Roles and responsibilities

Integration Issues? Take two ESOL lessons a week until further notice.

Language learning is in the news again. ESOL is making (admittedly small) headlines, thanks to a double whammy of pronouncements by “ex-integration tsar” Dame Louise Casey and Sajid Javid, the Communities Secretary, highlighting the role of language learning, in particular learning English, as the answer to all the issues around integration. Not only is the musty “language learning = miracle integration cure” argument getting it’s biannual airing, but there should be a deadline and a level, according to Casey, by which time everyone should have learned English.

Oh boy. Where do we start with this?

For one, the Communities Secretary is basically presenting a fairly soft and woolly enhancement to the dubious British Values training which we have all dutifully completed, and of which I can only ever remember 3 at a time without googling it. There will be social measures like supporting women from minority backgrounds into work, which is nicely noble sounding, and getting young people from different backgrounds to interact more, which is so going to fall flat because it’s the government, the very definition of “out of touch old farts”, trying to tell young people, who are often, I hope, rebellious and questioning, how to behave. Even your dear author, who was, in his time, a fairly compliant and well behaved young person, would have sneered this out of the classroom just because of where it was from.

But what about language? On one level, as an ESOL teacher, who teaches English to migrants, and who likes being paid to do so, any notion of funding for ESOL ought to be a good thing, even if it is “conversation clubs” (really, that’s all you’ve got?) and funnelled through local government in especially chosen areas for temporary projects. Piecemeal projects that barely touch the need in any area. So yeah, money for ESOL learning, great.

The dangling carrot of funding obscures the actual issue here- the whole discourse around language as a tool for integration is at best simplistic and ignorant, at worst, simply toxic. The key quote that really sums up the whole problem is this, from Casey:

“I don’t care how we’ve got here, I don’t care who can’t speak English, I don’t care what’s going on but what I do know is that everybody of working age and of school age should be able to speak the language. And I think the public in particular would feel some relief.  And I would be quite old-school about this and I would set a target that says ‘By x date we want everybody in the country to be able to speak a common language’.”

There are so many holes here. For one, adding the weight of the mighty “public” is highly questionable. A generous interpretation of this might be that she means that migrants themselves would also welcome the chance to learn English, but I rather doubt it. It would seem more likely she means narrow-minded middle Englanders who’ve never set foot into a multicultural community, and aggrieved, poverty stricken working classes whose years under swingeing austerity measures have removed both voice and power, and for whom a very visible and even more powerless group can conveniently act as scapegoat. That is the “public” she means, warpping their chips in the Daily Mail or the Sun.

Then there is “one language”. She hasn’t specified English, but the context is clear – everyone should speak English. However, this is not, and has never been, a monolingual country. Would it help if it was? Is there really a need for “one language”? Does language unify a country? In the whole of the history of any country, there have been migrant communities speaking languages which are not the first language of that country, and the factors which have led to unrest and division are not linguistic, nor even necessarily religious, but social and economic. Division doesn’t grow because people in the communities speak different languages, it grows because they are being discriminated against, because they are being savaged by austerity measures, and because they are feeling powerless and isolated. These are social and exconmic problems, and these exacerbate any latent discrimination.

Leaving aside the troublesome notion of one language, I find the notion of a “date” and a “target level” more than a little worrying. What level would you choose? Entry 3? Perhaps B1?  And how would you assess this – more money in the coffers of specially selected language exam boards? And what happens if people don’t achieve that level by the date chosen? Immediate extradition? Such notions demonstrate an absolute lack of understanding of the language learning issues involved here, although this has never stopped a government from making arbitrary judgments about ESOL learning. 90 hours to achieve a level-up pass, anyone?

