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Optimism, not lighter fluid, must be our fuel

As the end of the academic year appears on the horizon, there is a question that looms over many an educational establishment. Will this be the summer that one of `em burns it down? Arson attacks are a serious threat, causing one to wonder why places that are built to nurture the nation's future are so often the target of vengeance (and lighter fluid) fuelled acts. In 2008, arson cost UK colleges and schools an estimated pound;70 million, the bricks and mortar being a symbol of everything the perpetrators loathed about their perceived treatment inside those walls.

Though I was never tempted to get a Kia-Ora bottle full of petrol and a lit rag, I empathise with some students' suspicion that a teacher's job is to hammer the joy and curiosity out of them. Comments made by teachers can be carried with us for life - Roger Waters' iconic soundtrack to The Wall is testament to this. I'll admit now that I was never a big fan of school, college or most of the teachers within, and my teenage mouth was responsible for a good portion of the dark sarcasm heard in those classrooms. It took me nearly 20 years to reassess my opinion on the benefits of formal learning.

As a teenage student, I took a healthy amount of schadenfreude from the George Bernard Shaw quote, "Those who can't, teach". The teacher had already failed at least once at something else before descending to join us in the classroom.

But it was with less deliberation than I would give to buying a new handbag that I accidentally changed my entire career path and embarked on a diploma in teaching in the lifelong learning sector. That was four years ago and, like George suggests, it was indeed my fallback option, an if- all-else-fails plan.

I accidentally discovered that teaching in FE isn't the tenth circle of hell that I was expecting. To my astonishment, I discovered how invigorating it can be when a well-planned class works, when students are engaged and everyone has made learning progress.

Within FE, most academic staff have come to teaching as a second career. For many lecturers, applying the experience that they have had is a valuable asset, not just in the teaching of their vocation, but in terms of practical life skills. It's the very fact that they have "done" that adds so much to what they offer as teachers.

I chose to teach in FE feeling more equipped to deal with learners whom I deludedly considered to be nearer my age (they are not) and to have my set of cultural references (they don't) than younger learners in compulsory education.

With FE often cast as the "non-speaking extra" to the starring roles of compulsory education and HE, we have to harness the optimism that being an underdog necessitates. In functional skills, we have to be at the apex of this optimism. Many of the students we see have failed to reach a societally acceptable level of literacy and numeracy throughout 11 years of schooling. We have to believe that our year of weekly sessions will make a difference. Our optimism isn't just a coping strategy - it's fuel.

All late-starters in FE careers are walking the talk of the post- compulsory sector. We have chosen to learn how to teach, we are continuing our learning though it's not a statutory or social expectation and, like students in functional skills, some of us are embarking on an educational expedition that we had the option of taking many years ago.

Some students set their schools alight to be cleansed of the grudge they harbour. Some find catharsis in progressive rock. I found transformation in a teaching course. Oh, and Roger, it's "We don't need any education".

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

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