Walking in students’ shoes

15th July 2016 at 00:00

A few years ago, I sat the functional skills English test. Not in pretend conditions but the proper exam. I was teaching the qualification at the time and thought that walking a few steps in my students’ shoes would do me good. The experience had unexpected effects. Beads of stress-sweat pinged from my forearms and, for reasons I still can’t fathom, I took off all my jewellery (this was a challenge in itself, bearing in mind that I see Liberace’s look as sartorial understatement).

I took too long on the first question, leaving little time for the second – an error I had spent three years warning my students against. Every time the invigilator dared to exhale, it distracted me so much that I felt rage begin to swell and had to talk myself out of hurling a chair at her. The experience gave me new admiration for what my students go through and I hope my teaching benefited from it.

This year, I have spent Thursday evenings in class as a student. Along with a group of colleagues working in a variety of roles throughout college, I took a course on teaching learners with disabilities – my fourth teaching qualification and my second programme relating to disability.

Disability is a topic that can provoke extreme reactions. I encountered this recently when suggesting that, in some cases, over-support of individuals with autism on mainstream curriculums may be counterproductive to their progression (bit.ly/Tough_Choices). While the majority of people had similar concerns, a few responded in ways I would definitely not describe as “inclusive”.

We love a heated debate. I’ve learned as much from the diverse opinions of fellow spirited professionals as I have from my years of studying the subject and working with young people who have a range of abilities.

I’ve also learned that, even after working professionally as a writer for nearly two decades, I’m still bewildered by academic writing. I’ve read mountains of research on my own area of enquiry – a potential relationship between information on disability and self-advocacy – and accrued masses of information.

However, my own insecurity about formalising my new knowledge has forced me to embark on some extreme procrastination. My Tesco shop is ordered for the next few months, my pan drawer is a dream and my lemon-fresh floors sparkle.

This bout of domestic ostriching has led to another situation we urge our students to avoid: leaving coursework till the last minute. I’ve worked all weekend and will have to continue late into the night every day this week to get my folder in on time. But rather than dwell on it, I’m going to repackage this as yet another Valuable Learning Experience.

Sarah Simons works in FE colleges in the East Midlands


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