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I blame the coffee

Since flouncing away from 20 years in showbiz to a career in education, I have tried to tone down the aspects of my life that were less than suited to the role of responsible FE lecturer. However, I still have one vice to control. One hit of Colombia's finest and I brim with enthusiastic optimism.

Oh yes, I love my coffee. One such caffeine-induced episode set wheels in motion that are only now rolling with nerve-racking momentum. I had been teaching students with learning difficulties and disabilities for a year, having had little formal training in the area: English is my specialism.

My biggest worry was that I might patronise the students or, worse, infantilise them. Overwhelmed by the breadth and intricacies of diagnoses in each learner's file, I decided that my best bet was to ignore their labels and get to know them as individuals, gratefully accepting the help of experienced colleagues in the foundation learning department.

It's easy to make assumptions about these types of learners and I admit that when I took them into the studio for their first dance class I had done just that. But within minutes it was clear that some of the students were innately skilled movers. Not in a head-tilted, sympathetic, "good considering they have complex needs" way. Genuinely talented.

Full of endorphins and espresso, I raced back to the staffroom and suggested that we put on a show. I may have used razzle-dazzle hands for emphasis. I can't be sure.

The staff are a separate breed of lecturer to those I have encountered before. Working with learners who have complex needs seems to attract a type with common personality traits - the most pronounced of which is an intolerance of bullshit. There are no repressed irritations in that staffroom: any day can see an exchange so heated that Chuck Norris would be scanning for the fire escape. But rows are speedily settled, the atmosphere cleared and normal service resumed.

This transparency of emotion is refreshing. Their conduct doesn't reflect a lack of professionalism, rather that the needs of the learners take priority over any differences of opinion.

So we are now at a stage where five members of staff and 37 students are rehearsing a production that we have devised, directed and produced. Many people involved can't locate their comfort zone with binoculars, but they are game and fearless.

There are, of course, obstacles to pioneering this sort of event, mostly accessing resources and departmental collaboration. But these staff and students are veterans in meeting challenges head-on. The aim of the project was to empower the learners and demonstrate that they are much more than the sum of their difficulties. Before the first line is spoken, it's clear to see that the aim has been met.

Sarah Simons teaches functional skills English in an inner-city FE college.

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