Diary Of A Supply Teacher: 'Am I a teacher or a teaching assistant? Does anyone know?!'

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The Independent Online

I was struggling to teach English to a disparate group of Poles, and also struggling to help them get a better deal out of the school. In the meantime, a pay-day had passed, and the agency wanted to know whether I was now a teacher or a "teacher's assistant". As far as I was concerned, I was definitely the former, but I attempted to check. Meeting the teacher in charge of supply rushing in the opposite direction down a corridor, I persuaded him to slacken his pace long enough for me to point out that I had told the agency that I believed I was working as a teacher.

"Ah...", he said, and rushed on. The agency had similar trouble contacting him, but the timesheet went through and my bank balance began to look somewhat healthier. I was told that I would still be required after half term, and we all went home for a rest.

I had hardly got in the door when there was another call from the agency.

"The school says you're a TA, not a teacher. They're not prepared to pay the last week as a teacher, and they want a refund for the previous two weeks. How do you feel about it?"

I tried to contact the school. The teacher in charge of supply had gone home. The head was there, but he was in a meeting. He would be asked to ring me before he left. He didn't. Eventually, I wrote him a carefully worded letter explaining my position, and passed a miserable week feeling that I was being treated as a criminal.

I returned the following Monday with some trepidation. I continued exactly as before: people in the staff room reinforced my belief that I had been acting as a teacher; the same groups of students turned up to be taught; we struggled to find free rooms; and I explained that I might not be seeing them any more. They weren't pleased. I reassured them that the teacher in charge of ethnic minorities would look after them, but they grumbled that they didn't understand her.

"She speak hard..."

They reckoned that they understood about 80 per cent of what I was trying to get across. With no other teacher could they manage more than 50 per cent, and some were deemed totally incomprehensible. Not knowing what would come of an encounter with the powers that be, and being unable to find anyone to speak to, I was at a loss as to what to suggest. At the end of the afternoon, I managed to connect with the teacher in charge of supply.

He was apologetic, and assured me that I would be paid as a teacher for the weeks already claimed. However, they could not afford to continue, and if I was to stay on it would have to be as a TA. This posed a genuine dilemma.

I had grown fond of the students and felt badly about letting them down, but the uncertainty meant that I had not done any preparation over half term and I didn't feel I could be much help. I felt that the situation was being badly mismanaged and could only get worse. I was simply a finger in the dyke against a tide of understandably irritated Poles. It was agreed that the school would look for a Polish TA, and I decided I was due a holiday. I hoped that my departure would focus attention on the problem, and more would be done. Little was. The school closed in July.

The writer is a supply teacher in the Midlands