Welcome to my Blog which combines the unlikely topics of supply teaching with progressive rock. Here you will find my ongoing 'Diary of a Surviving Supply Teacher' and a variety of lists/ timelines/ articles on progressive rock.

Monday, 4 April 2011

Diary of a Surviving Supply Teacher: Umbrella Company

Wednesday 30th March 2011

hile some schools fade in the memory, through shear weight of numbers, others do not for good reason. Today’s school was one of the latter, because it was the third I ever worked in as a supply teacher and the first for an agency. Most of those ‘early’ schools were difficult establishments in tough areas, but this was a rare exception, having sensitive children who were keen to learn. My charges today, as then, were year 3. The class teacher was out on a course, but she gave instructions before leaving. She spoke as though I were a particularly dense child in her class, although I later learned she was only one term beyond her NQT year. Echoing the deputy on my arrival, she drew attention to a child who had kidney problems and whose notes stated, “Must keep drinking. If he sees butterflies, give water and escort to the office immediately”.  I wondered who would be held responsible if there was an accident with the unattended class; there are many schools where you could not leave a room under any circumstances. I noticed another child under ‘nature of problem’ was ‘scared of blood and pain’. Speaking through a cold, the teacher informed me there was also a girl on a behaviour chart, “Not for behaviour, but concentration.” I struggled to understand the difference.

Following registration, the children spread out around the room for ‘Activate’ aerobic exercises. Then, they went into literacy sets, in which my set, following a discussion, worked on writing mystery stories with suspense and tension. They were enthusiastic in the introduction and worked until break with concentration. After break, the class read their own books and headed off again into sets, this time for maths. My set went into the ICT suite to use Number Shark software on CD-rom and it was clear they were not as settled as the previous group. They were chatty and loud, but I had no idea where my sets came in the ranking.     

In the afternoon, we were scheduled for games outside, unless it rained, in which case we would have French instead. It rained, and French was a Rigolo activity on the interactive whiteboard, Lesson 4: Les Animaux, in which the class chanted back various words and phrases heard by pressing active buttons on the screen. Once warmed-up, they worked wholeheartedly, which was good for me as a non-French speaker! Next was handwriting, based on ‘re’ joins, which I wrote on the board between my own carefully constructed guidelines and the class reproduced a line of each in their books.

During the afternoon break, I encountered Mr Smooth, the headteacher, in the corridor. He said, “Hello, which class are you with today?” Not remembering their name, I described them as well-behaved, which he acknowledged was good to hear. However, it is disconcerting to speak to a headteacher, who does not know which class has a supply teacher. Although I have found him supportive, some staff do criticise him for being distant or remote.

Checking with the teacher next door, a semi-permanent supply teacher, I was hopeful of doing games after the afternoon break. She helped me sort out the equipment (rugby balls and tags) from the hall and the shed, but it drizzled during break, so we remained indoors. Apparently, another year group was timetabled to use the hall, so this was ruled out too. We had already used the lessons planned for this last session, so the year leader, Mrs Realist, gave me a Mothering Sunday activity, a list poem along the lines of ‘a mother is . . . ‘ which the pupils could also decorate. They seemed a little disappointed at missing games, but did not make a fuss and worked diligently on the poems. Show and tell, usually a time-filler, was on the plan, but I ran out of time without being sorry. Home time was at 3:25pm, on a reassuring bell.

The girl with poor concentration, whom the other supply teacher described as ‘a little madam’, was not a major problem and I completed her behaviour card positively. I noticed in the signing-in book there had been another supply teacher in the school from 8:10am to 3:35pm on 24th March 2010. They were from my agency and during a week when I had not worked a single day. Why had a supply teacher, who leaves school only ten minutes after the children, been given priority?

Information on Activate by Val Sabin can be found here:

Information on Rigolo by Nelson Thornes publishers can be found here:

Note: I am not advertising these, or any, products - the addresses are purely for information

Thursday 31st March 2011

When an agency tells you there is no further work in a school, because you are not ‘infant enough’, it is disconcerting to say the least and certainly has an undermining effect when you are asked to work there a year later. However, because of the lack of work, I reluctantly accepted the placement. I picked up a message for work, next Wednesday afternoon across the city, at around 5:30pm last night - not wanting it and expecting it to have been filled. However, the person who answered did not mention the afternoon and instead asked if I was available all day tomorrow, so I took the post. I broached the matter of the afternoon, but she said, “It has been cancelled or something, however the manager is desperate to fill tomorrow.” She added, as I had heard before, that, “It is a lovely school.”    

