First encounters

12th May 2000 at 01:00
Pam Jarvis on cold noses and warm hearts

Ilove my dog. Of all other objects of attachment in the life of a teacher of adults, a dog is the most important for mental health.

From time to time I have discussed this with colleagues. The dog owners agree with me, while the "no pets allowed" brigade think that in my house the owner is more barking than the dog. And yes, I've even had a philosophical discussion, psychology tutor to biology tutor, about whether a dog is capable of love. (I felt psychology won on points, by bringing in the question of what "love" is in the human mind, never mind the animal.) So why is doggy devotion so essential to teachers of adults? Simple - a dog forms a bond with you and loves you forever, whatever head you have on that day. Even if you push it off your lap with a sharp remark that you don't feel like being covered in hair and slobber at that moment, it comes back with a friendly look in its eyes to try again half an hour later, bearing no grudges.

However, what your learners require from you is much, much more complex. Teachers of adults can teach anybody aged between 16 and 80 (my oldest student so far was 73, on a community introduction to psychology). Students can come from any background, from manor house to squat, and with any eventual learning goal, from having a pleasant morning away from the usual four walls to gaining the skills to break out of a dead-end job, or no job at all, and begin a whole new career.

Teach in FE and you'll find out what "schizo" really means. Mature students tend to want you to be learned and wise - a "message from the ivory tower" makes them feel they've had their money's worth. If some of the students are doing the class mainly for leisure, they also want a larger touch of humanity maybe a little bit of discussion about your home life.

On the other hand, 16 to 19s want friendliness, approachability and, although they might strenuously deny it, a clear boundary line beyond which they do not go, lest their friendly lecturer turns into a schoolteacher pumpkin. Of course, you then have to throw in a large peppering of individual difference (never judge a book by its cover), gather your books, handouts, OHPs and lesson plans together and spend six to eight hours (longer if you've got an evening class) being a sort of revolving fairy godparent - and, don't forget, in the social sciences, super politically correct.

And then, of course, there's the home life, which for me, means three teenagers, including a Year 11 considering her sixth-form options. "I think you might be better on a GNVQ than an NVQ, given that this is the first year of Qualifications 2000."

"Uh?" "Well things are sort of changing in FE, you see..."

"Mum, you're not at work now. Can't you just be a parent like everyone else's mum? And don't go on like a teacher when you come to the parents' evening. My mates might hear."

"But..." (automated search for parent head... breakdown! role conflict...) My daughter wanders off with Your Choices for Sixth Form into the more homely surroundings of fungus-growing coffee cups in her bedroom. I pick up my current MEd work. I feel a cold nose on my hand. "Hello, girl. Did you know there is a certain way of interacting called 'teacherly style' that..."

Intelligent and interested brown eyes gaze back into mine. The role jukebox slows and then stops. A warm, furry body cuddles up to my feet. I love my dog.

Pam Jarvis completed her PGCE last year. She now teaches at Barnsley college and the Open University

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