When the going gets tough, keep on taking the jelly beans

10th October 1997 at 01:00
There is a buzz around college just now and as the pace intensifies it is encouraging the braggadocio in all of us. As I hesitated in the car park, taking a last, long lingering look at a clear blue sky, a colleague rushed past. "Get your washing hung out?" she shouted at me. Skilled in this game and sensing a bluff at five past eight, I declined answering, and countered with: "Did you?" "Oh yes", she said. "And dried."

Some have rejected the John Wayne stance and have resorted to an ironic response, pinning up notices of the "you don't have to be mad to work here but it helps" type. Others are buying executive decision-making toys, and some are flaunting boxes of jelly beans labelled stress relievers. Most of us just take a deep breath and dig into our reserves.

The pressure is bound to increase now that it has been proved lecturers really matter. Recent research into drop-out rates in FE has suggested that students leave courses because of the attitudes and teaching of college staff. Surprisingly, the findings are controversial: in the past, colleges have nursed the belief that the factors which prompt a student to fling the FE rucksack off the shoulder and abandon the cosy world of continuous assessment were out of our control. There were personal reasons, financial reasons, for abandoning the course, and not a lot we could do about them. These assumptions ignored the fact that while such factors could lead to non-completion for one student, another student could face similar problems but see the course through.

For practising lecturers, the notion that we have a direct effect on whether a vulnerable student withdraws or continues to attend class is hardly controversial. It is that knowledge which can keep you awake at night wondering how best to deal with a student you sense is having problems.

It is easy to assume that an adult learner has more coping strategies than a school pupil. An unhelpful teacher in the schoolroom can cause real problems, but an older student can handle it, surely? There is a tendency to assume that once you reach adult status, you can deal with the nutter who teaches you "report writing or editing and proof reading".

It may be true that adults can cope better but many of our students are taking a second chance at education having had problems first time round. Many come with preconceived notions of the power structures in an educational institution, and however hard we try to eliminate them our students will often unconsciously build them up again in day-to-day interaction. For these students, poor teaching will ensure failure and withdrawal.

Students in FE are a needy bunch. Creating an environment in which they can succeed, is a process that has to be worked through not just in the way you manage your classes or structure your assessments but on the hoof, intuitively.

This week, Myra, one of our lecturers, was discussing leadership styles with our Higher National Diploma students. In stage whispers, they attempted to put a lecturer's name to the different styles discussed. To our honour and shame, they managed to fit a name to each style - and some of those styles just don't sit easily with the ethos of teaching adults.

Finding the right way to manage classes isn't easy and life has never been more difficult for the lecturer in further education. Classes are larger, timetables fuller and change appears to be the status quo. You have a great deal of work at the beginning of each session gently moulding your classes. You persuade them that you do, in fact, intend them to start work at nine. You try a little humour with those who are not just late, but intend to absent themselves completely. David announces he won't be around for the class's first assessment because he will be on holiday in Tenerife. "Can't you write it up lying on the beach"? says the flexible, friendly lecturer who retains a sense of what it is to be young and foolish. The suggestion, taken seriously, horrifies him. "I'm going to be blind drunk all the time," he confesses. Lecturing is hard work, but it is also the best of fun.

As lecturers, we are well aware of how much we can influence drop-out rates. We know that the difference between the student who has personal problems and jacks in a course, and the student who has a similar set of problems but sees it through, very often comes down to the quality of the interaction with teaching staff.

It is not just drop-out rates we influence. We create brand loyalty, too. This week, the shy blonde student in the front seat grinned at me and confided: "You taught my mum." No, I am not that old. Her mum was a student four years ago. Later I bumped into a former day-release student. He had encouraged his daughter to enrol on a full-time course. She was really enjoying it, he said, and was doing an awful lot better than she had anticipated. "I knew the college would build up her confidence," he said. "It did for me."

So as lecturers we have always known our value. Nobody said the job was easy. I suppose there is a bit of the horse whisperer in the further education lecturer. Do the job well, and it looks like there is a bit of magic involved. Do the job badly, and somewhere along the line a student gives up on a course and feels like a failure.

That is quite a responsibility. A friend, who recently began part-time work in another college, found it just too much and decided to give up lecturing after only six months. The rest of us? We keep taking the jelly beans.

Dr Carol Gow is a lecturer in mediacommunication at Dundee College.

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