Integration is absolutely not the aligning of incoming principles with some notional mainstream flow of cultural norm. Rather integration is a two-way process, where those moving, and the society into which they are moving, must both make changes and allowances. A mature society would recognise this, perhaps, avoiding knee-jerk comments like these. Of course, language learning has a role to play in supporting this process, and it is certainly easier and cheaper to teach minority language speakers to learn the majority language, even if a two-way language learning process would make for a richer, more open and more interesting society. Language also has a primary role in helping people to access support and services, and with this aspect of integration, it does have a crucial role. Beyond this, however, and to suggest that language learning will magically make it go away is disingenuous, a straw man created by government to turn an absence of integration into the fault of those trying to integrate. They haven’t tried to learn, they say, so it’s their fault. It’s not: most ESOL students are hungry to learn, but it has been rendered almost impossible through successive government cuts  by both main political parties. The fault lies squarely with government, and their decisions. Improving integration starts at Number 10.

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Moving on up?

When you reach a particular point in your career as a teacher, you start to look at some options. Not because you’re fed up of teaching, perhaps, but just because you want a bit of a change, a bit of an alternative, to change your focus a little. So you explore the choices – what can I do now, what can I become? What choices do I have in terms of progression from the status of being just a teacher?

In FE, you’ve got three basic choices, and even then two of them basically only lead into the third. The first option is teacher training. It’s quite a fun option, although in many ways it takes the most confidence to pull off properly: after all, you, a mere teacher, suddenly telling people what they should be doing? And judging their ability to do it? As a teacher trainer, remember, there’s no formal seniority saying that you’re superior in some way. You’re just another teacher, albeit one who teaches teachers. But it is great fun, and keeping that sense of humility around your own abilities is a real asset in a trainer – trainees respond well because you, like them, are a teacher. Nobody, as they say, likes a smartass.

Related to this is option 2: the advanced practitioner. These jobs (and the job titles) vary from place to place, but usually involve a bit of time off teaching and, if you’re lucky, a bit of extra money. It’s not that dissimilar to the teacher training role, in that you are responsible for training and supporting staff, but has the added drawback that such jobs are very few and far between. You also have to be a little more subservient to the systems – being an advanced practitioner type usually means a degree of compliance – as a teacher trainer you are free, indeed absolutely should be questioning and challenging the latest diktat from government or senior leaders, but less so for the advanced practitioner role. If you’re lucky the role can include some element of challenging and questioning whatever “best practice” you are supposed to be sharing that week, but there is still an official line to be toed.

The third, and final option is, of course, management. Just to make one thing abundantly clear here: I have no beef with management as a concept, or indeed with managers as a species. After all, cats need herding and being a damn good cat-herder is a vocation and a passion in and of itself. But it isn’t for everyone; in fact it isn’t for a lot of people, including some people who become managers. And the reason deeply unsuitable people become managers is that for the most part, that’s all you’ve got to move into beyond being a teacher. Management pays better, as a rule, and you get to go to meetings and have important sounding job titles, and do weird mystical things with Excel which even the people at Microsoft have yet to think of. But also you inevitably start to move away from students as individuals, and the art/skill/craft/whatever of teaching; indeed, once you reach a particular level, the majority of students exist in your life as data to be sorted, sliced and drilled down into. Again, the best managers strike a balance there, but to be good at it, you’ve got to want to do it.

So what do you do? For one, you look sideways. After all, you’re not in it for the money, so accept your financial lot, and look at things beyond the four walls of your institution. Explore possibilities beyond just teaching: writing, workshops at conferences, supporting professional organisations, activism, all those things and more. You may not get the financial recognition, nor the recognition from your employer,  but you know what, who cares? You position yourself as a professional outside of the confines of your workplace.  There is a huge community of teachers and other professionals out there in the big wide world so find them and talk to them. Blog, tweet, make connections, talk to people. Do some research (like the Practitioner Research programme from the ETF) and use this to enable you to meet and share ideas with people – one of the best formative experiences of my professional life, in fact. What the hell, do something on the side which is completely different – become a masseuse, a choir singer, a part time pilot or volunteer part time at a homeless shelter. It might not be teaching, but who knows what possibilities might present themselves off the back of it. And yes, these things will eat into your private time, but from what I’ve seen of managers, so does that. So why not give up a little of that time doing something you enjoy rather than have a job you are merely tolerating because there are no other options out there.

