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'Teaching in FE is a laughing matter'

Even when you are really feeling the strain, it is important to see the funny side of teaching in further education, writes Andrew Otty

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Even when you are really feeling the strain, it is important to see the funny side of teaching in further education, writes Andrew Otty

“You have a habit of laughing things off,” my mentor solemnly explained in my training year, as I tried to quell the inevitable urge to do just that by inducing cramp in my toe.

She was right though. I had found myself in a job surrounded by inexhaustibly hilarious young people and their endlessly inventive ways to irritate adults who took themselves far too seriously. I took a naive joy in it and in the privilege of being paid a professional wage to teach novels, plays and poetry, with summer holidays, too!

I hadn’t yet seen my subject diminished by the brinkmanship of controlled-assessment production lines. I hadn’t yet worked in one of the mad and unforgivable laboratories created by the Building Schools for the Future programme. I hadn’t yet worked in a grade-4 institution spinning through cycles of superficial new initiatives every six weeks between monitoring inspections. But even through all of that, I still ended up laughing a great deal, and while I recognise that it can sometimes make me seem to care less than I really do, I think it is mostly a strength. It’s a sign that rarely a day goes by without me still feeling the joy and the privilege of the job.

Keep calm... and keep laughing

At the start of this academic year, I ran a staff-development session called "How to laugh in the face of adversity" to see if I could share some tips on maintaining a humorous outlook.

This period now, in the run-up to Easter, was awful in the days of GCSE assessment deadlines as the list of work to chase was always much longer than the list of final marks in the back of my planner. But the rhythms of BTECs, apprenticeships and HE courses all differ from each other, and it was a useful reminder that in an FE setting you need to be conscious that no matter what time of year, someone will be feeling strained. I offered a few ideas to help.

Laugh with your students whenever possible. Aside from the pleasant endorphin rush, if they see that you can relate to them they are likely to be more willing to give what you’re teaching a chance. Also, be willing to laugh at yourself… a lot. Forgive me, but I’ve noticed this is something that English teachers do particularly well and it’s very effective at putting less-confident students at ease and creating an atmosphere where all are willing to contribute.

Colleagues will always be our greatest support, though, and we have to be aware of the common stress response to hide away. It’s all too easy to disappear into our classrooms or that secret, quiet little workspace we’ve found for ourselves. Finding another adult to share laughter with is enormously important to relieve frustrations. Some years ago, I was sitting through a 30-minute SLT assembly on the death of Benjamin Netanyahu, who was definitely not dead, and I was looking around hopefully to meet the eye of another teacher. Not one person caught my Tim-from-The-Office ironic eyebrow raise. I felt achingly lonely right then and I’m cursed to keep re-telling that anecdote until I feel the comic absurdity of the situation has been fully appreciated.

The most rewarding profession

This is also the time of year when the stock-photo companies start to do a roaring trade in shots of teachers cradling their heads in their hands, or weeping in a darkened classroom. Instead, we should be cradling the memories that are gifted to us by the most varied and rewarding profession there is.

I remember a storm in the Irish Sea at 3am, with five-metre waves crashing over the bow of the tall ship I was helming, and half a dozen students curled up in their waterproofs, clipped on to a safety rail, dozing, oblivious to the spray pelting them. I remember a class that would do something wacky any time I left the room, so that one day when I returned with whatever resource I’d forgotten I found every single one of them wearing 3D glasses. An A-level literature group I taught were all also studying history and kept accidentally referring to the character Salieri, from Peter Shaffer’s play Amadeus, as Stalin. It became a running joke, with the students reading Salieri’s lines in a dodgy Russian accent and having him tell Mozart that “one note is a tragedy, Herr Mozart; too many notes are a statistic”.

So if you find yourself struggling this term, think back to the moments from your career that are most precious to you and allow yourself to laugh aloud. We teachers are very lucky – and it’s OK to be smug about that sometimes.

Andrew Otty leads 16-19 English in a college in the South West. He tweets @Education720

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