Flower lady's Tarantino turn

14th November 2003 at 00:00
What do teachers dream about? The same as everyone else, you might think, but do they? At the very least don't the particular anxieties of our trade bring with them certain little "extras" in the nightmare department?

Take that most common of dreams, the one where you're in free-fall down the deepest hole you can imagine. FE teachers in particular are susceptible to this, as it's such a good metaphor for what has happened to our pay. In our case, of course, we have the added annoyance of noticing, as we plummet towards our doom, that the schoolteachers are all floating up the other way.

And I don't know about you, but in my version the schoolies always seem to be waving as they pass, and when I look more closely their signals only ever involve two of the five fingers theoretically available for the operation.

Then there's the underwear dream. The routine here is that everyone else is in clothes, but you, for some unknown reason, are out and about (possibly in more senses than one!) dressed only in Marks and Sparks' finest.

OK, so people in other walks of life dream this too, but none is likely to suffer quite such excruciating humiliation as the teachers. They, after all, do it in front of an audience.

I'm not sure why this should be, but for some reason red-blooded GNVQ intermediate students, just don't seem capable of tact when faced with a semi-naked lecturer. Don't they realise that phrases like "wrinkly prat" and "flabby wanker" don't do anything for the confidence of a middle-aged man in Y-fronts?

The really definitive "teachers' nightmare", however, just has to be the lateness dream. To get the measure of this one, just imagine John Cleese in Clockwise and then double it.

It goes like this. You are late for work. Not by much to start with, but still late. Your class awaits you. But although you don't know why, you somehow can't get to them. More time passes. Thus you are later still. You know the class will be getting restless by now. Still you can't do anything about it. When you try to move it's like wading through treacle or reading a Learning and Skills Council funding document: two steps back for every one forward.

The weird thing about this particular scenario, however, is that in the waking world - in real life that is - it's actually the other way around: you are the poor sap kept waiting while the students roll in as they please. The only difference is that they don't have nightmares about it.

Dreams aside, I seem to have been battling against the lateness problem for the whole of my FE working life. And I have to admit that as a contest it is no contest. Having tried all the variables several times over, I've still got no real idea as to how to defeat it.

Sometimes I wonder if it isn't a particularly London thing. When I first arrived in the capital, back in the 1970s after working for some years in Yorkshire, it took me a while to plug in to how approximate London start times can be. And it's true, the commuter trains really are unreliable, tubes overcrowded and the roads just one accident short of gridlock.

But then you can't help noticing too that it's often those who live the closest to the college who are the worst offenders. It's not so much lateness, as a culture of lateness. And while any one particular measure might improve things for a short period of time, those old habits inevitably start creeping back in, till suddenly it's just as bad as ever.

These days college inspectors have a nice line on student lateness: they expect to see it "challenged". Interesting word that - particularly if you're partial to fist fights. But no doubt our friends in Ofsted and Adult Learning Inspectorate would argue that the term is open to interpretation.

One story I particularly like in this context is that of the elderly woman (I'd call her a "little old lady'" if that didn't manage to sound both sexist and ageist in one) teaching flower arranging in her local church hall. She is horrified to be told that as part of the local adult provision, she is as likely to be inspected as anyone else. Even worse, though she's never done anything so confrontational in her life before, she too is expected to "challenge" lateness wherever and whenever it rears its genteel head.

The night of the next class arrives and with it her worst nightmare. There in the front row, clipboard at the ready, is the ALI inspector.

Twenty minutes into the class and the vicar's wife attempts to slip in unnoticed at the back. Undaunted, our instructor in the floral arts leaps to her feet, stalks over to Mrs Vicar, pushes her face up close and demands: "Where the fuck do you think you've been?"

Stephen Jones lectures in art at a college in south London

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