The other big alternative is simply this: stick with the teaching. There is no shame in just being a teacher, no matter what career progression junkies might tell you (as in “Well, of course, I realised after my first six months that just being a teacher wasn’t enough of a challenge” – feel free to punch that sort of individual). Enjoy it and explore your own path within that role. Mix it up a little, try new things out. Teach different student groups, dabble in other subjects, if you can. You’re bored of doing it that way? Do it differently, try a different method, something completely off the wall and see what happens. Doing this teaching stuff can be the best fun you can get in a professional life. And it’s infinitely more fun than spreadsheets.

Language & the ESOL image problem

Three things this week came together quite serendipitously. First was walking past a British Sign Language class, and seeing the tutor not only teaching BSL, but also using BSL to communicate ideas. The second was a conversation with two non-ESOL teaching colleagues about the SOLO taxonomy and the notion of using “higher order” questions. The third was a tweet from Scott Thornbury, “The problem with EFL/ESL teaching is that, unlike maths, history etc, there is no subject. So the language itself becomes the subject.”

So this set me thinking. You see I think ESOL in further education setting has a bit of an image problem. There’s a perception in some corners that we should fit in to everything else, that something which applies to sixteen year old joinery apprentices can be applied without modification to a group of beginner ESOL students, and that our reluctance to do so, or questions asked about it in order to make sense of it in ESOL terms is seen as ESOL teachers and departments being awkward, stroppy, and obstructive. Don’t get me wrong, mind, because like any teacher, ESOL teachers can indeed be stroppy and obstructive, and I get that. However, there is a serious point here: there is a single and profound difference between ESOL and, with the exception, perhaps, of my colleague teaching BSL, every single other subject teacher in a college can communicate directly and unambiguously with their students.

Let’s take questioning as a good example of this. When teaching a subject through a shared language, one quick, effective way of challenging students is to ask questions which probe deeper into the subject, moving from straightforward knowledge of details (“Name three types of…”) to more complex, evaluative and critical questions (“what might happen if…”). This is generally seen as good practice, and, I think, quite right too. When I think of CELTA, for example, I might ask students initially to identify how to use the past simple, and then challenge them to analyse the problems faced by second language learners in using it, or what the barriers might be, or to compare how the past simple is used as a simple,e past reference ce and how it used to describe a narrative. This sort of range of questioning or task-challenge works to push students into thinking beyond just knowing a fact. (For the record, however, you do need to know the fact before you can start to go beyond this. What is commonly referred to as “lower” order questioning is not necessarily worse or less important – if anything it is the most important type of learning without which all the rest is impossible.)

Trouble is, all of this, every element of this, is entirely language dependant. It assumes on the part of the speaker and the listener a shared language with a fair degree of linguistic complexity. Don’t let snobbery get in your way here: my fictional joinery apprentices have access to an astonishing array of linguistic talents, even those ones who failed GCSEs. The fact that they can understand a question like “what might happen if you used an alternative timber for this?” is a demonstration of a fair amount of language skill.

So we have to consider carefully the value of time spent in training or reading about this when you remove that language skill. I simply cannot reliably ask my students “how would you change the verb if it is irregular?” Instead I have to get there a different way. The primary way I use questioning is not to expand in this way, but to apply successive “lower order” questions to build complex knowledge. “Read this sentence: I visited my sister. Am I visiting my sister now? Tomorrow? Before now? Good.” Then the next day I come back and start up irregular verbs, checking and eliciting concepts again using simple questions.

None of this means that ESOL students are incapable of thinking in those terms. Remember these are diverse classrooms on a scale incomparable in FE, with teachers, doctors, university lecturers and civil servants sharing a room with hitherto uneducated housewives, farmers and factory workers, none of which can be used to make assumptions about language learning aptitude. To use terms associated with higher order thinking, synthesis, creativity, evaluation and hypothesising are required of ESOL students from the get go when they are challenged to use language in new and unique situations. It’s just that we, as teachers, can’t use the language as a means to get there.

So we have to critically evaluate everything that a generic trainer says. Teachers are pragmatic people, after all, and would like something useful that we can use in our day to day classrooms, and an interesting curio like the SOLO taxonomy has limited, if any applicability. Ditto Bloom, although it could be used for task design, perhaps. Ditto Socratic questioning, flipped learning,  negotiating learning targets, sharing and self assessing SMART lesson outcomes. These are language dependent concepts, and this is the key to everything.

