After several years of teaching adults in colleges and in the community, I’ve got some young ‘uns, this time. There are of course loads of complicated relationship nuances to navigate when teaching adults, especially ones who are not 100 per cent sold on being there. It’s not, as some who’ve clearly never taught in that area sometimes assume, a smart-casual gathering, akin to the ending of a Nigella cooking programme.
Y’know, the bit where they’re all chortling round her garden furniture, while she’s faffing about in the background with a squid. That said, after approximately 15 seconds shut in a room with a sea of teenagers I remembered that teaching the youth is indeed a different kettle of fish.
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Paid my dues
In the years before I was gifted with grown-ups to teach, I’d done a seven-year stretch with 16- to 18-year-olds, so I assumed it would be like riding a bike – a bike that might tell you to fuck off. But I’ve paid my dues and so knew what to expect. I tweeted about it, explaining that I was hoping for initially hostile groups that can be won round easily. For ego purposes.
Most of us will know the feeling when a student softens and finally gets involved with the group, after initially sloping in with a face like a bulldog licking piss off a nettle. It’s a little bit of a relief that you won’t have to be on your guard, constantly assessing the spiking tension in the room so as to meet it with the right "behaviour management" response, and a little bit of pride that you might know what you’re doing, after all.
My favourite reply to the tweet was a pithy pastiche of tricky teammates:
In order to support my colleagues, I like to spend time swanning around staff areas talking about how difficult/ hostile groups are absolutely fine for me.— Glasgow Clyde Nat 5 and Highers (@clyde_nat) September 24, 2019
It really made me laugh. Because we’ve all met someone who does that. How does that sort of comment ever help the teacher who’s having a hard time? In one of my worst starts to a new term at a new college (I’ve worked in lots of colleges in my region) was when I actually witnessed it happening. I wasn’t the one who they behaved for though.
Bloody hard work
I had been bequeathed a group of entry-level car mechanics who I would definitely place on my "full of fun" register behaviour-wise (by which I mean "bloody hard work"). They pushed every boundary possible and I used every trick in the book to get them on side and get on with it. Every session throughout the year was a struggle. Except for the times when my apprentice lecturer joined me. Ooooh yes. For her, they were perfect.
I quietly seethed at the whole change in behaviour and had to tell myself not to secretly loathe her for reasons of jealousy. Don’t get me wrong. I was livid with jealousy. She was a lovely woman, a former admin assistant, brand new to teaching and bloody brilliant at it. They respected her, they were a bit scared of her, and they worked hard to get her approval. They didn’t give a shit about mine.
It was a difficult year and a big ol’ boot to the confidence, but I had to remind myself constantly that it didn’t matter whether they liked me or not, so long I liked them, supported them, taught them to the best of my ability and got them through their exams. Which I did.
Luckily, I’m flying solo this year, so don’t have any colleagues in my class to accidentally undermine me with their superior teaching skills.
Sarah Simons works in colleges and adult community education in the East Midlands and is the director of UKFEchat. She tweets @MrsSarahSimons