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Hard Won Hot Tips For The Hot Mess That Is Casual Teaching

Published: 01 December 2021

I first learnt about Imposter Syndrome from a (of course) brilliant, talented and thoroughly deserving of her high–achievements, woman who confessed to having suffered from it. (I say ‘of course’ because, as an affliction, it is known to affect women more highly than men - in one study, 75% of executive women reported experiencing the syndrome, and we all know the only crippling affliction to disproportionately impact men this highly is the ‘man flu’).

If you don’t know what I mean by Imposter Syndrome, it is basically a fancy name for self-doubt, but those doubts manifest in such a way that you discount any external evidence of your skill and talent to the contrary, and believe you are only where you are due to some kind of canny luck, or worse, deception. This means people who experience it are plagued by a fear of being ‘found out’; exposed as the fraud they really feel they are.

Post LD, as I’m forced to face my return to casual teaching - something I haven’t done in years having previously been based at the one school, and a tiny, specialized one at that – I am acutely aware that the true site of my own Imposter Syndrome is standing in front of a high school classroom ‘pretending’ to be a teacher. Nay, adult.

There are all sorts of reasons that teaching triggers my own teenage high school difficulties, ones that I wont go into other than to say if you are a masochistic for reliving unprocessed traumas of your youth, high school teaching is the place to do it.

But it actually doesn’t matter how stable or sane you (or your teenage self) are, because casual teaching, for all the dynamism and diversity it brings - and not to mention every teacher’s dream of leaving at 3.30pm without a backward glance or second thought to those pesky lesson plans - is a wild, wild world.

And now that I have dived back in  - and in Solidarity Forever with my fellow, soon to be striking, teachers - allow me to prepare any young prospect teachers (and my inner 14 year old self) with some hard won advice that no university course will ever teach you:


You Don’t Know Muddle Until You Are Muddled As Fuck


When you first arrive to a casual gig – and remember, this is probably the first time you have been back to A Block since you were at school yourself  - you are at the mercy of the front office (so remember, the first rule of Fight Club is: always be nice to the office staff).

They will direct you down twisting hallways and corridors or across to whatever block the, always incredibly frantic and frazzled, Head of Admin is in, who will then thrust a piece of paper at you while still fielding calls from staff who are ‘calling in sick’.

This will outline your overloaded day, because why book a casual if you can’t make them bleed? And surely they train you in how not to go the toilet all day at uni, right?  Good, because not only are you on class all day but you are also covering every possible duty that day in the school!

By this point the first bell is about to ring and you still don’t know where your classroom is, or where to put your belongings, so you are now at the mercy of year 7 students, the only ones safe enough to ask for help from.

From here you’ll arrive, late, to some far-flung demountable where students will be lazing and milling around the outside. as soon as they clock sight of you, already haggard and loaded up with your belongings like a donkey, they will begin to jeer and cheer, “casual! Casual!”...and all hope of having a neat classroom set up behind you as you stand at the doorway and greet each student, personally, as they enter, calmly, before you  - what every text book has told you is the KEY for behaviour management  - will be lost.

If you do decide to cling on to any, logging on the Department of Ed computers and portal, which of course you will have never done at said school before because you are a casual, will take no shorter than 10 minutes - plenty of time to look down and realise the skirt you are wearing, when it catches a certain angle of light, is rather quite sheer and reveals the outline of your undies thereby helping you to relinquish any shred of hope you may have been foolish enough to hold on to.


Technological Know...How?


Retraining as a teacher ‘later in life’ means you not only have a baggage full of neurosis and anxiety disorders basically just from having been alive for longer, but also, that you are equipped with a certain kind of ‘technological know how’.

This means, as a casual, on the rare occasion you have the opportunity to prepare a lesson yourself, you can take your brightly coloured, whizz-bang, overly organised and detailed PowerPoint lesson, in on your own computer. Make sure it’s not a Mac though! Because, much like state controlled Russia, the Department of Ed only has outputs that talk to other technology from the 1980s and preferably those issued from the one State sanctioned tech provider.

It is possible that you will realise this too late, and thanks to the aforementioned brain fog of anxiety, not be able to think of a better option than propping your laptop up on a little desk and calling for the students to come ‘gather round’ your 10-inch screen for the ‘lesson’.

On occasions where you have less time to prepare, but a single copy of the  - 10 page, double sided, stapled – workbook has been left for your class full of thirty students, you can race to the photocopy room five minutes before class and wrestle with the other six staff waiting to use the three school machines.

Tick, tick, tick, time is a wasting, so please, factor in the pecking order that says, as a causal, you will be at the back of the queue no matter who got there first. You’ll also need some time for breaking the war-time-like-code for programming the photocopy machine so that your copies do not come out like a 6pt font tiny chapbook.

