Over the sea to school

1st June 2001 at 01:00
Fed up with rush-hour traffic? Wish you could enjoy the sea breeze? Now think of it in winter. Wendy Thomas gives a taste of life as an island supply teacher

Blue sky, blue sea, sandy beaches, long boat trips to remote islands. Which holiday destination am I dreaming about? None. I'm going to work. I do supply teaching on the small isles off the west coast of Scotland and in Inverie on the Knoydart peninsula.

Usually I spend a week on an island, although the time can be reduced or increased according to the weather, because the sea isn't always blue and calm. Several times the boat hasn't sailed on its Monday run, so it has been Tuesday or Wednesday before I could go to school.

Sometimes in winter I have been the only ferry passenger and on one occasion I received a telephone call at school from the ferry staff to find out if I needed to get home that weekend. If not, they wouldn't attempt to come by because the weather was not good. Other times I have not been fortunate and have been unable to return home.

The shipping forecast has become a very important part of my life during these past three years. Wind speed is the deciding factor. "Well, we may go" is a well-used phrase by the cheery Cal-Mac staff at Mallaig.

While many of you are facing rush-hour traffic, I could be waiting to find out whether I will get to work that day, or the next I or not until the next week!

"We'll give it a try" means we are in for a rough ride. Only once have I set off on a boat and not reached my destination. We were battling through high seas on our way to Rum when the captain decided that we were not making any progress, so would have to return to Mallaig.

To get to the isles of Eigg, Muck and Rum, passengers have to transfer at sea from the ferry on to a flit boat. On occasions, we are unable to make the transfer due to very rough seas. Then we return to Mallaig, having spent several hours in appalling weather conditions. It's not a pleasant experience and one that I hope I will not encounter before the new boat and new piers are in operation next year.

I am often asked how long it takes to get to the islands. Well, it depends on the route. It can take one and a half hours or maybe five. It also depends on the weather. The longest I have been on the boat is seven and a half hours for a journey that, going directly, takes two and a half hours. I boarded the boat at Canna at 7.30am. We had to wait an hour before sailing to let the sea subside and to let the passengers already on board calm down: they had had a very unpleasant trip so far and were travelling further. I arrived in Mallaig at 3pm, the boat having called at all the other small isles en route.

Dinghy transfers from the flitboat canbe quite entertaining. Muck has a rowing boat and at very low tide, when that cannot get to the wee pier, pasengers have to wade out, but as "We can't let the teacher get her feet wet," it's a piggy back ride from the skipper for me.

The tranquil cruise in the sun does occur and more than makes up for the rough wintry trips. While on the journey to and from work, what could be better than sitting on a boat, soaking up the sun, the superb scenery and watching whales and dolphins at play in the water?

Once I reach my island destination, I stay in a variety of places. In winter I tend to be sole occupant of a bunkhouse or cosy cottage. Once in June I booked a caravan on the beach - and was battered by gale force winds and rain.

I have made many friends while going backwards and forwards to the islands; everyone is very hospitable. There is often an invitation to a meal or an evening drink to unwind after a hectic day in the classroom.

All the school rolls currently are six or seven, but have varied from one to 11 pupils while I have been visiting them. No doubt teachers who have classes of 25 or more will either be very envious or scoff at my use of "hectic", but constantly switching from Primary 1 through to Primary 7 keeps both mind and body active. Single teacher schools mean you are playtime assistant, dinner lady (although the children take packed lunches) nurse, teacher, everything all rolled into one, solely and wholly responsible for the entire school day. Sea-only access heightens the sense of isolation. The headteachers are always pleased to have some support and someone else to talk to.

When the weather is good, we make the most of it with lessons outside. On the isle of Rum one May, the school had a visit from a group doing willow workshops. The setting and the day were idyllic: it really was blue sky, blue sea, hot sun and, most important, no midges. These horrible beasties often make it impossible to do outside activities. Physical education has to be abandoned and even playtime has to move indoors.

It is not always the weather and the boats that upset the schedule. Sometimes changes are caused by other factors.

One day my bags were packed ready for me to go to Rum, but I received a message that the only pupil was delayed from returning to the island after a weekend away. I couldn't go with no one to teach.

Then the telephone rang again: it was the supply teacher on Inverie. She was ill; was it possible for me to go in her stead at such short notice? "Yes." My bag was packed and all I needed to do was to jump on to a different ferry.

There is a variety and an unpredictability about this job, but I like it that way. "Have curriculum; will travel," I say.

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