Until you’ve taught an ESOL class, none of this will make sense to you. I’ve seen it in CELTA teaching practice where a qualified teacher in another subject tries over-complex questions to a low level class and suddenly realises that they might as well have just whistled and farted for all the good it’s done. The good trainees are the ones who realise that they do have to change their paradigm, and alter their classroom behaviours accordingly. Because that is what we are talking about: for a generically trained teacher of a vocational subject, the nature of the ESOL classroom in a UK setting is radically different.

And this can indeed make ESOL teachers seem obstructive when it comes to implementing college-wide initiatives or training opportunities, but they are simply trying to make sense of it all, to take those initiatives and challenges and make them work in their context. And that context is different, profoundly and radically. It’s also what makes ESOL such fun to teach.

It’s all about the plan.

It’s been a while since I blogged about planning, but it’s one of those things that comes back again and again. After all, planning is one of those things that suffuses every part of our jobs, it’s just that teachers, and their observers, have a habit of conflating planning lessons with “filling in forms appropriately” which are two different things. Remember, the primary purpose of a plan for a reasonably experienced teacher during any sort of formal observation is to show that the events in your lesson are not happy accidents, but things which happened because you wanted the students to achieve a specific learning aim (remember what I was saying about half-assed definitions of student-centred?) Keep this in mind, and things get a whole lot easier.

Anyway, by way of structure for a post, I thought I would work my way left to right across a “classic” lesson plan, covering the various things which people need to think about during planning. Consider this not so much as a how to, or a top tips, but rather as a series of roughly linked ramblings. After all, I don’t really do Best Practice, indeed, rarely do I go for good practice. I just go for  “practice” and hope for the best.

LEARNING OUTCOMES/OBJECTIVES/WHATEVER

These tend to come at the top of the page, and heaven knows I’m critical of the obsession with performance goals over learning goals, but still, there does need to be a point to the lesson. These can be things like practice a set of skills, for example, or learn a language point, whatever, as long as you remember, once decided, to rephrase them as SMART outcomes in order to keep those who believe in such things happy. I always think there’s a bit of a weird conspiracy cycle here where everybody says “do smart outcomes because my manager thinks they’re good” probably all the way up several tiers of management until you find someone who actually thinks that “write five sentences using present perfect” is evidence of learning anything. Still, it’s a hoop through which we must jump, so let’s work with it. If you are struggling with this, my tip, unofficially, of course, is to start with an aim or two (practice reading for gist and detail, say, or use present perfect for experience) then write the lesson plan out. Once this is done, and this is crucial, you identify where in the lesson you ostensibly show that the students have learned those things. From there you create your specific outcomes: will be able to read a text and identify at least five details (don’t make it too specific, mind you…. Yes, I know, I know), will be able to answer five questions using present perfect to describe experience, and so on. It’s a cynical manipulation, perhaps, but hey, it works for me.

TIMING

I’ve got to admit, this section is probably my most pointless section, and absolutely always done for the observer. I used to time lessons CELTA style, (3 minutes, 5 minutes, etc.) but have long since abandoned this in favour of clumping together groups of task into 30-45 minute chunks. This is largely psychological: I know, consciously, that if I write 10 minutes on a plan, then this is not tying. However, on a subconscious level this makes me anxious, and I have to remind myself that it doesn’t matter, which makes me more anxious, and I slowly retreat into an internalised vicious circle of worry. So I stopped with the whole ten minute timing thing. (But don’t do this on CELTA kids…) The paper planning, if you like, was getting in the way of the actual planning, so I stopped.

PROCEDURE

Sometimes this is divided into teacher activity and learner activity, sometimes it’s just “teaching and learning activity”. Personally I prefer the latter, because when I have the two columns I tend to write “teacher sets up activity” in the first, then actually write a description of the activity in the second. My top tip here is to write the lesson plan from the point of view of the student. Training courses tend to concentrate on teachers, because duh, developing teachers is what training courses are about, and some teachers need to write extensively about what they will be doing during a lesson (bloody narcissists, always writing about themselves!) However, I know that for me, I always write about what the students will be doing first, then fit in my bits round that. I do get moments of fear when I see someone planning a lesson which has things like teacher does X, Y, Z, shows this, explains that, etc. but then says “students listen” or (on a beginner lesson plan) “students listen and take notes”. Don’t get me wrong, I know telling people stuff can work, just not when you aren’t interacting with them, which rather neatly brings me to the next column.

