Secret Lecturer - Are students and college staff really ok?

Published: 19 Jun 2017

Secret Teacher

Do you ever wonder why people send you work emails at the strangest times? One Monday morning a colleague found an email waiting for him sent by his line manager late on a Saturday evening. It harked back to a conversation he had had the previous Friday about a student who’d just gone off for a weekend overseas during a gap in exams. 

He was asked did he think he was really supporting the student enough when she felt she could just go off at such an important time? Had he phoned the parents to check they knew she’d gone? Had he contacted the safeguarding department?

He defended the student. Maybe she wanted to chill out? Or feared she’d overdone the revision and needed a break? She did come back - she’d not gone to Syria. Yet his line manager had been stressing herself out over this issue enough to email him halfway through the weekend at a time when he was enjoying a bottle of Chardonnay with his family after a good day out. He told me he knew who felt fresher on Monday.

Lecturers cannot be on call 24/7

His line manager feared for the student’s wellbeing but for me the story highlights a glaring example of the lack of wellbeing enjoyed by FE staff. We cannot be on call 24/7 yet tell that to most college staff.

For two days this week I’ve been inundated with ‘cause for concern’ messages from colleagues about this or that student missing a revision session, attending someone else’s revision session when they should have been to business studies, late attendance – you name it, I’ve seen it.

Yet we just have to stop panicking – we are panicking the students because they know these ‘cause for concern’ comments go on their records that they and their parents can access. And despite the fact we don’t pass these sorts of comments on to potential employers or universities, many students think we do. 

At my college, once a student collects so many comments, they have to attend a disciplinary session and this goes on their record. Why stress them out in this way? It’s hard enough being a teenager without that.

Students rattled by ‘cause for concern’ comments

In fact, we also put things like ‘cause for praise’ comments on their records. But in the time I’ve been at my college, calls for praise have been outweighed by concerns by more than 10 to 1. They're all quick to criticise students but slow to praise them for things they do.

This fixation on wellbeing seems all-encompassing – are the students doing what they should do, do we know where they are, do their parents know that they are sick? Yet many of them about to leave college – they are accountable, responsible individuals. Is the college attitude best for their well-being?

When I worked in industry, I used to try solving stress among colleagues by adopting the ‘I’m OK, You’re OK’ approach devised by Thomas Anthony Harris in a self-help book for solving inter-personnel problems. You’ve got to make money in private business and can’t afford not to have a contented, unstressed workforce.

How to read the thoughts of students and staff

Why shouldn't colleges adopt this approach? You simply draw a cross and label the top left quadrant ‘I’m ok, you’re ok’ - it’s the model for well-being, which means everyone is happy and that staff and students can accept that either staff or students can be right or wrong, and that we all give and take.  

The top right quadrant, labelled ‘I’m ok, you’re not ok’ , means the staff are fine but the students are not - they feel intimidated, they don't want to be there, they don't develop a good sense of identity of who they are, and their growth is restricted. There is overuse of ‘cause for concern’. I can see that happening in my college. I tell my students that all our contributions are valid, regardless of whether I know more as a lecturer than they do as students. 

Bottom left, ‘You’re ok, I’m not ok’ suggests students are recognising the inadequacies of the staff by a sense of hopelessness, of ‘us’ and ‘them’  and using this as a reason not to take reponsibility for their own learning– the situation that often seems to arise among bright-eyed and bushy tailed September entrants three months down the line.

‘I’m not ok, you’re not ok’ can mean anarchy reigns

Then, bottom right, ‘I’m not ok, you’re not ok’ . This can mean anarchy, with students saying ‘I'm not doing that, you can’t set me work to do,’ and feeling unmotivated, while staff feel intimated by the students and there is high staff turnover.  

The matrix is a way of identifying people’s state of mind that then directs your actions.

I've seen people trying to introduce wellbeing initiatives in colleges but never actually admit: “This is what’s wrong, everyone needs to be ok and this is why we need an initiative.” 

People at the bottom of the ladder are happy to say when they are not ok, but the higher you get, the less you tend to admit you are not ok. More work had to be done to convince them something could be wrong. 

One college I worked at was a shining example of well-being. The principal was a Quaker, a big, bluff Yorkshireman, who always spoke in a slow, measured manner to both staff and students, never raised his voice and kept his door always open.

An annual opportunity for colleagues to change

Colleges have a golden opportunity for change each July. We pull out the previous year’s quality improvement plan and, hopefully after working out what went right and wrong, make a new one to start in September. 

Why not put these improvement plans on our classroom walls instead of forgetting all about them by December? If they are there for us to see and use, they’ll also remind us that we are working towards all of us – staff and students alike – becoming ok. 

The comment and arguments raised in this blog/article are the opinions of the secret lecturer and theirs alone.  The primary purpose of the article is a catalyst for discussion about key issues in the sector and the content does not reflect the views, opinions and policy of AoC, AoC Create or AoC Jobs

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