'A student complained about me. And they were right'

Instead of getting annoyed when a student makes a complaint, change your way of working, writes Sarah Simons

Classroom ethos: when a student complains, change your way of working

A student made a complaint against me. It wasn’t a proper complaint, no forms were involved. I suppose it was more of a semi-grumble. Regardless, I was really upset about it. Mainly because the complaint was spot on. I was failing a student and, though I knew that, I hadn’t at that point put an intervention in place.

One of my jobs involves teaching short courses in adult literacy (usually around six weeks) with groups of people who are mandated to attend by the jobcentre. There are no qualifications involved, so in some ways, it’s a dream gig.

There are around 20 people in the groups, with an equal gender split; they span ages from early-20s to mid-60s. These groups work together in other sessions and after a couple of weeks usually develop into a solid team. They’re good fun. I really enjoy spending time with them. However, there are challenges.


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The nature of these groups mean they are united by the one thing they have in common: they are currently unemployed. That’s it. Their previous experience, trade (if they have one), or level of skill in English or maths is irrelevant in the formation of the group. This is by no means a criticism of the course’s management, which is an administrative collaboration across a number of agencies. And as with all groups of adults, people have responsibilities away from the sessions, which must take priority: childcare, some are carers of parents and partners, some have medical problems with multiple appointments attached. Honestly, the fact that I get a full house almost every week is a testament to the surrounding management and administration, as well as to the students themselves.

I don’t have long enough with the students to do initial assessments past the first week, so it’s a case of chucking the lesson content at them, getting them enthused and involved, and seeing what sticks. The majority are working at around the entry 3 / level 1 in a functional-skills context. However there are a couple who are way above that, above A level, and a couple who are at a pre-entry level. I’m all for differentiation but it has its limits. Try planning a session to stretch and support people who have trouble writing three-letter words, and people who would be at home on an HE course, in the same group.

A new way of working 

My plan has been to use the higher-level students as peer support leads in activities that require written tasks, but place a greater emphasis on work that organises thought, promotes discussion and involves useful topics: the Equality Act, local government, mental health awareness, that sort of thing. That means that everyone can be involved in the discussions regardless of current literacy skills and I can plan different written activities to suit strengths.

It works well. In theory. In practice, the people at either end of the skills spectrum are getting a raw deal, and one of them voiced their frustration, which in turn was passed onto me. They were well within their rights to complain, and it was done out of genuine ambition to progress at a faster speed, rather than to have a pop at me personally – they recognised my challenges in teaching such a diversely skilled group.

The result has been a new way of working. Essentially, I plan two sessions that run at the same time – luckily I have a large classroom and a support colleague who has been newly assigned to my group and who is brilliant. I teach the main group and she runs the session I have planned with the couple of students who are at pre-entry levels. I flit between the two groups.

Tell you what, this recent experience didn’t half make me reflect on my practice and my priorities. If out of 20 people, 19 are learning and one isn’t, then I have failed. I should have put an intervention in place by the beginning of week two and I’ve thought about why I didn’t. The reason was that I assumed it’d be a battle against the machine in order to get a support professional to join us, which would take time the group (and I) didn’t have. And what would be the point for someone to join us in week six of six? It wouldn’t be a battle worth fighting when there are so many more pressing ones. 

It turned out I was making assumptions based on previous experience and not on the reality of the organisation in which I was working. It turned out, I only had to ask. Lesson learned.

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Sarah Simons

Sarah Simons

Sarah Simons works in colleges and adult community education in the East Midlands and is the director of UKFEchat

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