Pins and wheedles

10th January 1997 at 00:00
Julian Silverton visits the strange limbo-land of teachers caught in transition from one country to another.

Having spent most of the past 12 years teaching abroad, I decided to touch base and see what I'd been missing back home.

Computers had become IT; CDT was now technology. What had been going on? One thing seemed certain, as a science specialist, I saw no problem in finding a teaching position - after all, wasn't there a serious shortage of us?

Faced with a unique opportunity to return to a different part of the country, I held a pin over the map. At the first try, it hit the Thames Estuary, the second attempt severely damaged the Channel Tunnel and the third landed between the "r" and "f" of Norfolk.

The next step was a trawl through the educational press. Have you noticed the many different styles in advertisements for teaching positions? Some are blunt and get straight to the point: "A teaching vacancy exists . . . your duties will be . . . apply in writing to . . ." Contrast this with the chummy: "Hi there! Join our lively and enthusiastic team in this happy school . . . visits most welcome . . .," or the business-like: "We need a committed high achiever . . . a reflective practitioner . . ." (Which seems most inviting?) The first interview produced a new definition of "experience": experience is essential, experience is expensive, and overseas experience is . . . well, overseas experience. (You were teaching where? The science budget was how much? Only 15 in the largest class? Then why did you leave?) I scanned the advertisements again. It was so obvious! "Supply teachers urgently wanted in these areas now . . ." (followed by an extensive list of counties which omitted mine).

Suddenly aware of this new-found importance, I called one of the numbers listed. The conversation went like this: "Hello, I'm a teacher and I'd like to . . . " (Yes of course, I'll put you through. . . ) Ready for Bach's Greatest Hits, all I heard was a five-second pause, assorted clicks, then finally the sounds of a busy office.

It's just possible to overhear several juicy items of gossip before the line goes dead. At the second attempt, the number's engaged. (Five minutes into my new career, and I've got nowhere.) Surely the county education department will be interested? They are, but transfer me to someone at the office of The Inquisition: "Are you on The Register?" (Yes, I'm not sure, maybe . . . ) "Have you had the police check?" (I vaguely recall being cautioned for cycling at night without lights).

"What subjects do you teach?" (Lots).

"And the age group?" (I'm 30-something.) Easy-peasy! They're all correct, and I'm rewarded with an application form. This asks the sort of questions which on Mastermind would be answered by "Pass": "Schools attended since the age of 14 . . . all examination results, with subjects and dates . . ." (What's so important about a 1975 O-level woodwork grade?) In an attempt to discourage nepotism, some questions ask about your relationship with various councillors and governors involved in the selection process. To check whether anyone is actually reading my reply, I've often been tempted to add "Yes; the county education officer is my uncle" (but of course, I don't).

Finally, there is the enigmatic "Other relevant information" section. What do they really want here? (I really need this job . . . I was a senior sixer in the Cubs. Wear woolly socks in winter) Anyway, it must be important so I never leave it blank.

September. Wreathed in confidence at the start of the new school term as a fully-certified supply teacher, I wondered how long before my services would be required.

As September changed to October, a nagging doubt recurred. What if my details were not listed correctly? What if my name or contact number was wrong? A call to the Education Department produced a sympathetic reply. There was really no need to worry. Not only was my file correct, but the list of subjects offered had widened to include some I'd never even taught before. And then: "Of course you realise there are over 3,000 supply teachers in the county". And I was new on the list. At that rate, I'd get my first work sometime in the new millennium.

November. I've just found an interesting book in the library. It's well-thumbed, and has been lent out many times. It's called What Can Teachers Do Except Teach? I've borrowed it for a friend.

Julian Silverton has taught in Kuwait and Switzerland, and is now living in Norfolk, and would be pleased to hear from other inhabitants of Limbo-land

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