Why I still feel I got it wrong for that one student

When a talented but challenging student slips through the net it's hard to cope with, writes Sarah Simons

TV remote pointing at telly

Sometimes, I meet a student who, unknowingly, invigorates my commitment to what I perceive as my purpose. My purpose isn’t necessarily a commitment to being a teacher –  the motivator isn’t necessarily to teach, but to support people to reach for the sort of path they might not have the confidence or opportunity or privilege to aim for. This purpose resonates throughout most of the higgledy piggledy pieces of my career.

I think the word "privilege" is pertinent here. I have loads of it. Fair enough, I don’t have the full set, I’m not a middle-aged, middle-class, white man (don’t get me started on Laurence Fox-gate or we’ll be here all week) but I’m advantage-heavy, with a bag full of capitals – social, cultural, economic, symbolic and probably some others I haven’t heard of yet. I have the power (and I hope an appropriate sense of entitlement) that education, work, finance, and family support can provide.


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Available opportunities

I taught a young adult student a couple of years ago who struggled with a range of barriers – mental health issues, loneliness and isolation, unemployment, poverty, extreme dyslexia, little prior education and no qualifications, among other things.

Yet, she still turned up to class week in week out, and still became the driving force of every session. She had no idea that there were opportunities available to her and that she was allowed to pursue them. She was resigned to the existence she had. And if she was happy with that life I’d have stuck to just teaching functional skills and backed off from my ambitions for her immediately – who am I to create the criteria for contentment? – but she was struggling.

The dyslexia held her back more than anything else. She was working at entry level 1 and because of that she perceived herself as "thick". If I’d have known nothing about her and had to guess her level of education just from chatting, I’d have assumed she was a uni graduate.

Her learning had come in a different form. Namely, the telly. She was enthralled by the news and could have discussions on current affairs with far more knowledge on the detail of international events than me. And anything with a historical angle would grab her – she was a BBC4 documentary enthusiast, and a fan of anything on Netflix pertaining to history of the monarchy. Oh the debates we had over the truth behind The Crown.

I didn’t know what to do with her. She had all the college support available for her dyslexia, but it wasn’t going to be enough to whip her through the required quals to get to the point where she could start deciding what she really wanted to do. In another world, one where she’d been supported from a young age, where interventions had been put in place in primary school, where she'd had the sort of home life that fosters aspiration, I could see her being an academic or even writing historical fiction – as well as her love of the past, she had a unique way with words and a huge vocabulary. I gave her umpteen team talks about her vast potential not being defined by her current literacy level. She said she would definitely come back to college the next year.

She left shortly before the end of the course. She’d got a job in a cafe. The point of long-term unemployed students attending the sessions is to gain skills to help get a job. I was supposed to be delighted for her…

I’ve reflected on that student and why I felt, still feel, like I’d let her down. Maybe I hadn’t? Maybe I was projecting my own sense of entitlement on to her? Maybe I was feeling disappointed because she wasn’t accessing the opportunities I might have chosen for her? I worked in a cafe years ago and it was one of my all time favourite jobs. I hope she loved her job.

I still feel like I messed up though. I just don’t know what I would have done differently.

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Sarah Simons

Sarah Simons

Sarah Simons works in colleges and adult community education in the East Midlands and is the director of UKFEchat

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