Return to Rome…There Be Dragons


And so it came to pass that God made the earth in six days and that on the seventh he sat down and rested. The next day, he did his first supply-teacher gig.

Oh, for thou art last among men.


Becoming a supply teacher is the most daunting of educational adventures one could take. For me it is not just about stripping off the apparel of brief authority, but of cleansing myself in the fires of perdition. Being a supply, or what they call substitute teacher, is most definitely a journey to the darker side of education.

Where other triples reach for the sky, most supply just wish to survive.

Arrive. Teach. Survive.

I once worked in a school that was in the heart of Manchester. I got my measure of it when the first after school CPD concerned itself with drugs and gangs. The key question to the staff was, ‘Can you identify gang colours?’  Apparently, the school had once been virtually run by gangs and anybody standing in their way was dealt with severely. Supply teachers must have been like slaves imported into Rome to serve as mini- appetisers for the main event in the circus. One tale told of a hapless supply who had turned up for a day’s paid torture only to realise that he had been there before. He sat in his car shaking before doing a rapid three-point turn and making a hasty retreat. If there are any of you out there who have ever done supply in dodgy schools, I am sure you will understand this poor man’s plight.


Nobody loves a supply. Head Teachers consider them a necessary evil. Heads of departments tend to think likewise. Young teachers look upon them as some sort of lower life form; beings that have fallen from the state of grace that is full-time teaching. Kids, well they just see them as target practice.

Now that I find myself doing this, I feel as if I have become one of Shakespeare’s tragic heroes. I am King Lear who has thrown away his kingdom in a fit of deranged self-awareness. I shall not soil my hands with this again; something that I have promised myself on more than one occasion. So, here I am soiling myself once again.

To be truthful, it’s not that bad. Once you get over the headache that your own voice has given you through pleading, insisting, demanding or resigning oneself to all sorts of unacceptable behaviours and attitudes, it sort of flows over you. My name seems to have disappeared along with my standing. I have become the supply, an unwanted pseudonym, but one that people are happy to grant me. To some children I am Mr Smith and, even when I reject this, they continue to refer to me as Mr Smith.

“You teach maths, don’t you?”


“Yes, you do. You taught me maths last year.”

“No, I didn’t. It is my first time in this school and I’m an English teacher.”

“Don’t believe him, he’s a maths teacher. He taught my brother as well.”


There are some that I can no longer teach. Take the Year 10 group I covered for recently. They were class-wise and able to turn a dismal situation into an extended wound licking operation.

As a parent and a teacher, I am aware of the over-reliance of schools on supply teachers. They are fillers for absences that were unwanted. Sometimes they are in for a day or two, but at other times, when the permanent teacher is finally worn down by a combination of collective germs and professional stress, the medium-term supply comes in to fill the gap. Mainly though, with the lack of reliably experienced substitutes, classes have to be manned with a succession of unwanted visitors who land, pay cursory attention to the work left, inhabit a kingdom of mayhem in which the young dictate and then finally flee the nest. Oh, the poor students?

This is another lie. Okay, so some of them deserve better. There are hardworking, respectful kids who have never put a foot wrong and the system that has been geared up to help them aspire has, by design, brought about a temporary denouement. If I could truly bleed onto the page, I would. It would be a pinprick however. A cover-led classroom can be any number of things but in reality, it is something that is constantly being obstructed from becoming a harmonious centre for learning and mutual appreciation. For unsuspecting adults, it becomes a place of darkness in which only dragons roam.

The Year 10 class that I took had dragons. I noticed them as they came into the room, late, put their handbags on the desks, chewed their gum and shared their conversations for all to hear. Even an experienced teacher like me has to gird himself for such a seditious onslaught. I stand at the front bigging up to the audience. I make sure that I am not sitting, leaning or hiding behind anything. Anything between me and them would be seen as a surrender. Deep breath, but not too obvious, and a modulated voice that says that I am not afraid.

Unfortunately, neither are they.


Kids can be scary.

Pol Pot knew that and so do many terrorist organisations. They have not yet reached the age of consequences, where their deeds have repercussions; some probably never will. They are pack animals moving in agreed conventions of hierarchy. Permanent teachers are part of the pack even if they don’t know it. They are accepted group members who have a right to grunt and give instructions. Often, the permanent teacher inspires love and respect which allows the group to move onwards. However, as love and respect are fragile concepts, sometimes the trust can be broken. Once broken, they rarely mend themselves properly.

Long-term absence with anything other than cancer will do it. Into the void left behind by such an accepted member, a supply teacher is lured. Kids just love a supply teacher and the older ones can eat more than their own body weight of one in a day.


I am not afraid. I am not afraid.

I am not in my right mind.

  • Ask for quiet. Give instructions.
  • Write them on the board.
  • Ask for quiet.
  • Talk through the instructions.
  • Ask for silence.
  • Talk.
  • Stop.
  • Ask for silence.
  • Look brooding.
  • Be silent.
  • Ask for silence.
  • Raise your voice whilst lowering the pitch.
  • Demand silence.
  • Move towards the most ardently indifferent.
  • Ask them what they are doing.
  • Keep your head when they reply that they don’t know because you haven’t told them yet.
  • Look incredulous.
  • Ask for silence.
  • Ask if anyone was listening when you asked for silence the last dozen times.
  • Raise your voice in an attempt to get them to listen.
  • Try not to scream.
  • Try not to kick the door.
  • Try to keep yourself in the room.
  • Attempt to put it all into perspective.
  • Allow your jaw to drop widely open when some inane member of SLT comes into your room.
  • Let your jaw hang loosely as silence descends.
  • Listen to the trite appeasement offered by the SLT member as they tell you that this is usually a very good class.
  • Try not to show your disbelief as some of the gobbier students tell the SLT that they were not told what to do.
  • Enter into a conversation with the SLT about the importance of good behaviour for learning.
  • Fade away in volume as it becomes obvious that the SLT thing is not listening to you as they have already started to pull a funny appeasing kind of face to one of the dragons.
  • Listen to some more of their bullshit ‘come on kids’ speech.
  • Allow the SLT being from another universe to tell you that the class will now be good and attentive.
  • Watch the door as it closes on the darting SLT whatever and imagine how they have formed their opinion of your inability to basically teach such an easy group of wonderful young people.
  • Brace yourself for an immediate increase in volume and belligerence.
  • Face accusations that you haven’t told them what to do.
  • Try to seek out those friendly faces that you thought were there at the beginning of the lesson.
  • Despair on discovering that they too have fallen into conversations with those around them or have buried their faces into the sand of their exercise books.





Count the seconds as they pass.


4 thoughts on “Return to Rome…There Be Dragons

Add yours

  1. Awesome description of the brutal reality. Thank you Mike for putting it into such searingly beautiful words.


  2. Even in the US the academic system stinks to high heaven. Our children don’t respect most parents so why in the world would hey should respect for a teacher or the education that is needed to lift them up in this world with pieces of knowledge. Not all knowledge can come from school but the ability to learn and be taught seems to be slowly dying.

    A substitute teacher here is not respected either. Children, teens and young adults seem to believe somehow they have a right to act however they see fit. I am it one who lives by all of the norms and has a hard time in strict settings/rules and such but I do believe in respect and being courteous.

    I feel like sending a sub into a room is like sending a mouse into a room of vultures. My daughter told me one of the subs had left her school crying. This should not happen.


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