Mrs Fussy spent half an hour explaining the English and then announced that this was the wrong day. She was the sort of person who could spend an hour telling you nothing at all, often saying things like, “I have been out a lot recently”, “We’ve got a parents’ evening coming up” and, “This place is paperwork hell!” Although I had arrived at 7:55am, the children were expected to enter at 8:30am, so there was not time to waste. When the year 5 children arrived they were expected to write up their spellings as handwriting, because yesterday’s handwriting had not been completed to Mrs Fussy’s satisfaction. They were with a supply teacher and, “Probably trying it on.” After registration by Sims at 8:50am, there was a continuation of persuasive writing. This was something else that was inadequately covered by yesterday’s supply in which they had confused emotive language with persuasive language. Fortunately, the lesson came in the form of a MS PowerPoint flip chart, but less helpful was the Starboard software. My LSA was Mrs Domineering, whom the class teacher described as excellent and who I remembered from previous occasions. She had the unfortunate habit of periodically stopping the class and announcing things of which she thought they should be aware, such as the reasons for the visiting Sikh speaker they were to see later in the hall. The written task was to improve an example of a poor persuasive letter, requesting that a public swimming pool should not be closed by the local council and the class coped better than I expected.

At 9:45am, we were lined up at the door, ready to go to the hall. When the junior phase was all seated, Mr Camp informed everyone that the Sikh visitor had been delayed and asked the staff if they wanted to return to their rooms or remain and watch a video. Unanimously, they opted for the video, which visibly pleased the children; however, it was not a Hollywood blockbuster, but was concerned with Sikhism. Actually, despite the inappropriate narration by ‘weaselly’ actor Ken Campbell, the video was very interesting (about the founder Guru Nanak and the holy scripture Guru Granth Sahib) and most of the children sat attentively. In the meantime, a message filtered through to say the speaker was at junction 8 on the motorway, but there was no sign of him and, unsurprisingly, morning break came early. Mrs Fussy had been very vague about where her duty had been, despite, or because of, waving her arms. Initially, I was not clear whether it was indoors or out and she made mention of walkie-talkies. Once on the playground, I tentatively approached a person standing in the middle holding a number of radios. Despite wearing a card around my neck, he asked if I was part of the school and, after I told him I was a supply teacher, he gave me one of the walkie-talkies with instructions to call the office if anyone was injured. He was equally vague about my role, but I hovered on a raised walkway in front of the toilet entrances. I noticed children were entering and leaving the toilets while eating ‘healthy’ snacks. One child had a nasty fall on his hip, but he insisted that he did not want to go to the office and I did not quarrel with him.                

On arriving back at the classroom, after the class, it was good to see they had been instructed to line up again for the hall. Our Sikh speaker, after a hesitant start with lots of ‘ums’ and ‘ers’, had a range of slides and also turned out to be very interesting and informative. It is very unusual for to me to witness someone else in this difficult predicament and it made me wonder why schools are not more understanding when a supply teacher arrives after a late call. I think our speaker’s timing had been an hour behind the school and I recalled that sometimes visitors do not realise how precise school timing has to be. He spoke on the festivals of Holi & Baisakhi, the Golden Temple at Amritsar, Pritpal Singh and the custom of Langar. Baptised Sikhs are bound to wear the Five Ks, or articles of faith, at all times and our speaker showed or explained them to the school: (i) uncut hair (which remained under his turban), (ii) small comb, (iii) circular iron bracelet and, (iv) dagger. Religious item or not, there is still something shocking about seeing a weapon in a school. I thought I miscounted but later learned that the fifth is a special undergarment. By question and answer time, the children clearly had lots of questions, but after only one query, everything came to an abrupt halt because it was the infants’ turn. 

Back in the classroom and in sets, we embarked on the relationship between fractions, decimals, percentages and pie charts. Mrs Fussy had said the class were chatty, but these were noisy. Strangely, their work was pretty good when it came to marking the books. There was a lot and I tried to mark it during lunchtime, as well as after school.

