Fasten your seat belts to sit out the early-term blues

4th October 1996 at 01:00
The new chairs in our workroom are high-backed, well-padded and deep blue. You can swivel round, rock to and forth or shoot up and down. And we did; like kids at a carnival we twirled and birled and Lisa said it was like being on the waltzers. There was a long-running "What do you do in yours" competition. Four weeks into teaching we're realising why we've been issued with them.

It's the time of year when you hold earnest conversations with your reflection in the morning mirror. You stare at the strained face gazing accusingly at you who asks: "Look, why are you doing this? There must be easier ways to earn a living. I'm exhausted and it's only four weeks into the block." You squeeze toothpaste on to your brush and you stare back reasonably. "It'll get easier. The first few weeks are always like this."

The reflection is unappeased and sulks. "What about the class who all suffer from BO? What about Mary, who can't spell and expects to get her advanced communication 1? And isn't 'Hey Missus' a bit too informal even if we don't go in for power structures? Why are you doing this?" You practise a smile. "Look, you've got the can of Summer Haze you borrowed from the cleaner's cupboard. Give the room a quick blast before the fragrant class comes in. Learning support will just have to perform another miracle with Mary, and Brian's just got poor inter-personal skills. And I'm too busy to discuss this right now."

The demands made on further education lecturers are severe, especially in a servicing section. You may have your own specialist areas to teach as well as general areas across a wide range of levels, abilities and client groups.

With one class you can be discussing the difference between the tabloid description of the BSE cull as "pressing the self-destruct button" and the broadsheet's more chilling officialese of "a programme of elimination", and with the next class find yourself introducing your own programme of elimination against the tendency to write "could of" for "could have"; your student may be 16, all bubble gum and lipstick, whose coping strategy for feeling threatened is to blow bubbles in your face and look catatonic, or you'll find yourself teaching post-grad or retired professionals who feel every bit as threatened but just disguise it better.

If it is tough on lecturers it is no picnic for our customers, either. For full-time students, there is not just the pressure of course assessments or gaining a certificate but also of how you keep body and soul together. The race is on for part-time jobs which fit round timetables. Or there is debt, an early session. Laura is bright, bubbly and fresh from school. She was late for class not because she was chatting to her mates at lunchtime but because she had been trying to make an appointment to arrange an overdraft. "I had to stand in a queue for ages, just to make an appointment," she wailed.

Donna is a single parent who failed to complete a full-time course last year and is trying again. Everything went wrong, she said, and then her house was flooded by burst pipes. In officialese she gave up her course last year because of "personal reasons". Hides the heartbreak nicely.

It is a measure of the success of FE that students often stay in touch after they leave us. Sometimes they come back; Peter is completing his degree in communication at a university and has applied to do a postgraduate course back here with us, and one of my very first students in FE is now working alongside me as a part-time lecturer.

It is nice when students stay in touch. It is nice when they appreciate what FE has done for them. But it is much better that they should take the quality we offer them for granted, that they should perceive the education, training and support they receive as their right. In the six years I've been in FE I cannot believe that the contribution made by the sector is still undervalued and underfunded and that the remarkable work goes on a day-to-day basis operates like a best-kept secret.

I cannot believe it, but I can understand it. The sector has always loved jargon but we are flirting dangerously with a business discourse which obliterates the human face from what we do. It is easier to make harsh decisions about funding when you are dealing with SUMS - student unit of measurement - not people, and to undervalue lecturers because they are "facilitators" who turn up for "operational commitments". The truth is we teach people as individuals, not classes, and that will always be expensive not just in financial terms but in terms of the demands on staff.

However I remain optimistic, believing my nice new chair is expressive of the esteem in which I am held - it is a symbol of growing confidence in sector which will no longer be undervalued. "Oh yeah?" says my alter ego in the mirror. "I think it means a bumpy ride ahead. Just you wait and see. Seat belts will be fitted next week."

Carol Gow Dr Carol Gow is a lecturer in mediacommunication at Dundee College

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