When I was a teacher, I ended up working in the same school as my old geography teacher. No matter how much she insisted, I just couldn’t bring myself to call her by her first name. It just didn’t feel right. In the end, I avoided her altogether on corridors and in the staffroom; it was easier. It brought to mind memories of my own pupils shuffling off red-faced after they bumped into me in the “feminine hygiene” aisle of the supermarket, and me running into an underage student in a bar (with a friendly nod, we pretended we hadn’t seen each other).
Seeing your teacher out of context is enough to make you run for the nearest exit. Seeing your pupils out of context is probably worse.
It was a weird one last week, then. One of the former apprentices, who now works in the finance office at the college, turned 21. I remember him when he was a student and there’s always been a slight awkwardness now that’s he’s on the payroll. I think the awkwardness is more on my part than his, to be honest, as it certainly didn’t stop him from inviting the vicar to his 21st birthday party.
Now don’t get me wrong: I go out with friends from work, but it’s with my small bunch of chums. That way, what happens in Sheffield town centre stays in Sheffield town centre. When it’s pals, throwaway comments about staff are taken in the spirit that they are meant and never repeated.
There’s something, though, about seeing some colleagues you don’t usually see without their lanyards. It feels odd seeing them in their best gear, dancing the Macarena and eating buffet when earlier you were asking them about performance management. Then there’s the shock of meeting their partners, who never look like you expected. And, of course, as the lager starts flowing, the dances get wilder and you end up sat in a corner with that bloke from marketing having a passionate chat about his timeshare in Majorca.
But it was still a good night. And once the awkwardness of staff outside their natural habitat was conquered, it was a great opportunity for us to let our hair down and see people in a whole new light. To feel a bit more human.
College isn’t an easy place at the moment. Staff face a merger, fear possible redundancy and feel like they are being watched. The finances appear increasingly squeezed, not just in our college, but through the sector. Surely that’s even more reason to take the chance to remind ourselves that we exist beyond the walls of college – that this place isn’t the beginning and end of everything: we are alive, we exist and we’re not defined by who pays our mortgage.
Even if it does result in seeing Sheila from admin doing her thing to Oops Upside Your Head.
Rev Kate Bottley is chaplain of North Nottinghamshire College @revkatebottley