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Those were the days?

Forty years ago I signed up to study an A Level in English Literature at my local FE College. I liked reading, but I wasn’t sure about the ‘Literature’ part, and was looking forward to finding out how it was different from ordinary books. My teacher had a kindly smile, and he seemed to know I was keen although I was painfully shy and never dared to ask or answer a question in class.

Instead of directing a series of Socratic questions to probe and challenge, he let me be, and he certainly didn’t make me engage in embarrassing group-work or keep switching activities to maintain a brisk pace. His favourite teaching method was to sit at the front of the class, open a book – a piece of famous literature, of course – allot parts and allow everyone to read. He never corrected poor pronunciation, he never flinched when the lad with the stutter took ages to read his part and he never praised the confident students who liked to be noticed. In fact, he treated everyone the same in class – with total acceptance and respect. When I realised I wasn’t going to be picked on, I began to relax, and slowly gained the confidence to ask the odd question. To my amazement, nobody laughed; in fact some students seemed interested in what I had to say.

Outside the class this teacher gave up his lunch breaks to read poetry with those of us who wanted to read more widely, lent us books and encouraged a small group of students to write their own pieces. He entered a few of us, quietly and without fuss, for a sort of A Level paper with harder questions on a whole range of authors and poets called the Scholarship paper. In his own time, he made sure we were tutored sufficiently to make up for the gaps in our general knowledge that came from not having homes full of ‘literature’.

One memorable day we were all reading Shakespeare’s “Antony and Cleopatra” in class. As a fellow student read out loud Cleopatra’s lament following her lover’s death, huge tears rolled down our teacher’s face. Some students at the back started sniggering but he didn’t notice. He was totally oblivious, lost to the beauty of the language. I looked at him, down at the page and back to him again – I still didn’t appreciate the power of the language but I was determined to learn. It was at that moment that I knew I wanted to go to university and then teach – not in a school or a university, but in an FE College. I realised that if I could touch the lives of those with little confidence and create such a passion for learning then what more could a career offer? And I knew my newly discovered resilience and self-belief would get me there.

No prizes for guessing how my inspiring teacher would have been graded by Ofsted today, or by obedient members of the college in-house lesson observation scheme, who are ‘trained’ to apply a crude 4-point grading scale to the complexity of teachers’ practices. How demoralised a teacher he would have become, for his strongest attributes were invisible. Impact only became apparent over time. My teacher had no computer, no emails to answer and hardly any paper-work to do – but he did have important resources to share with his students and he had time to give outside the classroom to those who were up for a challenge. He gave his time- THE most precious resource – willingly.

Performance management systems simply didn’t exist then and are they really improving the important stuff now? Let’s speak out about what’s important. Change can and will happen sooner than we think.

Alison Scott worked in the FE sector for 30 years as a teacher, teacher trainer and manager. She is currently studying for a doctorate in how collaborative forms of CPD can enable teachers to improve their practice

This is the fourth regular contribution from members of Tutor Voices: National Network for Further, Adult, Community and Skills Educators. To join email [email protected]

 

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