ASSESSMENT

Sometimes this is assessment for learning, which ought to give you a clue. Top of my facepalm moments here is when someone writes Q&A. I mean really? What does that actually mean? To me, it means “I have no idea what to write here but it was OK on my non-specialist PGCE, so I’ll sling it here. Asking some sort of concept checking question, perhaps, with some built in peer discussion before managed feedback, then absolutely. But actually this is terribly straightforward: if you are walking the room, checking what students are doing, giving feedback as appropriate, then duh, that’s assessment. If you are asking students to check answers with a partner that’s assessment. If you are taking in work and marking it, that’s assessment. Piece of cake. And if you thing teaching is just telling people stuff from the front without checking it, then you don’t deserve to be doing it.

RESOURCES

I’m going to be controversial now and say these should be the very last thing to worry about. Whenever I’ve coached people and they’ve started off with “well I want to use this resource” I just want to curl up and die.  You know that they are not going to take kindly to suggestions like “why don’t you change that activity” because that will mean the agony of perhaps not relying on a handout designed to be as homogenous and dull as can be imagine. This is how you do it: three simple questions, in this order:

  1. What do I want students to learn?
  2. How can this best be done? What activities might enable this?
  3. What resources do I need to help me?

More often than not it goes the other way round. which is so very very wrong. I’m not saying that a published resource might not give you a better idea, or an interesting new slant on the activity, nor that published resources are rubbish. You just select the resource to match the lesson.

CURRICULUM REFERENCES

Really? You still have to put this? Sorry, nothing I can do to help you, except encourage you to make up a couple of new core curriculum references, just to see if anyone is checking.

BUT WAIT:

NONE OF THIS MATTERS

None of the paperwork, the planning,  the careful trackers, the schemes, absolutely none of it matters unless what you plan turns into a useful, meaningful and effective chunk of teaching and learning. Look at this way, if you get pulled up on skimpy planning this is an easy if frustrating fix. Get pulled up on shonky learning, and you’re looking down the barrel of a long and probably stressful process, especially if your institution hasn’t been able to move out of the Dark Ages and still grades lessons. Quite frankly, you’re far far better off planning light but planning well: just write what you need to remember, maybe add a couple of bits for an observer to show you’re not winging, then go and teach a lesson. Spend time thinking about the students, thinking about creative & engaging lesson ideas, thinking about careful assessment, and useful, relevant content. Don’t waste a disproportionate amount of time (i.e. ten minutes) thinking about the myriad bloody boxes in a word document.
Because when it comes to planning lessons, it’s not about the plan, it’s all about the lesson.

Democracy, Control & Student-Centredness

On Wednesday,  some colleagues and I were discussing the notion of democracy, arguing, with the aid of only minor ebriety, that a classroom is an essentially non-democratic environment, despite the best intentions of the teacher, and their personal political beliefs.  Interestingly, the next morning, I taught two very different classes which set me off thinking about the nature of democracy in teaching and learning and the notion of student-centredness*.

In one of the classes, a beginner one, I set about making things open to student decisions, if not strictly democratic, while in the entry 1 class later in the day I was far more autocratic and controlling in my approach.

The beginner group was a lesson on shops and shopping, but also an opportunity for the students to practise using reference materials. We started with a recap activity on days of the week: each student got a postcard sized bit of paper with a letter on it (M, T, W, Th or F) and had to write the rest of the name of the day. On the reverse of that I then asked the students to write a sentence about what they do on those days, and for students who are really struggling to write I asked them to tell me and then either simply wrote it for them, and asked them to copy what I had written. I then mixed the cards up among the class and had the students ask each other “What do you do on…?” to try and find who the card belonged to. This took a while, not just because the students were beginners, but also because when they were asking each other about what they did they began to genuinely communicate with one another. It was in far from accurate English, with a smattering of translations, recourse to Google translate and hand gestures, but it was actual, genuine communication between students. I sat back and observed, only providing feedback on key errors leading to communication breakdown and on the main structure – days of the week and present simple.

