It's a lonely life at the bottom of the food chain

3rd August 2007 at 01:00
"I am but a plaything of the sods," I tell the wife.

"Don't you mean gods?" she asks, pushing a soothing cuppa at me.

"I know exactly what I mean," I rant. "We have made gods of them. They rule without mercy. They act with impunity. They know their rights but not their responsibilities. They are the puppet masters and we dance to their tune, powerless in the face of their taunts, their swaggers, their abuse, their tantrums, their..."

"There," she soothes. Tea and sympathy is OK, but she's not a teacher. She doesn't understand. Earlier this year, I made the decision to stagger away from the 247 commitment of full-time class teaching and found refuge in the mercenary world of supply teaching. It's been a very steep, mainly downward, learning curve.

And I still wonder if I've made the right decision. I've taught in a tough school for long enough to know that former status counts for nothing. Supply teachers go straight to the bottom of the food chain easy prey to the predator instincts of every class clown, smart-arse and alpha lad laddette looking to boost their peer status.

There are pluses, of course. No endless planning, no extensive preparation, no assessments and only basic marking. You get your evenings and weekends back. You get to wash the car, cut the hedge, go to the pub for Sunday lunch and snore through the whole of the EastEnders omnibus.

My first assignment arrived even before my Criminal Records Bureau check had cleared, so you can tell how desperate the school was. It turned out like many jobs since to be at a tough school: socially deprived, physically run down, in special measures. "Take identification with you, and some work in case nothing is left out," said the girl from the agency. "Oh, and body armour," she added.

Four months down the line and I'm getting the hang of it. I can interpret scribbled instructions at a glance, construct lessons off the top of my head, identify troublemakers by osmosis, smile in the face of expletives, become deaf to personal insults, duck flying chairs and emerge unscathed from a burning building. I can do these things because I know that 30 minutes after the bell rings, I'll be away, with a whole evening or weekend in front of me, my work-life balance restored. Only one thing missing...

Survival in schools that are more likely to feature in shock exclusives than training videos is not only about thick skin and fast reflexes. It's about having comrades- in-arms in the staffroom, and about having a sympathetic ear in which to relive the moment Ryan drove you to within a nervous twitch of manslaughter. It's about knowing that when you feel most alone, most up to your neck in the deep stuff, a familiar face will crawl under the barbed wire and drag you to safety.

Supply teaching gives you back your life, but it isn't half lonely at the bottom.

Steve Eddison

is a Year 6 teacher in Sheffield

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