Mrs Domineering set off for home. She asked if I was remaining for the afternoon, so I asked her the same question. As if she expected me to miss her, she replied, “No, unfortunately not.” There was nothing unfortunate about it at all. Mrs Fussy wisely left her explanation of the afternoon until lunchtime, but, in short, it meant spending some time returning marked topic work, fastening work into a scrapbook titled Ancient Greece, writing a contents page (which she insisted had to have page in the title) and decorating. She post-scripted it with, “If I had not been out of the class so much, I would not leave you with this.” Her explanation, surrounding further justifications, of specific sheets to be returned, was complicated and verging on neurotic, so I forgot many of them. Again, I felt the children were noisy rather than chatty. One particularly lazy individual told me that the reason he rocked back on his chair and put his knees on the edge of the table was because he had a bad leg.

For the second part of the afternoon, from 2:30pm, we marched to the ICT suite in the infant wing of the building to work on spreadsheets. Each child could access a computer and I had the choice of explaining step-by-step or giving them a textbook to work through. I opted for a combination of both, starting with a step-by-step explanation, but allowing the children to continue independently, if they were confident enough. Although using formulae in Excel spreadsheets seems a bit dry, the children were quite impressed when they changed the data and their formula automatically adjusted the totals. A group of boys was particularly loud and, after several requests for them to stop speaking over me, I had to raise my voice to get them to be quiet. Mrs Fussy did not have much to say at the end of the day, but she did ask, “How were they with the ICT lesson?” I felt I could not avoid mentioning that, although I did not shout very often as a supply teacher because it rarely works, I did have to raise my voice to a group of boys who would not follow a simple request to be quiet. She blamed one who was new to the school. I also recounted the tale of the bad leg to which she just pulled a puzzled face.  

I remained in the classroom after school to mark more maths books as well as the handwriting from first thing in the morning. One of the things which struck me was how ‘picky’ Mrs Fussy was in her comments in the handwriting books. She should see some of the examples I have encountered on my travels. I wish all teachers would write a comment and leave a correction or two in handwriting books, so that I could do the same. When they do not mark them or leave corrections, it is difficult to know what to do beyond writing a comment. Some teachers are critical of fine points in English books, which are difficult for me to identify as I do not know the children. In this case, I wrote positive comments, although I could imagine Mrs Fussy disagreeing with them.   

The ICT textbook which I used was Basic Spreadsheets for Schools by PM Heathcote (for MS Excel 97/00), published by Payne Gallway.  

Monday, 04 April 2011

Last week, I read on the TES supply teacher forum that I could pay less National Insurance contributions while being employed by an umbrella company. I phoned my umbrella company, at 10:30am this morning, but the person I spoke to was vague about class 1 contributions and whether I had paid enough NI to qualify for entitlements such as contributions based Jobseekers Allowance. He told me I could make additional voluntary contributions, but I replied that these would be no use if made too late. The following is a message I posted in adjusted forms on my union website forum, the TES forum and as an email to my union representative:   

“I have been working as a supply teacher for a teaching agency and, as a result, have been employed by an umbrella company. I understand that I may be paying class 1 National Insurance, although I am not certain because the person I spoke to at the company seemed vague. However, I could be making less National Insurance contributions through this organisation, which means I may not be entitled to certain rights such as my state pension and contributions-based Jobseekers Allowance. Does the union have any advice, guidance or information on these umbrella companies? Thank you.”

Monday, 04 April 2011 pt2: Not So Royal Mail

Royal Mail has increased the cost of first class post by 5p o 46p - the biggest increase in one step ever recorded. Second class stamps have also increased, this time by 4p to 36p, while large letters jump by 9p to 75p for first class and by 7p to 58p for second class. Postcomm, the postal services regulator, gave permission for the increases in November last year. Royal Mail announced the proposed increases in December 2010. The regulator says that the increases will help fund Royal Mail's modernisation programme. In December 2010 and this February, I had two statements go missing, from a bank who have not previously failed to provide them. On the other hand, Royal Mail consistently fails to deliver important letters to the correct address and at the right time. It seems that with an ever decreasing quality of service, comes a massively increasing cost to the customer.      

Originally posted on Tuesday 5th April 2011

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