Thank God it's Friday

20th June 1997 at 01:00
Monday: The supply office calls me to a local comprehensive. My timetable is pinned on the noticeboard: science; craft, design and technology; and Bengali. I know little of these subjects, but worksheets have been left.

Science first. Pupils are very large, mostly male, with a tendency to ignore worksheets. They prefer to wander about, chat or wage the occasional small gang war. I battle to keep them seated and in the vicinity of their worksheet on the planets. Large boys are often interested in space, but these aren't.

I try to help those few pupils who are trying to work and catch the attention of other giant, wandering pupils. It is difficult to address people whose names you don't know, and who are keen to keep their names secret. But a passing lab technician is impressed. The majority are sitting down, and worksheets are still on the benches. This is an achievement, says the technician.

On to the Bengali class, mostly girls, pleasant, friendly, but with the same aversion to worksheets. Luckily for them I can't understand the instructions. They are in Bengali. The pupils are on to a winner here, if teacher doesn't know what they're meant to be doing. They prefer to discuss romance among themselves.

Lunchtime. Staff blanch when I mention the canteen. They recommend a cafe across the road where I discover a huge queue of pupils all buying burgers and chips. I have a lovely bacon sandwich and four minutes in which to eat it.

Back to CDT and copying out. Pages of notes and drawings are to be copied. This is worse than worksheets. These pupils are smaller and remain in their seats, but sadly their teacher has been off for weeks with a heart attack and they've overdosed on copying out. They're desperate to make something, so I rediscover the art of making paper pyramids. They clutch at this chance of practical work like drowning men.

Tuesday: The paper pyramids are finished, and more copying out awaits pupils. Mutinously, they have lost many of their pencils, rulers and rubbers. The class begins to seethe. Squabbling, chatting and squirming begins. I separate the lead squirmers, who sulk over their copying.

Then computer studies. "They know what to do," says the head of department. They do. Most play patience or make patterns. A stress-free double period here, until it's time for Smile maths. Smile maths is apparently self-explanatory and does not need a teacher. But it does. Preferably one who understand Smile, the entry guide, network and matrix, who knows where the next sheets are and has the keys to the cupboard. I do not fit this description.

Wednesday: Off to a primary school. To these young innocents the worksheet still holds some fascination. I have a delightful selection, but how to get them printed? Paper is in short supply, staff have an individual allowance and their own personal key to the photocopier. Naturally they are not keen to share. The secretary is Oberkampfuehrer and clings greedily to the office key. Also, the whereabouts of the TV and video are a closely guarded secret.

I spend half an hour pre-school, all break and much of the lunch hour running up and down three flights of stairs hunting and gathering these vital teaching aids. I've little energy left to give to small but eager pupils. Then lunch. I may buy a school dinner. How odd that no other staff are doing so. I enter staff room with my cardboard hamburger and chips. Off goes a teacher with two shopping bags. "My turn today," she cries cheerily.

Ten minutes later she returns with a delicious picnic: French bread, cheeses, fruit, salads, pates, yoghurts. Staff pounce eagerly. Apparently they each contribute Pounds 1 or so every day, but this was another secret. One more miserable day here then Friday off. Four days of supply teaching is quite enough.

Michele Hanson is a writer and supply teacher in London

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