Perfect pairings are like lost and found parrots

21st May 2004 at 01:00
The ads were paired in my local paper's classified section: "Lost - blue and yellow McCaw; Found - blue and yellow McCaw". A pleasing, mini story of escape, danger, rescue and resolution, with all the messy detail cut out.

Later that morning, interviewing prospective students, I was struck by how well-matched each applicant was for the course. Right student. Right course. A perfect pairing. Another student twirls through our revolving doors with a shiny certificate of competence. Another pleasing mini-story, then. Well no, not always. There's the messy detail to add before the happy ending.

People have always looked to stories to put a frame round the chaos and the unpredictability of real life. What we still crave, grown up though we may be, is the plump fairy godmother who appears with her wand to sort everybody out, a deus ex machina solution that gives us a quick, happy ending. Now we seem to crave that in real life, too.

Gordon Ramsay or Tony Buzan might look rather odd in tutu and white tights, but their reality television shows place them in the role of fairy godmothers who, with one shake of the wand, can turn losers into winners, rookies into experts. With the messy detail cut out, it takes around half an hour. Can't whiz up a souffle? In 30 minutes you'll be a top chef.

The edited highlights of these programmes cut the effort, the application, the hard work. And why not? We want television to be exciting. The trouble comes when we expect life should be just like that.

When you snap students into places on your courses, snug as a parrot lost, parrot found story, you are always aware that some time during the year the fit may go awry and you will have to make some adjustments. The messy bits will have to be accommodated; not just getting through the hard slog, but the need to work part-time, relationship problems, crises in confidence, illness. A year is a long time and lots of things change.

As a college, we do our best to be flexible. We have support mechanisms in place for learners who need them, whether their problems are acute, or minor irritations that need to be fixed. Sometimes it's simply down to the class lecturer. You are sometimes facilitator and sometimes a shoulder to cry on.

Today I had a long phone call from a learner who has been off ill for some time, but just wanted to say hello, and who sounded a bit down. Who needs a tea break, anyway? I also e-mailed another learner who has had to go back home to Africa for several weeks. She wants to keep up with class work.

Here's your homework, Eva, Africa is no excuse.

Our rewards are sometimes less spectacular than we have become accustomed to seeing in makeover television shows. But the results are less transient.

When students say, "I can't believe I did it, and all by myself", they perhaps ignore the sometimes superhuman effort put in by college staff; but it's a healthy attitude that bodes well. When Gordon Ramsay exits the kitchen stage left, you get the feeling that souffles will once again sink in the middle.

College life is more real life than makeover television but since, like me, you are probably a sucker for happy endings, the parrot lost, parrot found version of a lecturer's day goes like this: went to college, instantly transformed several learners' lives, went to bed tired but very rich.

Yeah, right.

Dr Carol Gow lectures in media at Dundee College.

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