Wherever you go, you’re called different things. Relief Teacher. Casual Teacher. Supply Teacher. Substitute Teacher. Contract Teacher. Stunt-person. Hero. Fool.
I have been many of these. In my mid-twenties, on the quest for global adventure and self-actualisation, I left Queensland and headed to the UK, as did many others in a pre-pandemic world. After settling into a crowded Aussie share-house in London, I registered as a ‘supply teacher’ to earn handy pounds for my backpacking pilgrimage through Europe.
Back then, I didn’t feel nervous about supply teaching: I had three solid years of teaching experience under my belt, so I believed I was more than equipped for whatever was to come. Britain was a genteel place of milky tea and spongy cake, was it not? How hard could it be?
Those of you who have done the same will know what happened. Chaos and destruction. Tears and dejection. A panicked staring at the clock, willing time to quicken. A daily trudging home in the drizzle considering alternative careers. (Landscape designer? Astronaut?)
The reality of England was nothing like the antiquated diet of The Goodies and The Famous Five that I’d grown up on. London schools were battlefields: in and out of the classrooms. I ‘taught’ at over a hundred of them – and, in each, probably a quarter of the staff were from Australia or New Zealand, in short-term or supply roles.
I was invisible at best, a target at worst. I had chairs thrown at me. Threats of violence. A narrow escape from a knife-fight. Endless mockery. “Think you’re fit, Miss?” students would ask. To which I’d answer, “Yeah, I guess I’m reasonably fit.” Which would make them howl with laughter. (Yes, I know. I did eventually learn that ‘fit’ means ‘hot’; ‘pants’ means underpants, not trousers; ‘chips’ weren’t crisps; and the things I kept buying to wipe away my tears were Kleenex, not tissues.)
Aussie relief teachers were to UK schools what Band-Aids were to a gushing artery.
Aussie relief teachers were easy to spot. We carried printed maps of the school, had daypacks instead of handbags, wore huge winter coats and, of course, our Blundstone boots. Each time I approached a classroom – to an equal mix of moans and cheers – students would ask the following questions, in this exact order:
Q1: Are you Australian?
Q2: Have you been on Neighbours?
Q3: (disappointed sigh) Do you know anyone from Neighbours?
Q4: (pause) Have you met Steve Irwin? (This was the early 2000s. At least they weren’t asking if I rode a kangaroo to school.)
After which, they’d pay me precisely zero attention, and resume swearing/fruit-throwing/exchanging Pokemon cards.
I soon learnt to lie. At Q2, I would answer ‘Yes’ and then, when they begged for more (which they always did), I would coyly respond: “I’ve signed a non-disclosure agreement, I’m afraid, so I can’t tell you anything… except, let’s just say that Harold is not like you think.”
Aussie relief teachers were to UK schools what Band-Aids were to a gushing artery. Even our best efforts did little to stem the flow of dysfunction. We were always assigned to the very worst classes; the ones no locals would touch. Other teachers placed bets on how long I would last, with most believing I’d have fled by morning tea. Of course, I stayed, stubbornly watching the clock, reminding myself that every day would pay for four days of cheap European travel.
After three years of relief teaching in London and South England, I was battle-hardened. “Unleash hell,” I would murmur, a la Gladiator’s Maximus. Teaching in Australia was a breeze by comparison. Some days had their challenges – students are compelled to test boundaries when their regular teacher is away – but nothing I wasn’t by then well equipped for.
Eventually, I gained permanency, and have been enjoying its stability for many years… until now. Recently, I decided to take a break from full-time teaching to focus on writing my next book, and so I’ve put my hand back up for casual teaching.
It’s been many years since I’ve had to don the armour, and I fear I’ve gotten soft. Do schools still hand out paper maps when you arrive? What do I do when a student says their name is SpongeBob SquarePants? It can be a battlefield out there. Wish me luck!