The Faint-hearted win through the tough times

24th November 2000 at 00:00
AT the start of the session, life seemed a breeze. There were 12-week schedules, lesson plans and class lists, filing cabinets full of crisp new handouts and brand-new leafy pot-plants to humidify the workroom.

Like the opening shots of a scary movie, this is reassuring. We convince ourselves it is normality. We never learn that it's only the lull before the storm, the trough before dramatic action peaks.

The secret to survival into block two is to go with the flow. To play your part in the movie, but not to ham it up. You play it cool. You need to practise an all-purpose facial expression we professionals call Non-Challenging Faint Enquiry.

You see, you can try too hard to be organised, to be a control freak, and you can forget that there are other people in this production. Going with the flow means accepting that, like politics, teaching is the art of the possible. Plan all you like, but remember you're dealing with human beings - complex, messy creatures who carry all sorts of baggage.

Expect the unexpected. That sudden twist in the plot. Your class may be working through what you thought was a fairly straightforward assessment. Anna at the back seems to be crying. You take her out into the corridor to tell her assessments are not worth breaking your heart over, and suddenly you're treated to a diatribe on her rat of a lad.

You listen, hand out tissues, and all the while you're thinking yes, that's all very well, but there's more to life than passion and tragedy, Anna. There are assessments to pass and deadlines to meet. An all-purpose look of Non-Challenging Faint Enquiry sees you through. Anna thinks you're kind and sympathetic; you've managed to persuade her to return to class to finish her assessment.

If you're not sure what part you're assigned to play, the NCFE look gives you time to think and stops you either putting your foot in it or losing your credibility. You want an example? Try this. Cue the creepy music.

You are sitting at your desk on the ninth floor by the window. You are used to the wide expanse of blue sky and the occasional pigeon strutting n the parapet. But today there is a knock on the window. A human knock. A man is outside, pressing against the glass and miming: "Phone the caretaker. I'm locked out here." You notice his breath is making steamy little circles on the glass.

You could scream, run away or call for your team leader, but that's not the kind of movie you've signed up for. So you turn to the window and adopt the NCFE look. Oscar-winning stuff. And no, I'm not going to explain how he got there, so there's no use your adopting that look because it doesn't work here. When I phoned Frank, our caretaker, and told him about the man, there was a long silence. I just knew he was practising NCFE, too.

The look is versatile for a good reason. You have to bear in mind that if it's not tragedy it might be farce. An interview with prospective new student Sarah should have been routine. However, she'd brought her four-year-old along because he'd been feeling poorly and she'd had to remove him from school. During our 10-minute chat, Jamie emptied the entire contents of Sarah's rucksack and spread them out on the floor, applied some lipstick to her cheeks, found a comb and very carefully combed her hair over her eyes. Then, satisfied she was looking fine, he squeezed on to her chair and decided it was his turn to star.

Jamie: "I'm wearing a vest."


Jamie: (with a huge effort, and much wriggling, tweaking out copious amounts of white cotton from under his school shirt) "See?"

All the planning and all the paperwork in the world will never prepare you for the performance. For the performance you need a sense of humour, a delight in the unexpected and you need to practise NCFE till you're perfect.

Schedules, neat filing cabinets and leafy green plants are just further education's version of a security blanket. We all know, however, that chaos is always just around the corner. An assistant principal visited the workroom today. "Your plants have succumbed to whitefly," she said.

It figures. Cue that creepy music.

Dr Carol Gow is a lecturer in mediacommunication at Dundee College

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