Nothing is forgotten with a Book of Shame

5th September 2014 at 01:00
Some problems cannot be resolved during the hurly-burly of term, but make a note and you can solve them when the dust settles

College life has its ebbs and flows but, as a rule, once the academic year kicks off, you're pretty much guaranteed to be hurtling around like a meteorite with legs until you come crashing into the first break. Before you know it, you're scrabbling out of the impact crater and off again, barely giving the dust time to settle.

So how do you make sure that you get off to a good start, considering that dealing with the day-to-day demands of the job can be a gargantuan task in itself, let alone trying to manage some of the issues that may rear their ugly heads as the year progresses?

Looking at the long-term picture is one way to relieve the pressure. Instead of seeing the academic year in isolation, it helps to view it as part of a continuum; as one year among many. The cold, hard truth of things is that sometimes you have to put up with small imperfections simply because you don't have the time to fix them there and then. Yes, it might feel as if you're running with a stone in your shoe, but stopping to shake it out could mean losing the race. You can't change everything but you can identify the problems you come across, make a note of them and resolve to do something about them when you have a chance to pause and take a breath.

With this in mind, I keep what I call "The Book of Shame". Don't worry, the title isn't a reference to the shame you're supposed to feel about not sorting every little thing out immediately (we teachers have far too much of a guilt complex as it is). It's more along the lines of: "It's a shame I haven't got a chance to deal with this now; I'll make sure I have a think about it when I do get the chance."

In this book, I note the niggles that crop up during the year which make my working life harder: an unnecessarily complicated exam entry process, say, or students continually losing work because of unreliable internet access. Or perhaps it's that the lessons of a notoriously slack group have been scheduled at the end of the day with little chance of them turning up. It all goes in the book.

Delayed gratification

Identifying a problem is the starting point, even if you have no chance of fixing it immediately. This requires a tolerance for delayed gratification and a certain amount of detachment. You will get better at this after you have been in the job for a few years, as you become accustomed to the cyclical nature of teaching. But whether you are a newbie or an old hand, keeping a record is extremely useful for a number of reasons.

First, the physical act of recording the problem helps to clarify it and its underlying causes. This can help you to decide whether it is something that should be dealt with or something that you have absolutely no control over (if it is the latter, you are just going to have to lump it, however galling that may seem).

Second, it helps you to remember. It is very easy, as we get on with the job, for a problem to be quickly accepted, normalised and forgotten, only for it to pop up again in exactly the same circumstances the next year.

The long game

As the year winds down, courses finish and, if you are lucky, you find yourself with a slightly less manic timetable. That's when The Book of Shame can be examined, the problems ruminated on and attempts made to solve them - or at least discussed with someone who has the power to make a change.

To be a good practitioner who tries to improve is a long-term goal, not something that can be achieved by a week on Tuesday. Being aware of the difficulties you have faced, considering possible solutions and trying to overcome them when there is sufficient time to do so is a solid strategy to avoid dooming yourself to repeat mistakes annually. It gives you a free run at the start, which will set the tone for a great year.

Thomas Starkey is a functional skills tutor at Leeds City College. This essay appears in The UKFEchat Guide: Getting off to a good start

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