In the second two-thirds of the lesson we talked about shops. I elicited some key shops, drilled the pronunciation and checked the spelling. I kept this fairly teacher-led – I wanted to set some boundaries for the next stage. I then had the students find the appropriate page in a photo dictionary (Longman, although other dictionaries are available…) then in pairs to research two to four words that they thought were useful or new to them. Things got a bit freewheeling at this point. My main focus was for students to research and then to share and perhaps peer-teach their words, which we did, but also ended up discussing how to ask questions about where to find things in the supermarket, before closing on “How often do you buy…” This was a little poignant – of the class only two people ever did the shopping on their own, and one of those two lives alone and has no choice. One student had an opportunity to use “never” when asked if she goes to the supermarket. I love, however, how these little insights into students lives come through at these times: how often people have to go to the job centre and how they feel when they go there, how one student is the main carer for a disabled family member (a beginner!), how one student spends her free time working with her son on their garden. It’s these things that you rarely get when you close down the classroom and become fully autocratic.

Which is what I did in the afternoon. By contrast, this group is a lively Entry 1 class of sixteen students. My choice of lesson (note “my”) was based on a listening task around cooking instructions. The text was from Listening Extra, a resource book which I love, and had two key tasks: sequencing pictures and then completing the information on the ingredients list. I started with students completing a task in groups of deciding which food would go with which verb (fry, boil, bake, pour, etc.) as well as getting students to add verbs as appropriate. I wasn’t planning on getting into the distinction between whisk and beat, and thankfully we didn’t go near whip but overall there was very little student contribution at this stage. We expanded a little on the verbs and also on measurements by checking in the photo dictionaries (again!) and had a group then class discussion on which food would you measure with which measurements (a metre of spaghetti, anyone?) this linked into the main listening task, and we closed with the students sharing a favourite recipe.

There was masses of teacher control here. Very little, if any, room was made for tangential or non-focussed questions. This was teacher-as-dictator, even at the end with the sharing of recipes: I was pretty harsh on task focus and made sure they were sharing recipes, and not, say, comparing cuisines of different countries, because I wanted to be absolutely sure they were taking the chance to use some of the vocabulary from the start of the lesson.

The irony of all this, of course, is that had both lessons been observed, I would have got slammed on the lack of focus on the first one (not entirely unfairly, but never mind) and priced for the clear outcomes of the second. Yet the second was not in any way at all student led. Don’t get me wrong, students were doing lots of the work, I wasn’t “teaching from the front”.  But students had very little control over what was happening in the lesson. Very little indeed. From a planning perspective this was absolutely not student led.

“Student Led” What a lovely phrase, so flexible in meaning. For example, I could describe my second lesson as “student-led” by saying that the theme of the lesson was of interest to the students (food; after all, we all love food), contained valuable lexical items and an opportunity to practise grammar, as well as developing the listening and speaking skills of those students preparing for an exam and that they had a chance to personalise the language towards the end. Student led, obviously.

Never mind, then, that the college selected the exam board, the teachers selected their exam, and the course content, based only partly on the negotiated needs of the students, as measured against an outdated & un-evaluated government curriculum document with arbitrary level descriptors which fail to reflect the complex reality of students’ interlanguages, on a course design heavily influenced by funding restrictions, exam backwash and policy directives, both internal and external, in terms of hours available. We might only have about 90 hours in which to initially, assess and then cover all the gaps in a group of 15 students, not to mention summative assessment which might knock a few hours off the end. Add in a couple of strikes, some tutor sickness and teacher training days and you’ve got about 70 hours of classroom time in which to cover the entirety of a curriculum level.

