The first point of contact

21 October 2019

No matter how old we get, the role of teacher is perceived as one of authority. Authority can of course symbolise oppression, a dangerous imbalance of status, or the powerful versus the powerless. But authority isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It can also represent integrity, safety, expertise.

I was recently in the supermarket and passed a woman who I knew, but I wasn’t sure where from. We exchanged respectful pleasantries – I suspect she couldn’t place me either – then we went our separate ways. Just to shut down that tab in my mind, I reasoned that she was in some sort of essential position relating to my family, and remembered her as the new doctor at my local surgery. It wasn’t until I sat across the desk from her a few weeks later at a school parents’ evening, that I realised she was in fact my son’s history teacher. I have been teaching in FE colleges and in the community for over a decade, yet still I saw her and instantly aligned her role with authority, albeit the nurturing kind.

I work with a range of adult student groups: people who are in long term unemployment who are mandated to attend my English sessions by Jobcentre Plus; groups who are currently working at a lower level of literacy than they would like and attend by choice in order to progress; the third group I teach are adults with disabilities and learning difficulties.

All these sessions are grouped by the learning providers in terms of a single aspect the students have in common – unemployed, entry level English skills, disability – yet every student in every session brings something valuable to the table. I see my teacher obligation not as a guardian of skills and knowledge, but as the person responsible for instigating a sense of community in the room – that feeling of belonging, of mutual support, of us all being cheerleaders for each other. In that sort of trusting environment we are all more likely to be open about our insecurities and what we have yet to learn.

And I say we, my students are placed in my class because of a singular skills deficit in literacy, but that doesn’t define them as individuals. Each one has a range of talents, abilities, and expertise. I currently have a student who doesn’t need to buy any vegetables over the winter months as he has grown all his own in his allotment, having stored and preserved them in a variety of ways. I have another student who crochets blankets for her family, makes her own clothes and is a prolific knitter. I have another who rescued an eagle owl that was stuck in some barbed wire, nursed it back from the brink of death and has since adopted it as a pet, the owl and its rescuer having become so attached – he’s built a large aviary for it and even takes it on caravan holidays with his family. I get to meet such an interesting array of diversely skilled folk and can learn from each of them. How lucky am I?

As a teacher/ community organiser/ authority figure, my students often come to me as the first point of contact when they have a bigger problem. The members of our classroom community know I’m an accessible part of their weekly routine, a non-threatening predictable presence in their life. Some are nervous of more traditional authority – police, doctor, local council, job centre – so they ask for my help. And there have been numerous occasions where I have said to an adult student who has shared a concern, ‘Yes, this is a calling the police thing’ or ‘Yes this is definitely a make an emergency doctor appointment thing’, and in collaboration with safeguarding or support teams, have helped them towards the agency or professional service that is most useful in their individual circumstances.

Being in that position, the first point of contact, is a great privilege and big responsibility. Learning and Work Institute’s new report Healthy, Wealthy and Wise: implications for workforce development, highlights the importance of developing a shared vision between organisations; pursuing a multi-agency, person-centred approach which makes a positive impact on students’ health, wealth and wellbeing; building an ecosystem where purposeful collaboration between services is emphasised.

And this word, services, is fitting. We must never forget that educators are above all else, public servants. Our job is to serve the people we welcome into our classrooms. Surely cross agency collaboration is the most logical way to serve the whole person, to use our authority in the most positive way, rather than simply to address a perceived skills deficit.

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Sarah Simons, FE tutor, columnist at TES, and guest host of Upskilling Pathways: implications for the adult learning workforce the EAAL, EPALE UK and Learning and Work Institute joint conference

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