On a fence, skewered

13th July 2012 at 01:00

It was an unusual introduction. In my first two years of teaching functional skills English, I was predominantly allocated male groups from the construction trades. After the initial shock of the playful violence and the demonstration of fondness for each other through derogatory terms (there is no greater expression of companionship than "You prick"), I learned to relax and relish their quirks.

There were a few flare-ups, and my poker-face-calm-voice combo was sometimes tested to the limit. On one occasion, I had a serious word with a student who was loudly detailing his plans to "batter a fed". It went like this: "If you hit a police officer you will go to prison. Do. You. Understand?"

Then it all changed: I was assigned to health and social care. Suddenly, my groups were almost exclusively female. I assumed working with large groups of teenage girls would be comparatively relaxing. I know about girls; I used to be one. What I had conveniently forgotten was that my own teenage personality was akin to a depressed velociraptor.

The girls would seek my opinion on contentious subjects, sometimes with direct personal implications for them. The boys did not discuss such matters and had no interest in my views. Of course, I know they had feelings equally as complicated, but most of them worked hard at not expressing them. With my new groups, it was a minefield of picking the right words and providing an education professional's response, rather than my own firmly held opinion. In response to one student asserting an extreme position on the subject of abortion, I gently suggested it was a difficult subject and women should do as they saw fit in their particular situation without feeling pressure. I did not express my own definite view.

One student insisted that, for women, education was just a way to kill time before having babies, with all offspring arriving by the age of 23. It would have been inappropriate to counter with anything that might insult her social or familial culture, so I took the "different strokes for different folks" line and prepared a class project entitled "Women who Changed the World".

The fence isn't a cosy seat when controversial subjects arise. Rather than telling a struggling teenager that she does not have to put up with the avalanche of garbage from boyfriends and friends, I have adhered to the response I know is professionally acceptable. My only comfort is the knowledge that my teenage self would not have welcomed intervention from a middle-aged, middle-class teacher who had never, ever been 16 years old.

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

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