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'Who am I to tell my students what to aspire to?'

It’s part of a teacher's job to open students' minds to the possibility of a different kind of life - but that isn't right for everyone, writes Sarah Simons

FE colleges budget funding history adult learning aspiration

It’s part of a teacher's job to open students' minds to the possibility of a different kind of life - but that isn't right for everyone, writes Sarah Simons

Raising aspirations. That phrase would definitely be on my bullshit-bingo card, to listen out for at any education conference. That, along with "jobs that haven’t been invented yet", "future-proofing" and, more recently, "yes, but is there an evidence base?".

I’m not saying those phrases are bad. Well...except for "future proofing" which is a load of jargonistic bollocks made up by people who want to sound like they’re know what they're on about. Unless you have a magical DeLorean, a chunky body warmer, and a tendency for Oedipal misunderstandings, it’s unwise to lay claim to any specific insight about what will be useful even 10 years down the line.

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Background: 'I'm getting fighting fit for teaching'​​​​​​​

Nothing set in stone

We can safely assume that most of what we are teaching now will be of some use, but nothing is set in stone. Learning to type was the proto-version of future proofing when I was at school. You would stand out from the crowd with that specialist skill. Who was to know that just a few decades later everyone would be clutching their electronic rectangles and typing like the wind. The skill was no longer specialist.

I digress...

Raising aspirations. Actively seeking to help our students raise their own aspirations has long been central mission in FE. It’s right up there with cattle-prodding them through GCSE re-sits, again and again and again. Lots of our students come to us with a fixed, narrow idea of what they are capable of, and what their lives should entail. It’s part of our job to open their minds to the possibility of a different kind of life. One that can be accessed through education.

Raising aspirations

Helping to raise the aspirations of younger students, straight out of school, seems like a throughly decent thing to do. They have their whole lives ahead. Whatever complexities they may have already encountered, they are still at the very start of their journey, with experience limited by their comparatively few years on the planet. Some of them may not even be aware of what the world has on offer and what they have every right to aim for, through hard work, dedication, and for some, the suspension of disbelief.

I say suspension of disbelief because sometimes that is what is needed, something more than hope, or ambition. Some students have lives that are so tightly constrained by poverty, or neglect, or generations of unemployment, or a range of other factors that might tell them directly that they will get only what people in their worlds have always got, that it may not even cross their minds to want more. So to think, even for a moment, that more might be an option, is closer to fiction than any sort of reality.

But what about adult students? The people who have decades of experience in The Big Wide World, who know themselves, and say they are totally content with the lives they lead. Is it right to push them towards what I think of as aspiration, if they are completely happy just getting through the day?

Bucket list

A few years ago, while teaching adults how to draw spider diagrams, the idea of the bucket list came up. We split the spider diagram into places, people, experiences. I banged on about how I want to learn Italian, work with dogs, see the Northern Lights, live in Manhattan, sew my own clothes, know loads and loads about a single topic, and on and on and on. Some of my students struggled to even find one thing to stick on their list.

These were adult students, some older than me, many of whom had never left the county where they were born. Some had what I consider a really difficult life, stamped down into acceptance of the status quo by repeatedly surviving a combination of what life threw at them and circumstances created by their own choices.

They didn’t feel they had no right to aspiration, to own bigger or better things, to adventures beyond their small town, it was more like they didn't have an interest in them. Some argued that they had no use for a bucket list because they were happy with their own routine. And if they are genuinely content, who the hell am I, who are any of us, to say that is not good enough? Surely contentment is the ultimate goal?

Last year my family was offered an opportunity to live the kind of "aspirational" life that I had hoped and dreamed of as a kid. But hopes and dreams change. It would have meant moving thousands of miles away, leaving everything and everyone that we love here. After a family meeting and about 15 seconds of in-depth soul searching, we decided against it. We’d carry on being a bit skint, working longer hours than we should, but being happy as we are.

I didn’t want to suspend my disbelief to consider how that sort of life would work in reality. That experience really made me think about the relativity of aspiration and the place of happiness within it. Maybe those students who dismissed the list had the right idea?

Sarah Simons works in colleges and adult community education in the East Midlands and is the director of UKFEchat. She tweets @MrsSarahSimons

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