Today was my first day in the world of supply teaching, and it began in an FE college, teaching IGCSE English to students on vocational courses. It seems that FE is crying out for more English and Maths teachers after change in legislation in 2013 means that student who do not achieve the magic ‘C’ grade will have to continue studying both core subjects until they do, or until they turn 18. I’m not sure on the fairness of such a scheme, as it seems punishing for students to be forced to study GCSE past 16, regardless of their ability; on the other hand, nobody can argue that gaining GCSE English and Maths is really beneficial to all.
I hadn’t really recognised the scale of the problem until today: over a thousand students at the college are on the exam retake treadmill. As you’d expect, some are disaffected, don’t turn up to lessons, or when forced to, do very little. These are young people on vocational courses like health and beauty, travel and tourism and health and social care. Many are committed to the practical ,work-based aspect of their college lives and don’t see the point in being forced to study a subject that they’ve hated all their lives. Others are more optimistic, and appreciate the opportunity of a second chance to gain really valuable qualifications. One girl today seemed to light up when I told her I’d noticed she writes sentences with strange syntax, and she should try to express things more simply. She was EAL, and I would assume that her teachers over the years would have told her the same thing. Perhaps they didn’t. It seemed a bit of a lightbulb moment for her – she really did take on the criticism with a smile. ‘That’s why I fail in English!’ she said, and I felt sad. It’s difficult, because knowledge of that particular grammar quirk isn’t necessarily going to help her. It might even make her write even more strange sentences as she tries to conquer it. With the exam just two months away, is it realistic for her to take on the natural syntax of the English language? Not really. Especially not on one hour’s tuition a week.
I wonder if I’m going to like working in FE. So far, I do. The students have been fairly amenable, genuinely appreciating my help, though of course there’s the same old issue of phones out in class, and headphones barely hidden beneath long teenage hair. Those kids who haven’t been quite so amenable were not rude. They all did a fair amount of work, and didn’t seem to have the attitude that I should mark it over night, else there was no point. They seemed to understand the the experience of writing for an exam was useful in itself, and the verbal feedback I gave them was valuable. This was refreshing – as in a secondary setting, kids seem to be obsessed with my marking of their work.
I taught the same lesson three times, and I suspect I’m teaching the same lesson all week, which is a weird concept. As a secondary school teacher, I was used to holding five plans for five very different lessons in my head in one single day: ‘A’ Level linguistic theories one hour, following by spelling quizzes with bottom set Y7. Having to switch gear and juggle so many demands was exhausting. Teaching the same thing all day every day might be a bit dull, but it’s not stressful. It means it doesn’t bother me when I have to spend extra time with a student who’s very weak, or needs motivating. It also means I have evenings free of marking and planning, which is bliss. I was home by four, and had chopped all the veg for dinner by five. Now I’m happily typing away while homemade spag bol bubbles away on the stove, chock-full of four different kinds of vegetable. My body’s going to like this new routine. I might even have the time and energy to, you know, do exercise, and have hobbies again.
I’m working at the college four days a week, yet I’m earning the same per week as I did as a full-time secondary school teacher with department responsibility. I know the counterpoint is that I’m not getting proper holiday pay, and it’s temporary. But it’s pretty great. It feels so liberating to get through a working day without feeling heavy with stress. I’m actually excited by the thought of where supply teaching might take me next.