Who's more scared of whom?

31st August 2007 at 01:00
The Return of The Students now there's a scary movie title. At least it is for the lecturers facing a new invasion. "Step into the unknown... Face the stuff of nightmares... " Oh well, you know how the sneering, gravelly voiceover goes.

Is there a lecturer alive who can testify to sleeping soundly the night before classes begin? On a continuum ranging from mild anxiety to sheer terror, I'd guess most of us lie awake fluctuating wildly up and down.

As the hour approaches, desperate escape plans are mooted in workrooms; working in industry where you'd be a star, winning the lottery or "my parents are filthy rich and may die soon". Me? I can't get that joke out of my head, the one with the punchline: "You have to go to school: you're the headmaster."

We lecturers know that it doesn't matter how much you have in the way of techie stuff or glam surroundings or how good your ad campaign is it's the lecturer who matters. Sure, you've got to know your stuff, but you've also got to connect with your students and be absolutely brilliant. No class is ever the same (and, in FE, no timetable is ever the same), so it's always just you, up there on the high wire without a net.

So why do we do it? Teaching is probably bad for your health, probably as bad as stand-up comedy. Comedian Stephen Grant admits to having had three stomach ulcers during his career, and Frank Skinner has noted that, when a gig goes well, his heart rate is raised significantly. When a gig goes badly, his heart rate more than doubles a very bad sign.

Like a stand-up gig, teaching is always an unknown quantity. Sometimes it's easy and sometimes it's hard. Sometimes your brain is connected to your mouth and sometimes it's not. However, you're a professional, so you have techniques so that nobody will notice. You're about to discuss a quote from the famous... and, as you approach the name, you find there's nothing there. But you're pretty good at approaching it sideways, and it pops into your head just in time. Sometimes.

It helps that the students are pretty keyed up the first week or two, and you realise that you're scaring them as much as they're scaring you.

They are somebody's sons and daughters, scrubbed up and shiny for the start of their college careers. They concentrate on looking cool. Though not confident enough yet to utter a word in response to the dialogue you're attempting to have with them, they will politely stay awake and you will smile benignly when, after supplying them with information essential for their success, the request for any questions produces a tentative, but quietly desperate "When is break time?"

In a few weeks, they'll morph into the kind of students you know and love. They'll dye their hair, they'll change their names, they'll appear with face jewellery, body piercing and tattoos. They'll be challenging, difficult to please, they'll find part-time jobs that distract them from their studies. They will feel confident enough to ascertain the demands of individual units and ask questions like: "Do we have to, like, write anything?", and to offer an occasional helpful and incisive critique such as: "This is so-oo boring".

But, suddenly, you'll feel comfy again. This is what you do. You feel pretty good about your choice of career. The Return of the Students? You've seen scarier movies and survived.

Carol Gow

lectures in media at Dundee College

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