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Dare to be different

What makes a good FE teacher has nothing to do with being able to tick all the boxes, argues Dennis Hayes. Here he makes the case for eccentricity

The first evaluation of my teaching in further education was long before the dour visitations by the Offfice for Standards in Education. It took place at what became the regular venue for such things, The Bell Inn.

I was having a drink with students at the end of a course and, with only wine to guide them, they said how much they liked my classes but that Roger's sessions were truly amazing when he woke up.

The technical college I worked in had a staff bar, and Roger, more than a few times, had been punctual but sleepy after his lunchtime pint, and was found snoozing across his desk when the students arrived. They proved themselves mature individuals by just getting on with work until he woke up.

The point of this tale is not that pedagogy would improve if teachers went to the pub at lunchtime, but that we should chill out about what makes a good teacher. In FE, many teachers are, to say the least, eccentric.

Looking back, I recall that among our staff were a couple of one hit wonder pop stars, a Mills Boon writer, an alternative comedian, several academics manque, a few experts in obscure sports, political activists from extreme socialist parties, some members of strange religious groups and more than a few freemasons.

All brought their eccentric ideas into the classroom. They made the lecturers in Tom Sharpe's Wilt seem ordinary. And they were great teachers.

The eccentric FE teacher is now an endangered species. In 20 years, since the establishment of the National Council for Vocational Qualifications in 1986, they have been qualified into conformity. Staff development, Certificate in Education programmes, and the various mandatory assessor qualifications have imposed conformity and dullness on the sector.

The result of checklists of behavioural competences is exactly what was intended. Dull compliant teachers were created who would turn lively students into compliant dullards conforming to the demands of whatever faddish and patronisingly simple courses or poor jobs they were offered.

What makes a good teacher in FE has nothing to do with being able to tick off all those lifelong learning UK standards. It's something else.

Few people believe that good teaching has anything to do with inspection grades. The best teacher I know always does badly in such things. The difference is in what he has to say. The inspectors have their check lists and are just jobsworths when it comes to looking for what is different.

Eccentric bits can't be put on a check list.

But eccentricity itself is not enough. I asked the question: What makes someone a good FE teacher? to a group of eccentric FE teachers in a focus group held in another distinguished research venue, The Lucas Arms. They said that a good FE teacher relates well to the students. Pressed on this, they said that relate meant they not only had knowledge, but a love of their subject.

Bad lecturers could have knowledge but unless they were inspired to pass it on their students wouldn't be able to relate to them. Another sort of bad lecturer was the one who had little knowledge and thought that relating to students was all important.

As for the good teachers, my focus group said that their eccentricities were peculiar expressions of passion for their subject and this caught the imagination of students.

The best teachers are bound to be the eccentric ones. It's time those obsessed by formulas for quality teaching came to accept that even if they don't meet any of the criteria on their check lists.

Managers may well ask how then to assess teachers? The answer is: get to know them. If anyone wants to know what makes a good teacher, chill out with a few of them in their local pub. And it's your round.

Dennis Hayes is head of the Centre for Professional Learning at Canterbury Christ Church university and one of the editors of 'A Lecturer's Guide to Further Education'to be published by the Open University Press later in the year.

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