4th February 2000 at 00:00
Mike Austin, agony uncle, answers your queries

Go blow your horn

Q I have received a memo instructing me to release all my classes during the visit of a distinguished lecturer. The memo says the content will be useful in preparing the students for the general studies examination. My difficulty is that the speaker is a notorious supporter of blood sports, to which I am passionately opposed. He is supposedly talking about something entirely different, but I feel I want to register my protest. Should I keep my students away as a gesture?

A No. Don't ever use students as weapons in a personal campaign. They might prefer to miss one of your lessons anyway, if they had the chance to listen to a well-known suit - even a loopy one. If you want to make a gesture, make sure it fits with the college's policy on free speech, which will no doubt give the distinguished guest the right to a hearing anyway. Does the policy have any restrictions on blowing hunting horns outside the lecture hall? What does it say about releasing live hares?

* Passions over keyboards Q What are the rules about having an affair with a mature student?

A First, it's not compulsory: there are other ways of improving retention. Second, don't do anything that would frighten the horses in the street - the other students won't want to have to look away during lesson time. Third, make sure that your line manager knows what's happening. Fourth, relax: it's happening all the time. Passions are frequently aroused over keyboards. Some students, familiar with 'Educating Rita', come to college specifically to change their lives in many ways, including amorous ones. And then there are all those staff who have recruited close friends to make up the numbers in a class on the edge of closure. Mind you, a relationship that can survive an integrated assignment and a student feedback questionnaire has a lot going for it.

* A choice of jobs

Q Following a restructure, I was offered two jobs in the new management team. Both sounded good. One was concerned with staff development and the other with external funding. After a lot of thought, I plumped for funding. My principal looked surprised and asked why I was not interested in staff development. Now I'm afraid I have made the wrong choice. What do you think?

A You have been caught in the lemon sponge trap. It works like this: you are invited o dinner and the hostess offers a choice of two puddings. She stares at you and asks: "Treacle tart or lemon sponge?" If you opt for the sponge she says: "What's wrong with the tart?" If you pick tart, she demands: "What's wrong with the sponge?" There is, of course, no right answer. Some would say you were lucky to be offered a choice; others would say that if you can't make up your mind, you don't deserve either of them. What do you want to do next? Does either job offer an obvious stepping stone? Do you want to work with people or money? Do you prefer Fento to Leonardo? What you presumably can't do is what clever people do when faced by the hostess with a piercing gaze: have a bit of both.

* Look, no problems

Q I have been reading this page for some months now, and I am beginning to think that I am missing something. All these people writing in with anxieties, and I don't have anything to worry about: I like my job, my immediate boss is OK, and I enjoy reading FEFC circulars. Do I need help?

A No, you're OK. There are a lot of people just like you. It's just not cool to admit to enjoying work in FE. Whereas it used to be thought exciting, it's now stressful; where once it was challenging, it's now bureaucratic, and so on. The mood will change again soon. That bit about circulars is a worry though: are you sure you are reading them and not just looking at the pretty pictures?

* Salon directives

Q After 10 years in salons, I began as a lecturer in hairdressing and I am now in charge of the section. Am I supposed to be teaching students or making money? My bosses set me ever tougher financial targets. My students say they are unpaid labour. When I complain, I am told that the salons must be "real" and earn money, otherwise the students will have a false idea about the job.

A Nobody ever got to be a lion-tamer by practising with domesticated moggies. You have to do it to be able to do it. It's a matter of how much, how fast. We are here to help people to learn. That includes, for your students, learning about how businesses work, and doing it. Don't try to perpetuate the myth that education is not part of "real life". It is, as you now know.

* PS

Dear Anxious (and anonymous) of Sutton Coldfield. The only advice I can give you is to swallow hard and pay up, in that order. And in future, better not to use college notepaper.

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