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Teacher Newsmagazine Volume 18, Number 6, April 2006

I’ve seen it before: Notes from teaching in London

by Ceilidh Parks

In the spring of 2001, I attended a recruitment seminar at my university hosted by a private company, from England. They were encouraging new teachers to fill the gaps of the growing teacher shortage the UK was experiencing. I had an interview and along with all other interviewees, was offered a placement within the company with the choice of TOC (Supply) work, part-time, or full-time contracts as well as our preference of city to work in. At the time, none of my local districts was openly accepting applications. Those new teachers lucky enough to be represented by a local administrator and who had their application packages submitted to the districts were rewarded with a place on the already crowded TOC lists and the promise of a five-year wait for a continuing contract. Given these options, I accepted a position with the company and by October I was on my way overseas.

Upon my arrival in London, England, I soon found myself inundated with endless calls for work. In my first three months, I worked at over 20 schools and had repeated offers for full-time contracts. As a new teacher I was overwhelmed by the prospects and excited at the opportunities I had. In my contact with fellow graduates back in BC, the word was that they were struggling to make a liveable income on the meagre amount of work they received despite major self-promotion. While the amount of work I received was plentiful, it soon became obvious that there were many issues facing the English education system, and I became acutely aware of the reasons I had been recruited and of the crises that occur daily during a teacher shortage.

It is now like looking in a mirror when I recall the troubles that faced my English colleagues. Teachers faced increasing pressure because of standardized testing, the results of which would be publicized in all national papers and affect the funding for the school the following year. They faced paperwork that surmounted anything I had just finished in university including weekly, monthly, and annual planning that was handed in to administration weekly, along with numerous other frivolous accountability records. I also quickly discovered that I was earning more than teachers employed by the Local Education Authorities (LEA’s are the equivalent to our school districts) and that this lack of pay was either forcing teachers to drop out of the profession or go to work for the private companies themselves where they received no benefits or support from the teachers’ unions. Basically, teachers felt as though they were a dispensable, disrespected profession facing a losing battle.

In the 1990s the business sector caught on quickly to the growing demand in the field of education and introduced businesses that would offer schools an alternative to spending time searching for qualified TOCs. These companies offer schools international supply teachers who are university graduates (although not necessarily in education), for extortionate fees. It wasn’t long before I discovered that my company was earning a greater daily wage for my work than I was. Most of the supply agencies allowed employees to negotiate a small raise in their daily rate, depending on the amount of work the teacher is maintaining for the company, however, the overall fee taken from the school itself is beyond that which most schools are able to sustain for an entire year of staff coverage. The companies justify these fees in their international recruitment programs and services offered to teachers under their employment; however, the fact remains that it leaves the schools in a situation where they often find it difficult to cope and have to resort to desperate survival strategies.

My short experience saw schools that were in tough inner-city situations, including ravaging poverty, racial, and classroom-management issues, facing a much larger battle because of the lack of staffing stability and consistency. I held seven-month contracts at two different schools that both used the same strategies when a teacher couldn’t be found for a classroom. Each class had a split list that hung near the door for easy access. The list split the students into small groups that would then be distributed amongst the other classes in the school (given that every other classroom had a teacher that day). Each child (I had an average of 30 students in my primary classes) had a "Busy Book" that was just for these situations, containing worksheets in every subject that the students would work on for the day. It was not uncommon for me to have 3 to 12 extra students, ages 5–11, scattered around my already crowded classroom either working on this mindless filler, or more commonly, causing disturbances that hindered the teaching of my own students.

Those that were split were often the lucky students because at least there was hope that their teacher would return after their absence, whereas other classrooms were without a teacher at all. My second contract began in January 2003 at a school that I had taught at on a day-to-day basis in a very tough neighbourhood. The head teacher had spoken to me previously of the problems they were having with one particular class for which they hadn’t yet found a teacher. The students had gone for four months with rotating teachers—often having a new teacher every day for weeks at a time. Needless to say, the students felt abandoned and unworthy, resulting in severe behaviour issues that made it difficult to fill the position. This class turned out to be my most rewarding teaching experience to date.

I was glad to come home to BC to continue my career, although I have been quite surprised and dismayed to find that our own education system is heading in a similar direction. England continues to face a teacher shortage not unlike what we in BC are only beginning to experience. Although the shortage has been predicted here for the last 10 years, changes in government policy on class size have temporarily put the issue on the back burner. There is copious material that has been written on the topic in the UK and I encourage you to research it further. Simply type "teacher shortage, UK" in any search engine and you will find article after article describing the difficulties that their education system is facing. While I don’t have the answers to these issues that are on our own classroom doorsteps, I do believe that we need to be proactive on a local level and encourage teachers to stay and teach here—that means equal, fair pay for all teachers, greater support for those who are new to the profession, an end to the accountability agenda that is being forced on our schools, and greater funding for public education.

Ceilidh Parks has been teaching as a TOC in Victoria and Sooke for the last three years.

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