Specific pedagogical practices are imposed. Students are expected to engage with unchallengeable teaching and learning practices such as using SMART targets (remember that neither teacher nor student has the freedom to reject these “best practices”). Computer assisted lessons and VLE use are expected regularly in spite of the fact that a significant number of students would need specific ICT training in order to make best use of these things, training for which there is neither time nor money. Effective autonomous online learning, and indeed learners take classroom time to develop and support: online learning should not be used as a cheap, lazy proxy for face to face lessons.. (And no, students shouldn’t need to be accessing online learning to make up any funding hours shortfall.  This, quite frankly, is a poor excuse, which misses the critical point about the funding of learning.)

Many of these anti-student led accusations could be levelled at the first lesson, of course, and indeed of any ESOL class the country over. there was a lot of teacher control, still. I had selected the pages of the dictionary, which dictionary, and how we were going to tackle the vocabulary. Of course I did. Where this differed is that the sentences and much of the vocabulary content, were selected in the lessoin by the students based on their own criteria. Not much more student led, perhaps, but still more so than the previous one. What marks it out as different, and perhaps in only a small way, was the self-selecting nature of the content. Students genuinely made their own decisions based on their own criteria.

Neither lesson was better than the other, mind you. I just think we need to be clear that student-centred, democratic lessons are unattainable and unrealistic, and, crucially, not necessarily desirable. Some control from external bodies or teachers is inevitable, and even, in the case of the teacher anyway, necessary to maximise learning. That doesn’t mean teachers and students should be blindly accepting of that control – healthy criticism, even scepticism, is useful and productive. Criticism requires creativity, innovation and rigour from both those criticising and those being criticised. There, perhaps, is the much-vaunted British Value of democracy; democracy and indeed individual liberty. It’s just a shame that on so many many levels students and teachers are granted neither.

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*Let’s not worry too much about the largely philosophical, if fitfully interesting, distinction between the words “learner” and “student.” For most teachers we are only really using both words to mean “people who come to our lessons”, and on this day to day, practical level it simply doesn’t matter. I’m saying “student-centred” today, and I might say “learner-centred” tomorrow, and care precisely not at all.

The Long Game

This week, where I work is holding an Employability Week, an event where things like mock interviews, careers advice, talks from local employers and so on are being widely promoted and offered, as well as a focus on employability in lessons, as well as through blended learning. This is a great opportunity for students to develop their skills in these settings, and to get a taste of how things might be when they have finished their courses. All for the good, really.

It makes me realise, as well, that unlike say general primary and secondary education, and universities (traditionally, anyway) the world of further education is profoundly and directly linked to the world of work. A quick scan through any college prospectus will show that the vast majority of courses are primarily focussed on getting students into specific employment routes. It follows, not unreasonably, that for most teachers in this setting, the purpose of education is to gain employment, and thus the primary mindset of the FE college is, also not unreasonably, to focus on employment. Certainly much of the political and managerial discourse around further education is its role in getting young people (rarely adults) into employment, and strengthening those links with employers. Look at the area reviews, for example, which unrepentantly ignore community development (this document, for example, fails to refer to, or indeed even mention the word community, or this guidance which occasionally glosses it quickly).

This priority in discourse is somewhat telling. It’s sometimes hard not to think of the “local communities” aspect of FE as the poor and annoying little sibling who everyone would rather shut up and go away, but feel duty bound to invite to Christmas dinner. But this is perhaps just a symptom of the “quick win targets” mindset of public funding. Observable, measurable impact must be demonstrated within an agreed timescale, and this is generally “as soon as possible”. Funding for community education isn’t a quick win in business terms, unlike, say, funding a course which produces X number of qualified students, of whom Y percent go into employment. You see it in OFSTED as well, with a growing focus on “progression”: what happens to students when they leave the course? In terms of meeting the needs of the local community beyond employment, this is nigh on impossible to gauge, and if you rely on the simplistic input-output of economic benefit then really community learning is almost certainly going to fail.

