I love a little question about a massive topic. Something where an answer is required on the spot, with no time to mull or overthink. It can focus the brain and get to the heart of the matter. I was asked recently what my favourite thing about FE is. I could have banged on about the broad stuff for hours. You know, second chances, making a difference, the huge rewards (to the soul, not the bank balance, obvs), but I didn’t.
For me, the thing that makes my job brilliant is the people I meet: the vast range of different kinds of lives that intersect with mine. Learning about people, hearing the life stories from those who before I worked in FE I would have only related to as “news items”, makes my life better, richer.
I know that in the past I would have carelessly dismissed the value of some of the people who pass through my life now. Because then, I had no interaction with people outside my media and academic crowd, I would have cruelly and unwittingly clung on to a singular aspect of the identity of the people I meet now, and made it the entirety of who they are - long-term unemployed, kids taken away, done a bit of time in prison. I don’t think I was any more societally blinkered than anyone else who doesn't have cause to venture outside the white picket fence of their own social and work village green. I was just ignorant.
Background: UKFEchat: Everything you need to know
If I wrote down on paper facts about the lives of some of the students I have taught over the years, the old me, the pre-FE me, would have written them off as total scumbags. Years ago I had a class where several of the older students had, in their younger lives, all their children taken into care. They talked openly about their experiences. The removal of their children was due to circumstances such as neglect, exposure to drugs and, in one case, accidental death. They weren’t monsters. They loved their children, and were full of regret and deep sadness for the way things had turned out, but they just didn't have the understanding or even the capability to look after their children safely. I know if I shifted my perspective even slightly I could see those students as something else, but what’s the point? To dehumanise anyone is totally pointless. Nothing moves forward.
I meet people with daily challenges which I could not imagine surviving. Poverty so extreme that it feels like I’ve wandered back in time. People who have to organise their lives, planning meticulously to acquire things that I take for granted – a warm coat, food on the table, bus fare. Some are trapped in lives from which escape seems unlikely, but by coming to college they have gripped hope in a headlock, and are having are go anyway. I am blown away by them. They are warriors.
Students making progress
Most of the students I teach at the moment have got to adulthood, some to late middle age, without learning to read and write. Some have become experts at hiding it, because the stigma, the embarrassment, the shame that goes with illiteracy has been overwhelming. The disguise is often what led to the problem in their early, and for some, their only education. They hid their difficulty so well that it was assumed it didn't exist.
This has been a good week. A couple of students who started with me in October at pre-entry level, passing entry level 1 before Christmas, have just passed their entry level 2 qualifications. That is a bloody long way to go in a really short time. These are their only qualifications, the first of what I hope will be many. Both have already signed up to start back in September.
One of them was last in education during the 1970s. Imagine the strength it takes to walk into a college, a place that is teeming with people young enough to be your grandkids, and learn stuff that you know others mastered when they were small children. The courage is as breathtaking as the dedication.
Watching students' confidence soar
Because of the dedication to learning that lots of my adult students have and the community we create together in the classroom, this is one of the best teaching jobs I've ever had. I didn't think it would be, I thought it would be a battle, as initially my students are mandated to attend and lose their benefit payments if they don’t, which can foster all sorts of resentments.
I can see my students’ confidence soar as they build on their learning from week to week and realise that they are not written off. The (cliche alert) lightbulb moments flash around the room, making it glow like Blackpool at Christmas time. They are gathering agency as though it’s stacked on the shelves of a supermarket trolley dash. I bloody love it and I’m grateful to them for giving me the opportunity to be a happy part of their lives. They are my favourite thing about FE.
Sarah Simons works in colleges and adult community education in the East Midlands and is the director of UKFEchat. She tweets @MrsSarahSimons