All of this may cause one to feel a little frazzled and frantic, and, being first thing in the morning, you may fuel these feelings further by taking big gulps of coffee between resting said coffee on the edge of the photocopier.    

Careful, though! As this precarious move could – and this is by no means definite – but it could mean that your very large mug of coffee spills all over the very high tech, very in-demand copy machine, soaking into crevices, dripping down sides, and pooling in the out trays…..Meaning you are likely to be quite a bit more frantic, and, possibly, also, very unpopular.


Making friends


Put your best foot and friendly face forward for when its time to make friends in the staffroom. Chances are you will be a welcome sight for tired, overworked, sore eyes and therefore warmly welcomed and kindly greeted. Or not.

You could, hypothetically speaking, turn up at a staffroom colder than an icebox and with a team more dysfunctional than your family. But remember, these people spend well over 40 hours a week together; it is a lot to ask to stay on speaking terms. Think of your family and how hard it is to keep things communicative at Christmas, and that’s only a day!

So best be prepared for walking into said staffrooms and cheerily calling out “hello” while not a single head turns, looks up, or answers. This will be good practice for enduring the ongoing silence you are going to encounter throughout the weeks you have been booked to work there. I’m sure you’ll find it impossible to imagine why the person you are covering has gone on sudden, indefinite stress leave -  but don’t worry, you’ll get plenty of quiet time to think about it…

Hold on, scratch that, no you won’t! Because after trying your very best to engage your colleagues in basic greetings, you will try to find out what classes you are on and what work has been left. But, no one will answer!

Until the head teacher – after sighing loudly, first signs of life, hurrah! -  will gruffly tell you there is no work, for any of the classes. And no, they don’t know where the students are up to, or what they had been doing with their regular teacher.

You could consider that perhaps the other staff, the ones not busy with the demands of being an executive, will know, but they will be steadfastly avoiding eye contact at all costs.

Hmmmm, that should keep you busy then....


Far more chummy, but equally frightening, will be the staffrooms of any elite, but still public, institutions you may be allowed to set foot in.

These schools, unlike the brutalist concrete A,B,C,D blocks from your scarred memory, will be grand, sandstone structures with arched hallways and dark, oak corridors suited to the ponderous rigors of academic thinking that can of course only be expected of those north of the bridge.

But don’t be afraid! In these staff rooms you are likely to sit at an 18th century conference table for tea and biscuits while the staff take great interest in what you think about the Pollyanna (look it up in your lunch break, Nirvana can’t help you here) student in your class. As well as what your take on the ‘Anglo-American critical literary theories relating to the works of the New World, and how studies of race and culture in Shakespeare could reconsider the existing paradigms of colonial relations’, is. Take another biscuit while you think about it. Of course they’ll like your answer! It’s just that the person whose class you are covering never got sick again, ever.


I’ll teach anything


You might like to also consider, in a bid to look flexible, agreeable and willing, to say YES to every single offer from a certain school you want more work from, meaning you will end up covering classes on absolutely anything, despite having zero knowledge or qualifications to do so!

In this way, you can come to find yourself taking a class full – and by full, I of course mean of the chronically underfunded, bursting at the seams public education variety  - of 14 year olds for a practical music lesson, despite never having picked up an instrument yourself since you had to play the recorder in year 8 music.

But, I must warn you, things have really moved on since then. Sure, school buildings themselves haven’t changed since the 1970s and ‘new funding’ hasn’t meant new schools, more teachers, or much needed psychological services…but it sure has meant no more class sets of triangles for music!

Music rooms now have a full array of many, wonderful, loud, tempting instruments - right at the student’s fingertips! If students roaming around the class picking each and every one of them up, saying things like, “oi miss, we play this one, no really, listen” isn’t loud enough, never mind, because a few boys at the back will be loudly bashing on the full set of drums.

The girls at the front still remain seated though, how lovely. But don’t look too closely or you’ll see them rolling their eyes and come to know a disappointment you haven’t felt as acutely since you were rejected by a similar pedigree of girls in year 8 yourself.

If you do get them to put the instruments down and stop making an enormous, cacophonous racket and finally take their seats, don’t worry, the fun wont stop there! The boys at the back will also know how to connect their phones to the Bluetooth speaks that you haven’t noticed yet.

Don’t worry, they’ll show some restraint…no need to play whole songs and drone out every word you say…instead, they’ll wait for you to pause or take a breath and then just pepper in a few choice song moments and phrases. Nothing like a perfectly timed, loud, burst of, “fuck your pussy” to keep things colourful!

It might not seem all that helpful at the time, but trust me, nothing will lead you to question and examine your life choices quite as much.


But please, as you make these reflections, my fellow or future teachers, remember: when the government refuses to invest in education, more teachers or even budge on a pay rise, you can still have all these poorly remunerated experiences and more because, You Care. Right?