It's nearly five years since I started working in FE. On my first day at a college, a stolen car was chased through the car park at speed by police vans. Staff were warned to get back in their vehicles as the dogs were released in pursuit of disembarking young passengers.
In retrospect, I'm surprised I went back the next day. I've come a long way from those first terrifying months when my classes, seen from the outside, looked like the opening shots of a Panorama episode demonstrating the horror of today's youth. The students weren't the problem, my inexperience was.
I know I still have a lot to learn in order to improve, and I hope I'll feel the same commitment to developing my skills 20 years down the line.
But I haven't been attracted to gaining a full-time position in any one place, having always enjoyed the variety of working in a number of areas within the sector. For me, having time to pursue my profession far outweighs any gripes that come with being freelance. Working across a number of settings means exposure to a range of learner cohorts, methods of practice and organisational strategies, making it almost impossible to become infected by boredom or, worse, cynicism.
For some education professionals, descending into a state of institutionalisation is an accidental confusion of loyalty with insularity. It is burrowing, settling or, God forbid, slouching into a role so deeply that the outside world becomes an irrelevant place. This is a dangerous attitude. It does not provide a fertile ground for innovation or creativity, nor produce a respectful questioning of hierarchy. It rolls out an army of once-curious teachbots. With Stockholm syndrome.
In my first year on the job, I had a colleague whose Stepford-like response every time I tried a new strategy to engage a group or created a resource to share with the team was: "Research shows that teachers do the best work of their careers in the first two years of their professional lives." On reflection, not the most encouraging comment. The patronising acceptance that enthusiasm is short-lived concerned me. Would I one day hear a dull klaxon to alert me that my best days were in the past?
A key function of FE is to prepare young people for a world outside education. If staff boundaries of interest and investigation are aligned with those of the campus, how can that essential purpose of the sector be effectively delivered?
Happily, there is much evidence to prove that a jaded attitude doesn't develop in direct proportion to length of time in the job. I have a friend who has worked in FE for more than three decades, and at the same college for two of them. With retirement on the horizon, she still finds working with young people, often at the more challenging end of the behavioural spectrum, invigorating.
I have searched out colleagues with a similar enquiring perspective and I'm fortunate to be in discussion with a growing Twitter network of FE professionals at every stage of their careers. What all these friends have in common is the belief that learning and improvement isn't a journey to be completed. They know their best days are yet to come.
Sarah Simons works in a large FE college in Mansfield.