Very civil disobedience

3rd January 2014 at 00:00

I love being in the classroom, designing sessions and helping students to explore their potential; I even love the intricate dance of managing unpredictable behaviour. I think I'm occasionally quite good at it.

But I am not outstanding at all aspects of being a college lecturer. I've yet to meet a colleague who is sloppier at admin or stroppier when presented with ridiculous rules passed down by management.

A colleague at another college recently told me of how there are students in his classes who already have every qualification that his department is able to offer. He was forced to accommodate these young people without teaching them anything; they brought in work from other classes to complete.

It was destabilising for the group, causing an increase in behavioural issues and a loss of motivation in the aspiring learners, who saw that they'd still be required to attend even after passing the exam.

The grounds for this diktat? The students needed additional contact hours to make up their programme of study and the big boss said that this was the way to meet those requirements, quoting some invented government statistic.

It was only through concentration that I didn't emit a low growl. This scenario ticked all my rant boxes:

1. Despair at the lack of imaginative curriculum development: these students were having their time wasted and diverting attention from others in the class who needed some solid, uninterrupted learning.

2. Resentment that a senior member of staff would be patronising enough to fake governmental legislation to back up a convenient yet objectively stupid directive. The inference is that people at the bottom of the food chain don't understand or engage with policy.

3. Frustration at the way in which some staff do not always feel sufficiently empowered to challenge decisions. Do people feel so nervous for their job security that they submit to any old managerialist rubbish, for fear of an envelope on the doormat when the next round of redundancy letters go out? Clearly, yes. It's safer to plough on with an unhappy work life than potentially default on the mortgage.

Although I have respect for hierarchy, I do not feel constrained by it when confronted with bad decisions that have substantial negative effects. But questioning authority can present risks and doesn't always win approval.

In a staff meeting, a manager once hissed that my input was "above my pay scale". I asked for a raise. I'm not sure that was the expected response ...

Most college managers are rational people whose primary concern is offering the best opportunities to the students, while ensuring that their teaching staff are well supported. We're all aiming for the same goal. I understand that many managers feel the pressure from staff above and below their tier of the workforce.

Some polite insubordination, however, can offer them a fresh perspective when an occasional common-sense deficit occurs. Sometimes they might listen.

Sarah Simons works in a large further education college in Mansfield, England.

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