Kindred spirits console in virtual talking shop

16th February 2007 at 00:00

"i have had enough," declares Mrs Shakespeare, "of students, family life, etc." It is the dark days of December and Mrs S is just getting into her stride. "I can't believe it has got this bad. (I am) ready to pack up and never come back!"

It is just possible that Mrs Shakespeare is her real name. But when you look at those of her fellow correspondents - such as trampuscat, Pippylongstocking and parodoxicalgirly - it seems unlikely.

Whatever their real names though, these are the cyberspace warriors of further education, the inhabitants of that electronic shadow world that is the FE corner of the TES online message board Staffroom. While the rest of us unwind by hitting the bottle or slowly boring our partners to death, Mrs S and her gang are out there, at all hours of the day and night, communicating.

In this alternative universe, no one's pleas go unanswered. They might occasionally bitch a little, but first and foremost these are colleagues and offering a metaphorical shoulder to cry on is one of the things they are good at.

No one knows that better than Pete Keeffe, surely the big daddy of FE message posters. Since Staffroom started in its present form, he has posted more than 1,000 messages, one a day on average, though some days he confesses to sending in up to half a dozen.

Pete was quick off the mark when Mrs Shakespeare entered her plangent plea as the long winter term staggered to its close. "Cheer up Mrs S," he posted back, "it'll soon be Xmas, then as soon as you blink Easter, then the summer hols again. If there are only two good things remaining in FE teaching (and I reckon there are more) they must be July and August."

Unusually, Pete's online handle, petekeeffe, is his real name, something he puts down to his naivety. When he first registered for the Staffroom back in 2003, he says, "I thought you had to use your real name, so I just gave mine."

Pete lives in Blaby, near Leicester, where we meet to talk about his prolific writings online. Why does he do it? On one level it's simple, he says; work is just not what it used to be. Teachers in FE simply don't have time to talk.

"We don't have common rooms any more and our staffrooms are more like call centres, just places where you do data input. So it's nice to get online and have a professional discussion. It's great for sharing materials.

People are invariably very generous."

Pete works in teacher education and his postings reflect that. As well as consoling over winter woes, he is to be found issuing a string of advice on classroom practice, the worth of teaching qualifications, overcoming nervousness in the classroom and key skills integration, to name but a few topics.

Does he ever get involved in any of those abusive online squabbles? "No,"

he says, "I leave that to the schoolies. We don't sink to those levels on the FE site. OK, people might get a bit snippy sometimes, but usually because it's Friday and they're knackered."

And what about the charges of net nerd or Peter-no-mates that must inevitably come his way? Pete laughs these off. He admits there is an addictive element to it, but says he can go away on holiday and not miss it at all.

He claims to never bring work home, but has plenty of other things to keep him occupied, not least the unpaid hours he puts in helping his wife with her pet-minding business. "But the Staffroom is just such a good de-stresser," he says. "You can get home after a hard day and just go and frolic there for half an hour."

Pete also practises as a spiritualist and medium, having once trod the boards alongside the late psychic medium Doris Stokes in such places as the Catford Empire. He is not averse to mixing a little prophecy with his further education life. When I ask what the future might hold for colleges, he immediately switches to Old Moore's Almanack mode. "Watch and see," he says, "where I the Leitch report will be seen as a spiv's charter that I opened the gates to the privatisation of FE colleges."

Sadly, he cannot quite foresee a plague of locusts alighting on the Learning and Skills Council's Coventry base, but he can see hordes of over-ambitious college principals stalking the land in search of loot.

"Watch and see," he says again, "where principals begin to become consultants or advisers to large private training companies who are awash with venture capital from the City."

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