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Beyond the college walls

When someone begins a sentence "With the greatest respect", it's likely they will end it with a statement that makes you want to rip off your own ears and jam them down the holes.

"With the greatest respect, Sarah, all us teachers want to do is get through the marking and go home. No one's interested in other further education stuff. No one has time."

I resisted the urge to boom, Brian Blessed-like, "AND THE WORLD IS FLAT". Why would any professional (and this colleague is an excellent teacher who cares about his students) believe their professional interest ends at the college gates?

No one believes they have enough time and almost all of us occasionally use it as an excuse. But the issue is one of time management, which as a skilled procrastinator I have great sympathy for.

Being a full-time teacher can seem like a marathon with no finish line and no medal in sight. Of course it's stressful. Of course the hours far exceed those we are paid for. But why would being wilfully ignorant about the wider context in which we work make things any easier?

I am a participant in the FE conversation as well as a consumer of its results. Not because I write this column but because I've made a choice to be informed and involved. That choice is open to anyone, working at any level of the sector.

Institutionalisation is a degenerative disease that is spread via difficult classes, tricky colleagues or dodgy management. Sometimes, actively disengaging from the edu-world beyond our own organisations allows us to grasp some control, or at least to submit to the rules of a smaller game.

Anyone can be swallowed by the system. Many ground-level staff believe they are not able to question the rules, yet there are also managers who enable this belief, treating their superior as emperor rather than colleague.

Early on in my career I had an epiphany. I had been teaching for a couple of years and was quick to accept that, as a sessional lecturer, my place was to shut up and do what I was told. In this contracted universe, issues that did not deserve space in my head multiplied to fill it.

I had a few nightmarish groups and I felt trapped by my own inexperience. The staffroom was my safe place, but after a huge row over a shamefully trivial matter - the allocation of shelf space - I cried all weekend. I was frustrated by my disproportionate reaction but felt stripped of all weapons to combat my powerlessness - a position that, as an institutionalised teach-bot, I had been all too willing to accept.

Shelf-gate was my rock bottom but it gave me room to reflect. If I was unable to claim even the smallest territory in that environment then I was no longer interested in fighting for it. I decided to reject notions of hierarchical inadequacy and create my own place outside the college walls - as we encourage our students to - through learning.

I was lucky that this shift in perception occurred early in my career, while my FE world view was still coming into focus. But it's never too late to expand our horizons through education. Isn't that what FE is all about?

Sarah Simons works in FE colleges in the East Midlands. @MrsSarahSimons

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