Which witch will you play today?

3rd July 1998 at 01:00
Two weeks of non-teaching. Every year as we hurtle towards the end of the session they lie ahead like a shimmering oasis. Two whole weeks when there will be time to organise, plan, prepare and refresh our souls. In the workroom vows are made. Childish, impossible words like never and ever and always are bandied about, as we rehearse our story of how perfect things are going to be next time. In these two weeks miracles will be performed - teaching materials and assessment plans made in heaven.

You never learn, of course. Can you really fit in the Internet, health and safety awareness raising and Higher Still? Can you drop everything and do some interviewing? Is the document ready for our new course validation session? Meetings run into other meetings. The phone rings constantly. Lunchtimes come and go. Do I dare to eat a peach? I have one bite and I am called away again, leaving the fruit forsaken on my desk as my lift descends nine floors.

The lift squeals to a halt and I notice the hand written message on the wall. Do not use this lift.

I shrug. You get used to living dangerously in a servicing section. But you do teach on a fascinating range of courses and meet a huge variety of students. Or at least that's what they always tell you. A few years down the line someone will say cheerily: "H! Remember me? You taught me media studies! It was my favourite class." Yes I do remember and it was public relations not media studies.

Two incidents this week made me realise how often you become a character in a student's personal history with the facts altered to fit. And you're just as likely to be the wicked witch as the fairy godmother.

Sometimes the myth you're woven into is pure pink Barbara Cartland. Parents of Trudy, a former student, were seated next to me at a wedding. Trudy was also getting married, they told me. If she hadn't achieved her Communication 4 she would never have progressed to her advanced course, done her work experience in a leisure hotel in Greece, met the owner's son.

Then there's the Wicked Witch of the West. Invited to a course team meeting, I was introduced to the student rep who said he'd done a National Certificate in electronic engineering four years ago and I'd been the Communication 3 lecturer. Cue for smiles all round and an isn't-it-a-small-worlding. Later, during his feedback report, he asked for tighter discipline all round. Some people missed deadlines, he complained, and nothing very much happened. "When I was in your class," he said, suddenly turning to me, "it was a really strict regime. Cut and dried. We knew we had to get the work done. We got three attempts and if we didn't make it, that was it." He didn't do the cutthroat mime, but it was heavily implied.

Could it have been so? I don't think so. I suspect he was looking back at the good old days when he was 17, the lecturer did most of the worrying for him and no one expected him to work outside class. At the end of his HND year, with an unconditional place on a third year degree course waiting for him, the emphasis had shifted considerably.

Yet his concerns are valid, and shared by many of my colleagues. Many students who work very hard resent those who coast along.

"There's me," Jamie said. "I'm maybe going home because I've got work to do for tomorrow. And then there's a couple of the guys going out to a club because they know nothing's going to happen to them if they don't submit on time. And they get through just the same."

The emphasis in further education is on allowing the learner every possible chance to succeed and giving as much time as college resources allow. While that is a fine aim, it means there are few effective sanctions on the ones who learn to play the system and finally achieve certification. I told Jamie the qualities someone like him demonstrates in course work will show up in references. He wasn't having it. I was his Wicked Witch of the West.

Which witch you play depends on the class you're teaching. On Friday mornings I take a group of retired people. Their enthusiasm for discussion means that whether we have a break or not depends on how high the risk is of their coming to blows. If things get too heated we stop for coffee.

Many have been attending for three years. They are huge fun and totally outrageous. Their final class spilled into the non-teaching weeks. Sarah, a retired primary teacher who propels her electric wheelchair with terrifying speed, took a notion to illustrate a point on local history by bursting into a song about a Dundee worthy. She sang it twice - "and that's without a glass of wine".

Mary, who's a newcomer to the group, looked bemused. "Are all your classes like this?" she asked. I suppose it depends on who's writing the script.

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

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