We’re on a tandem ride, but I refuse to do all the pedalling

Learning is a partnership between teacher and student – but all too often the weight of responsibility is placed at the feet of the educator

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Someone once said: “If they’re not learning, you’re not teaching.” That someone was a smug git who’d never come vaguely close to having a remotely challenging class. The truth is you can teach your behind off and still come up against a brick wall made up of apathy, indifference or just plain dickish behaviour.

Learning is a partnership; a tandem ride between teacher and learner. Yes, sometimes it can get a bit wobbly and there may be times when one rider is sweating cobs as the other takes it easy for a spell. But, like someone else infinitely more sensible once said: “It takes two, baby.”

This shared responsibility is the same in FE as it is anywhere else. In fact, given the average age of the cohort, I’d argue that the ideal is that the majority of the responsibility should lie with the learner in preparation for the various responsibilities they’ll be taking in their future careers

Yet, this is sometimes difficult. With the best will in the world, and meaning no offence to other sectors (many that I’ve worked in), there’s a lot of hand-holding in education.

And I’m not on about the icky teenage “tru luv 4 eva!” kind either. I’m talking about the weight of responsibility for learning being placed firmly at the feet of the educator, no matter the circumstances or the level of effort or the behaviour of those being taught. I don’t know about you, but I’m not one for doing all the pedalling when the bugger behind me has their feet up. Shared responsibility for learning is something I try desperately hard to promote in my classes. In fact, the concept is often so alien, I often have to teach it.

It’s difficult because it may mean having to let those you teach fail in some things in the hope they realise that their actions (or lack of them) will have an effect on their achievements. It’s about not giving infinite chances because real life doesn’t work like that. It’s about telling them what they’ve done isn’t good enough when it’s not. It’s about being honest.

This, in itself, can be problematic as FE suffers from the same pressures linked to achievement, progress, retention and the like as anywhere else and there are always those who would have those things at any cost, including teachers shouldering unrealistic burdens and doing more than their fair share of the work.

But if we’re going to truly prepare those we teach for the “outside” world, sometimes we have to say no to doing things for our learners rather than with our learners. We have to guide them to be responsible for their own learning, even if that means stark and unpleasant realisations.

In the end, what I really want is to stand proudly beside my learners, not behind them, propping them up.

That, coupled with all the bike riding, is absolute murder on the back.

Tom Starkey teaches English at a college in the North of England. He tweets @tstarkey1212

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