Another View - Winter of discontent adds student wobbles to new-year squabbles

5th February 2010 at 00:00
Comment: Stephen Jones

Now is the winter of our discontent. In Shakespeare's original, of course, things turn instantly summer-like courtesy of "this sun of York". Sadly, our deep midwinter has no Yorkish sunshine to come to the rescue.

Psychologists tell us that the end of Januarystart of February is, indeed, the pits, the lowest of the low, the gloomiest few weeks of the year. Christmas is long gone and only the bills remain. The nights might be getting shorter, but it doesn't look that way when you get up and go to bed in the dark.

If you work in an FE college you don't need either Shakespeare or a psychologist to tell you that this is the time when things can start to unravel. You have your students to do it for you. There is something about the rhythm of a one-year course that makes the start of what is optimistically called the spring term such a crunch period.

This year is no exception. When they are wobbling, students behave in different ways. A few confront it head-on, talk it through with you and - with an extension here and an encouraging word there - are back on track.

But such straightforward souls are in a minority. Others prefer to play games. My favourite is: I am no longer coming to college. Instead, I am sitting at home and waiting for you to do something. If you call, beg and plead a little, I may think about coming back. If you don't call, I will wait another month then blithely reappear as if nothing has happened, pausing only to ask: "Have I missed anything?" I have already encountered a couple of these. And yes, I did call and beg.

Another student, whose blushes we will hide behind the name of "Jackie", worked out her own variation on the theme. Just before the Christmas holiday I sat down with Jackie (in my own time, naturally, as she couldn't make the timetabled tutorial) and discussed her difficulties. Jackie is bright and likeable but has the organisational skills of a daffodil. Together we worked out a recovery plan. This involved her doing some work to try to catch up over the holidays, but not so much as to swamp her.

January arrived, but Jackie didn't. When I called I found her phone was switched off. Then a note appeared. It said: "I am in reception. They won't let me in because my child is with me. Can you come down please?" It was dated two days earlier.

Eventually, three weeks into the term, we managed to meet up. Jackie had decided to leave. Christmas was a disaster, she said. I didn't have the heart to ask for the details. And anyway, did I really want to hear them?

As for the rest - those that don't drop out - there is still something strange and foreboding in the post-Christmas air. Walking past a classroom as a lesson was ending the other day, one of the students spied me through the window.

Immediately he ran out, gripped me by the arm and peered meaningfully into my eyes. "Do you mind if I bless you?" he asked. Before I could tell him that I wasn't really fussed, he had done it, in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord, who died to save us all.

Even inside my own classroom I'm not safe from the prevailing air of doom. I notice two students discussing the end of the world, which it appears is imminent. I point out that the four horsemen of the apocalypse are not actually on the syllabus this year, but to little effect. "I've seen the film 2012 and it's awesome," one says.

"Yes," say I, ever the bastion of reason, "but that doesn't mean it's true. I've seen Lord of the Rings but I'm not forced to believe hobbits exist and Sir Ian McKellen can save the world before breakfast am I?"

But it makes no difference. Nothing does. When it comes down to it, there is only one antidote to our collective seasonal affective disorder: the realisation that, by the time you read this, half-term will only be a week away.

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