Supply

I’ve written before about the idea of supervision for teachers, and how its existence might have made a difference to my own teaching life, and my decision to quit. Today I was going to write a little more about what supervision might look like in practice, and explain the approach of the Teachers Case Discussion Group that I am co-facilitating with Joan Fogel. Instead I found myself writing about my own case – one which I would take to supervision, if I had it. [I’ve changed details to keep the thing anonymous].

I am a supply teacher. It pains me to say this, but right now it is what I am. Recently I spent three days covering a junior school class whose teacher had walked out at the beginning of the term, six weeks ago. In weeks that followed, the school tried to fill the vacancy, but no-one wanted to take the job. Successive supply teachers came and went, some so shaken that they walked out before the working day was over, none lasting more than a week.

My three days started at the beginning of week seven. By this time the children in this class were like any class of children would be if they were put through seven weeks of instability, which is to say that they were “challenging”. Without consistent boundaries and, more importantly, a sense that their teacher cared about them or valued them, they had become disruptive, disaffected, scared. They had learnt that putting their faith in teachers was a mistake; that teachers are not to be trusted with this kind of investment, and that boundaries are there to be relentlessly prodded and pushed. While it was a difficult week’s work, especially to someone like me who prides themselves on behaviour management, it wasn’t hard to see past the bluster and bravado to the fear that lay beneath, and to be affected by it.

A difficult week’s work, but as a supply it shouldn’t be too problematic. As a supply I could – if I wish – fail to turn up to the next day’s work without consequence; I would never be inspected, accounted or performance-managed; and further, I did not, in fact, need to do this work to keep the wolf from the door. But in the midst of these three days of stressful but unpressurised teaching, I found myself slipping deep into my own fear once again. I was unable to sleep, and when I did sleep I dreamt of accountability meetings in which I was found wanting, of children lost off-site, and of disruptive voices successfully challenging my authority.

Doubtless the assignment was a challenging one, and I was pushed to the limits of my teaching skills (and my emotional range), but that wasn’t where the fear came from. The school were happy with what I had done, and asked if I could come back full-time until Christmas. I felt supported by the management who desperately wanted the children to get the consistency and care that they deserved. They were not motivated by the fear-driven systems of HMI and accountability. I shared with the headteacher my worries about what progress I would be expected to make the children make if I took the job, and was reassured that the school’s priority was the same as my own: to give the children back the kind of experience of school that they deserved. Progress would come later. And yet, on the third day, at lunchtime (cold leftovers, eaten while sat marking in my classroom) I decided not to take the job.

It was a gut-wrenching decision which I made and un-made a number of times that lunch-break, but ultimately I took the selfish route and turned my back on the needs of those children. It is this – the knowledge that these children rely on you and cannot seek alternative services elsewhere – which makes teaching uniquely rewarding and uniquely stressful. Choosing not to take the job was a moral act with which I have not fully come to terms. Lewis Hyde writes that teaching/counselling/nursing ought not be thought of as jobs existing solely in the monetary economy, but as in large part elements of the gift economy. On that lunchtime I felt torn between the two, and ended up siding with the reasonable, rational, side of myself.

It was with a sense of shame that I told the headteacher that I was going to have to turn down the job – to selfishly prioritise my home life and career ambitions over the needs of 26 children. It was the same shame I felt in admitting to my partner, and to you now, that I chose to put myself first.

Now, I’m not going to claim that a year’s training as a counsellor makes me markedly more emotionally stable or fluent than your man on the street, but you might expect that a good deal of therapy, personal growth and learning about stress and anxiety would equip me to deal with the emotional burdens of a few days challenging work, and the offer of a short-term contract. If I, without the pressure of mortgages, accountability meetings, statutory assessments, reputation, can slip so easily into the fear, what of those working full-time with all of these pressures?

I came home from work each night at about 7:30 that week, ate the dinner that my partner had made for me, and went to bed to fail to sleep. If you had asked me then whether I would like to take a bus across town to talk to a bunch of teachers about my situation, I would have said no. Despite a year’s training in the benefits of opening up, all I wanted to do was close down and hide. Now, a couple of weeks afterwards, I can use this blog as my supervisor, but at the time, opening up to a group of strangers felt impossible and dangerous.

And yet gathering a group of teachers (who do not know each other outside of the group) on a week-night to talk about the emotional impact of their working life is precisely what Joan and I have done. The proposition of joining such a group is difficult and scary, but I believe it is absolutely necessary and vital. To find out exactly what goes on, please read on here.

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