But then why should it have to succeed in these terms? A far better metaphor for this kind of learning is not an economy, but rather the development of an ecology. We should be talking about growth in environmental terms: an evolution where investment now in the learning of communities leads to gains in a future which is perhaps not immediately foreseeable. Impact is a long game, not a short term SMART target, but apply the rules of a long game and things get terribly complicated and multilayered, which doesn’t make for sexy government reports or news articles. Play the long game as well and you have to ask: how many bright and breezy young people with level 2 or 3 in whatever remain bright and breezy and fully employed in the long term? By then, of course, they are stuck, because they have nowhere to go to change careers, get support with their children’s education, apart from overstretched charities and underfunded adult education departments. They have their path set out by a narrow minded, short termist government, a path which could very well become a rut. But hey, as long as they are employed (if….) and contributing to the economy, who cares? 

Electric Toothbrush

I have an electric toothbrush. It’s one of the ones you stand in a charger and a little light blinks at you to tell you it is charging. Every now and again you replace the head. It’s a nice little contraption and usually does a good job of cleaning my teeth, as long as it’s properly charged.

Trouble is, I always forget to charge it. Or rather, I have to make a conscious effort to remember to charge. It’s a small thing, I know, but it’s a metaphor. You see, I know that charging the toothbrush is what makes an electric toothbrush work: I can tell you now that an uncharged electric toothbrush is not a good toothbrush. I know this: in fact, it niggles me when the battery is flat, and yet I still don’t remember to charge it. I’ll put it on to charge later, I think, after I’ve been to the loo. Next morning, the toothbrush is still sitting there immobile and rather pointless. 
And so it is with admin. I know how to fill in forms, make calls, operate electronic MIS systems, get students enrolled, keep records, write things up, and generally do that side of the job. It’s not a case of knowing : I truly can do all those things, although none of my colleagues (Hi!) would ever believe me. I have a sneaking suspicion that if put my mind to it, I can do most of these things in no time at all. I also know how important these things are, but somehow, like the electric toothbrush, it doesn’t happen. I can’t even pin down what it is: bad prioritising, perhaps, a little bit of nerves about confrontations (which, ironically, is actually worsened as the inevitable fallout of some administrative errors makes for more uncomfortable confrontations) and a little bit of procrastination over something that is less appealing. 
I want to draw a line here between administrative responsibilities of a teacher and ILPs, mind you. If targets are delayed, or offset, or attended to in a fairly token way, this is a fairly principled point: it is a genuine case of not doing them because I don’t think they have value. The admin I mean is the stuff that ensures that handy stuff like funding happens, that students are taking the right exam and are getting a useful and valuable experience out of things. Yet somehow it all falls into a psychological blind spot. 
I’ve tried things. I’ve tried using “tasks” in Outlook with no success, because it’s all too easy to click “dismiss”. I’ve had some success with a notebook and a long list of jobs, through which I have forced myself to work, but even there, I’ve too often ended up just shunting things onto tomorrow’s list, and then they get forced to the day after, then the next, and the next, and the next… I’ve made checklists of key jobs, and then ignored them, or forgotten them until it was too late. It would be fine if it was just about me. But it never is. In order that a student’s experience be as positive as possible, people around you work hard to make up for these failings, creating a ring of spreading ripples of annoyance and frustration. 
Coaching and mentoring is part of my role at college but at times I wonder if we forget that some of the administrative duties teachers hold are actually complex skills in themselves. To say “it’s just admin” and to assume that a teacher should somehow just know how to do it is quite dismissive of some skilled professionals who “only” do admin. Administrative work is  a skillset to be developed, and requires a degree of coaching and guidance in order for a new or even an experienced teacher to learn. It occurs to me as well that these things rarely, if ever, arise on teacher development programmes. Yet to do these things badly can have as negative an impact on student experiences as poor teaching. I suspect that the memory of the negative impact of bad admin stays with a learner longer than the memory of a bunch of lessons, good or bad. 
Yes, our primary role is making learning happen in the classroom, and I’m mostly OK at that bit. But time management and administrative duties are things I need to learn to do better at. Although it may take a massive improvement to become good at the administrative side of things, I reckon I can aim to become a little bit less shit at them. In a year on year development sense, I’ve done better this year than last, although that’s not exactly a grand achievement. As a start, I’m in the process of writing down all the things I’ve neglected to do, or done badly, and then I’m going to make posters or guides or something to stick on the wall above my desk. Possibly also tattoo it to the inside of my eyelids. 
I’ll make one for my bathroom as well.