Why Sidney Poitier is the difference between success and scrutiny

2nd October 2009 at 01:00
Comment: Stephen Jones

What, I wondered, as I sat and looked at my new tutor group, will this lot be like? It's hard to tell at the beginning of a course when everyone is on their best behaviour and the "phoney war" is in full swing. "They seem nice enough," I dutifully reported to my colleagues in the staffroom.

"Oh yes," they retorted, with just a hint of cynicism. Because they'd heard me say that before. Last year when I first met my class in mid- September, it was the same: smiles all round and 20 mouths in which butter wouldn't melt.

And, in fact, last year's class was a success. At least as far as the numbers were concerned it was. And isn't that the only measure of success we allow these days? How many stay the course; how many achieve their target qualification; how many progress to a rosy future.

So let the figures speak for themselves. Of the 18 "proper" starters, 18 were still there at the end. I may have had a tutor group with 100 per cent retention before, but I certainly can't remember it.

Not all of them managed to get the Access Diploma, which was the qualification they were aiming for. Sixteen did, but the other two - beset by the sort of difficulties that only life can throw at you - managed only to accumulate about half of the 60 credits required. But that didn't stop either of them getting a university place - as did all the others in the group. So that was another 100 per cent entry in the book of stats.

But, despite what we are told, are the raw statistics really the only indicators of "success"? Because in many ways my class of `09 was a bit of a failure.

Sadly, those early smiles soon faded. The causes were hard to determine, but they never really gelled as a group. Factions developed, relationships became strained. I found myself investigating allegations of bullying between students. One young woman (chronological age 20, mental age 12) faced a disciplinary hearing after an unpleasant outburst in class. I seemed to be constantly chasing some students over their poor attendance and punctuality.

Then I discovered that, in the middle of it all, there had developed a little clique of malcontents. For them, everything was wrong: the course, college, timetable, teaching - probably even the colour of my socks.

The strength of their discontent first came to light when the exam board moderator paid us a visit. As is her practice, she had a half-hour session alone with the class. Normally on these occasions she emerges smiling to proclaim that "everything's fine". This time there was no smile. "There are one or two issues," she said, "that need addressing."

By coincidence I had also just had the class fill in a learner survey - a three-page questionnaire of the "how are we doing" variety. For three- quarters of the class, most things were working well. For the remaining quarter, none of them was. Not even the toilets.

By this time, I had a pretty good idea who my refuseniks were. By and large they were not the stragglers in the group, they were mostly competent students who, on the surface at least, were doing well. I had a quiet chat about it with the class rep. "Don't worry about it," she said. "You and the other teachers are doing fine. There are just some people who will moan about anything."

It's situations like this that make you realise as a teacher how hard it can be for you to create "ethos" within some classes. You can try. If you are Sidney Poitier you might even succeed. The trouble is that most of us don't exist in the world of To Sir, with Love.

That's why I've been scrutinising those newcomers with rather more attention than usual. There's a part of me that would swap the glossy stats for a little more harmony in class this year.

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