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Long dark nights of learning

In late December, it's not just the evenings that are dark. Humour has become blacker, too, as college lecturers watch students try to juggle their studies with whatever life throws at them.

There's a sick joke going the rounds at the moment about some of our first-level entry courses - where students are admitted on the strength of an interview and aren't denied a place because they have no formal qualifications and where the courses are a lifeline.

The story goes that, at the interview, potential students are asked if they have any problems which might interfere with their progress and attendance. If they say no, the course leader pushes a piece of paper towards them:

"Well, could you have a look at this list of problems and choose at least three?" As they say, you have to laugh.

I suppose if I were teaching something like shorthand, or how to make the perfect Irish coffee, I could get through teaching schedules without getting to know my students all that well. Maybe.

I do know, though, that teaching communication units to first-level entry classes often means you are caught up in fragile moments of soul-bearing and self-revelation that Jerry Springer or Esther Rantzen could never script. Practice talks - around three or four minutes long - don't sound any more dangerous than whipping up a souffle or creating a spreadsheet. But they are. Even the most innocent of topic such as "Why I came to college and what I hope to get out of it" can suddenly take on the air of the confessional.

For these students re-entering education is not just a practical step but an emotional one, too. And talking to the class often gives individuals a chance to share their experiences and their emotions. It's a strange phenomenon; intimate and public, personal and universal.

Frequently, the talks offer a chance for the public declaration of a commitment to education, of making changes in their lives and of accepting responsibility for forging a better future.

Over the years on a dark December afternoon, you can hear stories of crises, of desperation and dark moments of the soul, wen taking a chance on education has offered a lifeline, a chance for a future that is better than the present.

Sometimes that present is a dead-end job. Mixing sand and cement on a cold and windy building site, your fingers turning white with cold. Or working in a chicken factory.

Pete described his revulsion at the conveyor belt of chickens and graphically outlined the inhumane process: "Okay, so someone's got to do it, but I couldn't stand the thought of being stuck there for the rest of my life."

Sometimes it's a feeling of failure - two broken marriages, redundancy, a sense of reaching the very bottom. Sometimes it's as serious as it gets: a prison sentence, drug addiction.

In all of the students I've met over the years there has been a spark of rebellion, a feeling that says there has to be something better than this.

For Steven, that moment came when he was driving taxis part-time: "It was Christmas, and I was parked in the High Street, the big Christmas tree was up and all the lights were on and my face was tripping me. I kept seeing all these taxis driving past, with drivers whose faces were tripping them, too. And I just thought, that's it. I've got to get out."

Over the years, I have heard stories that are sad, stories that are courageous. And sometimes I think it would be easier, and safer, to prescribe even safer topics for these practice talks, so that the opportunity for confession, for baring the soul, could be thwarted.

But though it would make lesson planning simpler and safer it would deny the students what amounts to a rite of passage, a coming together as a class, to listen and share - and even to celebrate - the huge step they have taken, and the journey they have begun to make.

I have a feeling that life as a communication lecturer is more scary than other disciplines, because, heaven forfend, we teach our students how to think, how to communicate, how to interact, and that has consequences: volatile, unpredictable, and sometimes dangerous.

I know that for these first level students, it's the most valuable unit they take.

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