I’ve just finished my college teaching job for the summer. I say that as if I’ll be waltzing back in September, ready to start again. I hope I will, but as a sessional member of staff on a zero-hours contract, I’m near the bottom of the list when it comes to timetable planning. Security of sessional staffers is especially precarious in a time where redundancy sweeps the sector and those on heftier contracts obviously take precedence.
If my time at that college does turn out to be at a permanent end, I’ll be disappointed rather than angsty – there are other jobs. The beauty of being an FE teacher living in the East Midlands is that there are loads of colleges within easy driving distance. But I don’t really want to look elsewhere: this job has made me happy and given me some new experiences.
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I've taught a cohort that I haven't worked with before: adults referred by the job centre. I've taught at levels that I haven’t done before, some of my groups were at pre-entry so I had to take a running leap into phonics. I've taught courses that I haven't encountered before, working with people who are looking for strategies to help them build confidence. And for the first time in a decade of teaching, I have had my own classroom base for the two days a week I spent there. That was the biggest revelation.
Mrs Corn's classroom
Having my own classroom made me feel like a proper teacher in a way that I haven’t experienced before. It’s not that working in FE or being a sessional staffer has ever made me feel less able professionally, or insecure about my place in the edu-verse. It’s just that having my own classroom made me feel closer to the image of teacher that I store deep in my brain filing cabinet, that image of my first teacher at primary school, Mrs Corn.
Mrs Corn had short hair, she was kind and she made crazy new ideas like letters and numbers make sense to me. She was my school-mum. As far as I was concerned she lived in her classroom, a place which was a brightly coloured explosion of activity, proudly decorated with the work of all her children. The assumption that she lived in that room is a testament to the security I felt by being a guest in her "home" and the behaviour that was expected of me within it.
Whatever classroom I have taught in over the years – even if I've found myself traipsing the corridors to teach four consecutive sessions in four different rooms – I'm always clear that the space we occupy as a group belongs to my students and me, even if it’s only fleeting. But being able to set up stall in one place all day, week in, week out, made that space feel like our home. It's especially important for teachers like me who have little security in their professional lives.
On a purely selfish level, having my own room, a sanctuary in which to gather my thoughts and quietly work, allowed me to focus on the reason I was there – my students. It allowed me to shut out any peripheral drama and institutional noise that's a less-helpful feature of every work place.
The sense of routine
An FE colleague I have met through Twitter is currently researching the impact of a classroom base in FE. In one of the questions in his survey, he asks participants to agree or disagree with the following statement: "Student outcomes and achievement would improve if all practitioners had their own classroom." I shouted at the screen “Absolutely! Without a doubt! 100 per cent agreed!” My assertion was based on nothing but my own feelings, obviously. I know that in practice, the timetabling Rubik’s cube of FE makes it nigh on impossible to give each lecturer a home, but I would love a magical FE utopia where we could all have our own special place.
Mine was lovely. I miss it already. I decorated it with my students’ work – and their faces, without fail, lit up with pride when they realised that what they had achieved was exhibit-worthy. In fact just this week a big tough-bloke, a former security guard in his fifties asked if he could sign his displayed work as his name wasn't prominent enough.
The routines I set up somehow felt stronger: when I welcomed each student at the door we were happy to see each other for a weekly get-together in our shared place, and when I stood there at the end of our sessions with an exit question, they patiently waited in line without moaning.
And most importantly, as these students only came into college for my classes (and therefore I wasn't stepping on colleagues' toes by chucking cross-college behavioural consistency out the window) it was our place to set a code of behaviour (easy squeezy – be kind and make an effort) and break the college rules as was appropriate (bring in a cuppa, answer your phone if you need to). We were in it together.
Sarah Simons works in colleges and adult community education in the East Midlands and is the director of UKFEchat. She tweets @MrsSarahSimons