If you want respect then wear a suit

22nd September 2006 at 01:00
The trouble with teaching is the holidays. It's great to have a long break, of course, but we all take our holidays at the same time and often in the same place. Queue up for a cafe and a baguette to while away the hours on the cross-channel ferry and total strangers will treat you to a complete review of all the summer's exam papers. "What on earth was question six about? My class didn't stand a chance with that one." At such moments I try to pretend I'm a journalist.

During the holiday, my family is forbidden from mentioning education. We stay in a comfortable old hotel which has been in the same family's hands for generations and serves traditional food, homely but palatable. On the next table sits a university lecturer. He is distinctly unimpressed with the limited choice, the style of cooking and the inflexibility of the menu, and he has no hesitation in letting the staff know, politely but firmly.

Even at breakfast, the guests around him have to listen to a lecture on nutritional science. But I like the food and I've taken a shine to the elderly waiter, who has probably been in the job for decades and whose main aim is for all his customers to be happy. Skirting wide of my neighbour's table, he glides towards me, murmuring, "Iss good?" "Iss very good" I reply with a Cheshire-cat smile, trying not to think about the cholesterol in the fricassee.

Holidays give us the chance for quiet reflection, and in the dining room I pondered this essential difference between teaching in higher and further education. On the one table was the university lecturer, applying critical faculties with academic rigour; on the next was the basic skills lecturer, on auto-pilot to praise every effort, even if the results were not quite cordon bleu. Perhaps there is a happy medium between these two styles, but I know who got the bigger slice of gateau.

But now it's September and the time for reflection is over. The washing has been done, the grass mowed, and the schemes of work sorted. I've been issued with my timetable and it's the usual mix of basic skills teaching and vocational support. I've been assigned to help in an IT class, where we've begun a unit on "digital devices". The students were supposed to bring in some pictures to scan into the computer, which they could then digitally manipulate.

Most of them have forgotten, but Sean offers to scan his bottom instead.

Jane is looking bedraggled, after accidentally setting light to a corner of her hair with a cigarette lighter. Sean offers to photograph her with his mobile phone, then digitally reinstate her singed locks - an offer robustly rejected because what he will actually do it transmit an unimproved picture to all his friends.

Sometimes I wonder whether we have the level of these courses right, as the students already seem to know much more about digital devices than some of the staff, especially me. But what do they do with this knowledge? They spend the next hour photographing each other, then add beards, horns and orange eyes to the images of their friends. My generation would have done that with felt pens, and got into trouble. They do it digitally and earn a pass grade for their assignment on "scanning in an image and digitally manipulating the content".

Leaving the class, I pick my way cautiously down the corridor. Our students choose to sit on the floor while they wait for lecturers to unlock classrooms. They sit with their legs straight out on both sides, leaving about 30cm of floor space to walk through. They move their feet only if they see a motorised wheelchair approaching, and only to safeguard their pristine trainers. I wonder what happened to Tony Blair's "Respect"


A couple of years ago, when I arrived in the basic skills department from a business background, it was politely suggested that I could drop the power dressing as some of my students might find it intimidating. I soon slipped into casual mode, and it wasn't long before I conformed to the stereotype of scruffy lecturer. But last week, I needed to go straight on to an important meeting in the evening, so I brushed off my suit and wore it to work. Naturally, colleagues assumed I was going to an interview, but even the students noticed and, out in the corridor, I was surprised to find they moved their feet to let me pass without being asked.

There's enough junk in my car already, but this weekend I shall sweep out the summer holiday detritus and boxes of coursework, and introduce a few jackets on hangers. If you want respect, you've got to earn it. So forget Asbos, wear suits.

Gill Moore is a basic skills lecturer

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