The kids are still worth it

31st January 2003 at 00:00
Returning to the classroom after an absence of 17 years was a shock for one supply teacher but despite the panic there were good moments too

IT was with some trepidation that I responded to the advertisement for supply teachers. How desperate were they? Would they consider someone like me, who had been out of teaching for some 17 years? I knew that things had changed, but surely it would be a case of "once a teacher, always a teacher".

The council was, in fact, desperate. There were plenty of people willing to do the odd day here and there but few who were willing to do a long-term stint, especially in a "difficult" school.

I had an attack of nerves in the car park. Could I still do this? The headteacher welcomed me like a long-lost friend, and the staff were delighted to have someone, anyone, take primary 4-5. There was none of the standoffishness I had been warned about. The early routines were accomplished without too many mistakes on my part, and the children were able to keep me right about procedures and routines.

I played for time by gathering them on the mat and reading a favourite story. I knew my own children found it fascinating and the magic hadn't worn out. It was obvious that these children hadn't had much experience of stability, and I later discovered that I was the ninth teacher they had had.

The school was well run, and there was a good balance of ages and experience, and I quickly began to feel as if I hadn't been away.

The first shock came with the request for a forecast of what I would undertake during my stay. I was given an example of a Blue Peter version ("prepared earlier"), and I found the language and terminology quite intimidating. "Strand?" That was a cigarette when I was at college.

"Attainment targets?" "Levels?" "Learning outcomes?" "Working towards?"

Towards what?

For the first time, I panicked. I knew what I was going to do. I would show anyone what I was going to do. I would tell them why I was doing it this way, as opposed to that way. I could write it down in my own words. But in this format?

Over the months, I began to appreciate the massive changes in context. The headteacher was under enormous pressure to manage, lead, administer, budget, liaise and communicate, and had nobody to whom she could delegate.

The administrative burdens were enormous, and the obsession with paperwork became quite frightening. Parental expectations were unrealistic, and the open access to teachers at times proved threatening. The hours spent on assessment, reporting and recording seemed excessive, and the toll on staff was obvious as term went on.

The only relief was in the teaching itself and the sheer joy of the human contact with the children, who responded magnificently. I took part in after-school clubs and got to know the class very well. I was proud to be called their teacher.

At the end of the term, I received many small gifts from them, and I valued these more than any degree or certificate I had. It was good to know I hadn't lost it. The children had made progress, and they had developed as people. I hoped some of my work would provide a starting point for their next teacher.

I was asked back, and I admit to being flattered. But could I stand the paperwork, and a regime of assessment which I found excessive? Could I stand the hypocrisy of using a language I found alien and meaningless? Could I bluff my way through the jargon? Was I indeed an anachronism? Things had changed, and yet so much was the same.

The author wishes to remain anonymous to maintain confidentiality. The article first appeared in "Professionalism in Practice", the journal of the Professional Association of Teachers.

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