Supply teaching: when no one cares if you’re late

A bad day can be improved by stopping to appreciate small moments of joy and wonder on the way into school, says the secret supply teacher

The secret supply teacher

Sometimes, the smallest of things can turn a day at school from good to bad. 

There are the days when you’ll find yourself skipping out through the school gates at 3.30pm, knowing you’ve made a difference and congratulating yourself on another day helping to forge young minds as they set off on their lifetime learning journey. 

And then there are the days when you’ll spend the evening curled up on the sofa, weeping into a monstrous glass of wine and wishing you’d taken that job in the local council housing department instead.

Low blood sugar

Things can start to go sideways before you even get to school. Skip breakfast, and the resulting low blood sugar can seriously reduce cognitive functioning – functioning you’ll surely need at full power to make sense of the head’s 18-step student-sanction flowchart or the new colour-coded break-duty rota

Not only that, but going to work hungry can severely mess with your emotional equilibrium. In a high-stress environment like teaching, the last thing you need is to start the day in a fragile mental state. Where, once upon a time, I’d regularly find myself rushing out the door with just a slice of toast clutched in my hand, these days I try to make sure I’ve got time to start the day at a more reasonable pace. 

Kicking the day off with regard for one’s psychological wellbeing is doubly important for the kids, of course, but there’s not much you can do about the ones whose breakfast constitutes a bag of Wotsits and a can of Red Bull on the bus to school. At least if you’ve eaten well, you’ll have a better chance of being able to manage their bonkers behaviour with a level head.

Jammed into an armpit

Then there’s the commute to the office. As a supply teacher, heading off to wherever I might be needed on any given day, I have an unpredictable journey to work a lot of the time. 

I rely on public transport most days, and it’s fair to say it’s not always conducive to creating a positive mood. Whether it’s the indignity of being jammed into the armpit of someone with personal hygiene issues, or just the inevitable delays, it can easily leave you a little frazzled by the time you arrive at work. 

When I used to have a permanent job, I’d get very anxious about arriving late and walking into the morning briefing with the headteacher already in full flow. This would usually be followed by an interrogation at some point later in the day, poorly disguised as concern for my welfare: “I noticed you were a little late this morning again. Is there a problem I should know about?” 

One of the benefits of day-to-day supply is that it really doesn’t matter if you’re not on time. It might be a little cheeky, but it’s easy to say you were called late by the agency. And, besides, the schools are always so pleased that you’re there at all that 20 minutes here or there is no big deal. 

Stop and smell the cronuts

Sometimes, the fact that I’m taking a more leisurely approach with regard to my commute means that I manage to find small moments of joy and wonder, unimaginable in the hectic days when I was a regular teacher. 

The other day, I was sent to a school in the beating heart of the city’s hipster enclave: an area overflowing with tech start-ups, artisan coffeeshops and finely waxed beards. As I strolled from the station to the school gates, from out of the diesel fumes I was unexpectedly hit with the glorious smell of freshly baked bread (or, more likely, vegan cronuts). It put me in a tremendously good mood. 

These days, I’m always going to take the time on the way in to work to stop and smell the roses (or the cronuts) – I’m pretty sure the deputy head can handle Year 9 for 10 minutes until I get there.

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

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