the bell rang for break and the fight took itself off to another location.
I spent my breaktime trying to resolve the laptop problem that the IT guy had declared was beyond him, and managed to get a new laptop. Finally able to gain access to the email with the day’s cover work, I now saw the plaintive cry for help from the teacher I was replacing. In the end, I needn’t have wasted my breaktime as the cover work itself was either absent or only sufficient to keep even the least productive class busy for no more than ten minutes.
I soldiered on for the rest of the day, first with a relatively calm Year 10 class, then a Year 8 class who were bloody lunatics. My final stroke of good fortune was that the classroom happened to be next door to the head of year’s office, who – presumably finding that the noise of screaming children was making it hard to concentrate on her Sudoku – marched in halfway through the lesson and asked if I needed to have anyone removed. I picked out 10 of the worst offenders.
The startled look on her face made me think she’d rather been expecting only one or two. Nevertheless, she led the troop of young delinquents away and the class settled down, to the extent that, at least for the more determined students, work became a technical possibility. For all of five minutes, at least, when the head of year returned with all 10 students I’d just asked her to remove, who, she assured me, would now behave perfectly.
And off she went back to her puzzles. I’ll leave you to guess whether she was right or not.