Away from the chalk-face, we wither on the vine

3rd November 2000 at 00:00
ONE of the most admired winemakers in France was describing his job recently. He spoke of the the new regulations governing the employment of casual workers and competition from the world's new wine-growing areas; he talked feelingly of high interest charges, and despaired at fluctuations in currency exchange rates. He barely mentioned grapes at all.

He did say, however, that when things looked really tough, he would go out into the fields, crumble some soil between his fingers, look up and down the ruler-straight rows, and nip off a leaf or two between finger and thumb, releasing the sharp, comforting smell of a healthy vine.

His way of getting back to basics, of prompting himself to remember what the job was all about, came to my mind as I did my small share of lesson observation recently. Just as all the issues the wine maker had to deal with every day were several stages removed from the core business of growing the best grapes, so too much of what I do takes me away from learners. And that's not what I came into education for. Going back into a workshop or a classroom is what I should do every week if not every day. To see the craft of teaching, shaped and illuminated by experience, is sheer pleasure, touched with real nostalgia.

As a matter of principle, I avoid looking at any classes where my own distant experience might colour my judgments. No agreement of the past participle for me these days, not a gerund in sight.

No, part of the pleasure comes from the fact that I am learning along with the students. In fact that's a key test. Since we observers are assessing not teaching but learning, measuring how much you yourself pick up is a good yardstick.

As a result of some delightful hours at the back of the class I now know a whole lot more about feet (reflexology), spindle-moulders (carpentry and joinery), and hydraulic braking systems (heavy goods vhicles) than is good for me, and probably more than I ever knew about past participles.

Being a student again helps me to understand what is really important. Is it the looming assessment, or the splinter in my bum, which comes from these old chairs which the college is too mean to replace? Is it that brand spanking new piece of equipment or the quality of the chat during the tea-break?

We all claim these days to be customer-focused, client-driven organisations, but all the student satisfaction surveys in the world can't tell me what it really feels like to be sitting in a classroom.

Talking to the students during the observation is a big part of the fun, too. Sometimes these are not the sort of upwardly-mobile students who turn up as members of the academic board, or who engage me in bright conversation about their GNVQ assignment.

They can display all the standard danger signals: number one haircuts, body-piercing, and tattoos, big time. They may well be not merely similar to the rough types whom I avoid on Saturday night pavements, but the rough types themselves, in person. So when their faces light up with pleasure when talking about their course, I listen. As I do when they to give me an earful about something they don't like.

When it's all over and I am back at the desk again, the shades of the prison house begin to close about me. It's not that the number of statistical returns, action plans and financial forecasts which need my close attention are particularly depressing. They go with the territory. It is the certainty that those who receive all this information, presumably read it, and then act upon it have only the vaguest idea that what a well-known Sunday newspaper calls "all human life" is represented there.

Could a visit to a convenient vineyard be arranged?

Michael Austin is principal of Accrington and Rossendale College

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