Achieving the family way

23rd September 2005 at 01:00
How did it come to this? Backchat is surely the preserve of college management - principals, inspectors, the movers and shakers. And here am I, a main grade, part-time, inexperienced lecturer in basic skills. Well, if they are the movers, I am one of the shakers. I represent the lecturers you pass in the corridor, half-hidden by a pile of folders, pockets bulging with board markers, Post-it notes and memory sticks. In my situation, with a little flutter round my heart, wondering how I am going to get through the next couple of hours.

Yes, managers talk the talk, but it's the lecturers who walk the walk. Not that there is anything wrong with polishing mission statements, counting funding units, and projecting the strategic vision. Someone's got to do it.

And although we may wonder what managers actually do (we never see them, do we?), most of them will be doing it for 18 hours a day.

You see, I used to be a manager myself in another environment. I wore the suits, read Harvard Business Review in my lunch break, practised the seven habits of effective people, engaged my emotional intelligence, and juggled the demand side with the supply side. Then one day I fell from grace clutching a redundancy letter, picked myself up and started again as a college lecturer. And the strangest thing happened: I found that all that management talk began to sound like a foreign language.

So here I am, back-chatting, gamekeeper-turned-poacher you might say, and that's what I'm going to chat about: talking the talk versus walking the walk. This week I'm going to look at progression routes and success criteria. Only I'm actually talking about Kellie and Steve and how they played happy families.

I first met Kellie a year ago, in a vocational class, where I was providing some basic skills support. Despite her difficulties with the written word, Kellie was spending a good deal of each lesson surreptitiously texting on her phone and sighing 'Ain't he lovely?' She had taken up with some student in another classroom not far away. I soon found out who it was. Every time I walked down a corridor, into the library or the canteen, I seemed to walk straight into Kellie, draped over Steve like a damp flag wrapped around a flagpole. Steve is a likeable young man, with few academic skills and not much idea about what to do with his life, but as a partnership it appeared to work. Kellie loved to swing between bossing him around and drooling over him, and both seemed to suit Steve who knew when to grin and when to duck.

One afternoon I had to drive over to the main campus from a community venue to cover for an absent colleague. This meant I missed my lunch and then had a frantic search for a parking spot. By the time I got through the main door, I was in no mood to be met by Steve with a silly grin on his face. 'I wasn't in college yesterday because I went to the clinic' he said. 'Don't ask what I went for.' I had no intention of asking, but it was clear he was going to tell me anyway. My heart sunk as I pondered the unwanted details he might be about to disclose, but it turned out he'd gone with Kellie to the ante-natal. At last Steve had scored a significant achievement in his life.

A few months later I came across Steve and Kellie in the corridor. Kellie was now convincingly pregnant and evidently finding it hard going. No lovey-dovey clinch this time: Steve was being buffeted down the corridor, like a flag slapped about by a full gale. One morning I saw him staggering through the door at nine o'clock looking very tired. 'I'm knackered' he groaned. 'I've been up all night'. 'Don't blame me if you're hung over' I said, never prepared to offer any sympathy to students who are the worse for wear. 'I'm not' he replied. 'The baby's arrived.'

Within a couple of weeks, Kellie and Steve showed up at college with this little floppy bundle. They were beaming, Kellie loving every minute of being the centre of attention, Steve hanging around the edge of the circle with that characteristic half-dazed and foolishly happy look that new dads have. They called the baby Rio. I don't know if that was after the footballer, the car in which perhaps the baby was conceived, or their dream honeymoon destination should they ever decide to get married. At least it's easy to spell.

Kellie came back to college to finish her course and Rio went into our creche. Steve left to get a job. The college had helped two students improve their prospects and supported them while they did it. Outcome: one happy family. It's a pity there isn't a way to show that kind of achievement and progression in our data collection.

Gill Moore is a basic skills lecturer

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