There are many challenges that we teachers face each day: from the endless round of target-setting, assessment and results analysis, to the interminable meetings that like Groundhog Day deal with the same issues over and over again (another behaviour policy anyone? This one comes with an eight-tiered multi-directional flowchart in colour, so, you know, it’s sure to work), to dealing with bonkers kids and even more bonkers management.
The stone truth at the heart of the profession is clear: we all have shit to deal with. But do some of us have it worse than others? The daily competition to decide whose pile of marking or list of students with off-the-scale behaviour problems is biggest is hard fought in staffrooms up and down the land. State or private sector, academy or bog-standard comp, girls or boys, they all come with their own issues.
One of the joys(!) of being a supply teacher, is getting to see who really has the toughest job. (Spoiler alert: I spent a day working in a Pru recently, and they win the toughest job competition hands down. More about that in a future column.) Recently, I had the opportunity to settle an age-old educational conundrum: which is the easier gig, working in a primary or a secondary? It happened like this.
“Hi, buddy. You available for a day in a great little primary today?”
“Sorry, you need to check my profile. I’m secondary.”
“Yeah, I see that. You want to have a go at primary?”
“Er… can we do that?”
“Sure we can. Why not?”
“I guess because I’ve never taught in a primary school. Well, I spent a week in one before I started my PGCE, but that was over 20 years…”.
“There you go; you’ll be fine. Kids are kids, right?”
Thirty minutes later, I was sat in front of 25 fidgety Year 2 cherubs beaming up at me from the rug. Everything started well. I’ve never come across a friendlier group of students. Within moments of arriving in the classroom, I was swamped by offers of help, for carrying books, distributing pencils, taking registers and particularly with explanations of the procedure for the selection of the day's "secret child".
The "secret child" was a fiendishly complicated pedagogic mechanism designed to ensure appropriate behaviour, involving lolly sticks, post-it notes and marbles. It took three 7-year-olds several attempts before I understood what the hell they were talking about. Finally, once they were sure I knew how the system worked, we were onto the day’s work.
And that’s when things got a little weird.
I explained the work to them and you know what? They listened. They actually listened. As though I might have something to say that was worthwhile. Having taught supply exclusively in secondary schools up to that point, I’d not come across this before.
The madness continued. I told them what I wanted them to do and they did it. I suggested ways to improve their work and they took my advice. It took until morning break to adjust to this parallel universe. It could hardly have been more different from my usual day in school. And yet…
Despite the impeccable behaviour across the board, the TA kept getting on their cases about the most minute infringements, like sitting in a slightly wonky fashion or holding their pencils with a non-regulation grip. It took me back to my days teaching A-level sociology and Durkheim’s observation that as deviant behaviour is an inevitable facet of human nature, for well-ordered societies, the smallest infraction of the rules becomes the most heinous crime. I thought of getting into this with Year 2, but keen as they were, I figured that might be pushing it.
By lunchtime, I found myself strangely exhausted. I’m used to letting kids get on with the work (or not, mostly) only jumping in if required. With the little ones, there’s not a moment’s rest. It wore me out. But that was nothing. The first lesson after lunch was PE.
“Are you sure you’re OK doing this?” the TA asked warily.
“No problem,” I replied with the blind confidence of the ignorant. “A little run around will do them good.”
And off we went to play rounders.
The phrase "herding cats" springs to mind, although that would have been child's play (ha ha) in comparison to corralling this bunch of haribo and fruit-shoot powered lunatics.
And boy, do they take things seriously! There were floods of tears, primal screams of pure joy, vicious accusations of partisan decision-making, minor injuries and major fallings-out. I ended the lesson hoarse, drenched in sweat, and feeling like I’d just lived through an entire serious of a South American soap opera.
For the final lesson of the day I was happy to let the TA take charge as I sipped at a chamomile tea and tried to recover.
And my conclusion on whether primary or secondary is tougher? They both are! Just in different ways.
I never did quite work out how the "secret child" thing worked. In the end, I just shared out all the marbles, post-it notes and lolly sticks among everyone. I figured their regular teacher could deal with the fallout when she got back.
The writer has recently taken up supply teaching after 20 years in a full-time teaching job