Lofty ambitions

We often hear that the world of further education is flexible. From a strategic perspective this means the ability to bend with constantly changing governmental whims, without breaking. This sort of flexibility is much like a Pilates class; the moves seem serene, but you know that in the morning you'll be walking like John Wayne.

On the ground, flexibility is a much sweatier affair and the ache is instant. I was reminded of this as I nervously turned up for my first day of teaching since July. There had been a germ going round the staffroom. Those of us still standing shared out the extra workload, but in a small team this meant that many of us had our teaching hours temporarily doubled.

It was a difficult week to cover classes as the students were supposed to be meeting their new teacher for the first time. Much effort would usually go into setting the right tone to create stability and establish learning routines. But these were not my students. I was just a warm-up act, so what could I do with them that would be of use in the longer term?

I remembered an activity a friend on Twitter had shared. The students had to write a letter to themselves. The idea was that each individual would write reflectively, explaining why they had come to the college, detailing their ambitions and setting out what they must do to achieve their goals. They would then seal their letter in an envelope and address it to themselves.

I would collect the envelopes and pass them on to their permanent teacher, who could then post individual letters at a point during the year when that particular student most required a motivational kick up the backside.

It just so happened that the classes I covered were working at a similar skill level and were either all girls or all boys, and the activity served to confirm certain stereotypes.

To my delight, most of the girls embraced the opportunity to flood the paper with their thoughts, plans and ambitions. The boys, however, were a different story. Despite repeated reassurances that they would be the only person to see the letter, it took a lot of persuasion for them to put pen to paper.

Some were nervous that their mothers would open it and they would lose their "reputation". I pointed out that this might be a good thing. That didn't help. Some said that their attitude to the course wouldn't change throughout the year. I hoped they were telling me they intended to remain 100 per cent committed.

In a final attempt to get them involved, I decided to bin all talk of "hopes" and break it down to the basics. "Write down exactly what you have to do at college to have a good time with your mates and learn loads of new stuff so you can get the job you want when you leave," I said.

This resonated. The room went quiet as they thought about what this meant in practice. At the end of the session I collected the envelopes. One lad, who had been deep in thought, decided not to hide his letter and passed it to me so I could see his four-word epistle. It read quite simply: "Don't be a knob."

Sarah Simons works in FE colleges in the East Midlands. Find her on Twitter @MrsSarahSimons

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