Tuesday, 30 September 2014

My defection to FE: Notable differences

After 12 years at the chalk-face of three state secondary schools; I was done in. Many of my friends here on Twitter have seen me broken, battered and bruised, teetering on the edge of a dark, potentially terminal abyss. 

Here I am, 5 weeks of teaching and 7 weeks in total into my FE teIaching career (and I really DO hope this is the start of a new career in FE for me) and the differences between FE and the state secondary school sector are numerous. 

So, to borrow the words of Dylan Thomas, 'to begin at the beginning':

1. I started at my college two weeks before the students began. 

In secondary schools, if you're lucky you get two days INSET, at least one of which is a 'death by meetings and PowerPoint' day and the other a Faculty day. If particularly unlucky, you just get one day of the former, with no real time, or motivation to get yourself properly sorted for the first day's teaching. 
  Here I had a week to get settled in, find resources, get 'inducted' by my manager and I WAS left to my own devices to get myself sorted, as much as I was able, having not met any of the students yet. 
  The second week involved enrolement of students, where I was repeatedly told it would be 'manic'. All I can say is that the FE version of 'manic' is clearly very different from the secondary school version.  

2. I work for a large 'Corporation'.

    Frankly, this really unsettled me. The last time I worked for a 'Corporation' it was for The Abbey National, in their Visa Disputes Department where I was miserable, bored and little more than a battery hen. Education, a BUSINESS? What the....???
    This 'Corporateness' was bought into stark relief when I was booked into, and attended my 'Corporate Welcome Day' where we had many presentations by senior managers of  the college - most of which were at least useful in integrating us into the FE way of things; and learning about the vast range of courses and students the college caters for.  
  What was nice was that most of them made the effort to chat to us in the breaks, and get to know who we were, at least a little. This was where I nearly, but I didn't quite have the gumption for, said that I was, 'kind of a big deal on Twitter'. 

3. The manager to lecturer (teacher) ratio 

In my previous secondary school, in my English Faculty there were: Head of Faculty, Head of KS4, Head of KS3, two Heads of Year, leaving a part-timer and I as the only non-manager types. God knows what the actual ratio is, but managers clearly outnumber 'normal teachers' by a big margin. Furthermore, in the climate of a school in a certain category, this leads you to being micro-managed to within an inch of your sanity. 
  Here I am part of the 'A-Level Academy' section of the college, and above me is the 'A-Level Manager' for our site, then above her is an overall 'Academy Leader' for A-Levels across all sites that offer it.  Here, the atmosphere is much more like when I started teaching, where your Head of Faculty was 'first among equals' - a teacher who happened to have to deal with all that admin you didn't have the stomach for, who just let you get on and teach. 
  So, in effect, I am 'Head of English'. I was most amused, whilst munching on my ready-meal prior teaching my evening class, to open correspondence addressed to the 'Head of English'. Ok, so I manage myself, but that feels really rather good. 

4. I can say, 'No' to things on my timetable I am not yet ready for

I applied for the post at the college because it was part-time, and I could have had a full FE timetable if I had wanted to. However, I said, "No" because a) I didn't want to work full-time in a sector I was new to, and b) It was ANOTHER course I've not taught before (A vocational Media Studies course). 
  I could also say, "No" to a third GCSE class I was offered on another site. The fact that I could do this was, well, a revelation! 

5. My timetable - It's not bonkers! 

Last year, I had a timetable that I just could not get on with. All KS3 (bar a year 9 class) and KS4 and 5 classes were split. Split KS5 classes are the norm in secondary education, but ALL of KS3 and 4? I saw those classes for 2 hours a week. It made building relationships, the positive kind, infinitely more difficult, as with marking, and planning lessons. That was one of the nails in my secondary teacher coffin. 
   This links to the point above - it  is not entirely dictated to me. I teach 18 hours in total, 15 are part of my contract, and 3 hours are paid hourly - again my choice. MY CHOICE! I have, as part of my contract, 8 'On site hours' which is the FE equivalent of PPA time. Some of which you can complete at home.  I had to keep asking permission to leave on my half day on Tuesday, until I got the message that, 'No one clock watches around here'. There IS such a thing as  'give AND take' not 'take, take, take'. 
  In total, in my 18 hours teaching I have 5 classes: 2 GCSE, 2 AS and 1 A2 class, meaning I spend 6 hours a week with each A-Level  class and 3 hours a week (all in one chunk) with each GCSE class. This huge increase in contact time for the majority of classes means:

  • I know all their names already after 4 weeks of teaching, even the massive AS Lang/Lit class of 25 and NEARLY my massive GCSE class of 35. 
  • Planning lessons is SPEEDY. I know my classes. I am not swamped with data but I know my students pretty darn well already.
6. The 'work-load' and marking hot-potatoes

As previously mentioned, I teach for 18 hours, which is not much less than a full-time teacher's full time-table load. Perhaps, one class less? However, the marking policy is much different to secondary school where exercise books must be marked every two weeks, assessments and feedback given also within two weeks of the assessment being given (given, it's not much of a 'gift' is it?) along with homework, for each teaching group - which with that crazy shared group timetable, your number of classes nudges into double-figures, while your marking load slowly, but surely, saps the very life-blood from you.  
   Here, the expectation is that you set homework, for each group, mark it and grade it so students have weekly 'working at' grades. The only real 'extra' to this is the half-termly mocks. However, as the pupils can and want to do a good job if it, you can sit and mark while they work in silence, meaning you can start marking once classes mocks while the one you are with are doing theirs. 
   So, I am busy, there is plenty to do each day and week, but here is the crucial difference - I am not overwhelmed, permanently over-whelmed and constantly defeated by the work--load. It is actually manageable. I am tired at the end of the week, but not sapped of all strength. 

7. My team is 'A-Level' not my subject

Now, this I really like. It is much more like the Swedish Gymnasium 16-19 school I visited in Ystad, where teachers were in teams of courses, not necessarily curriculum areas.  This means a wider range of personality types, and none of the potential 'insular' or superiority complexes that one curriculum area can lord over another. Plus, no one seems particularly stressed, so this does not feed into the kind of 'stress vortex' you can find in over-worked secondary school faculty areas.  
  It's great to look discuss different subject areas and learn stuff in the process. 

8. There is LOTS of admin:

  • Lecturer's record book - basically a teacher planning system to record lecture notes and marks
  • Pen Portraits - notes are to be made for each pupil in each class about their needs, or difficulties as learners and how you intend to meet their needs in your planning. It is OK to do this later on when you have got to know your classes
  • Each class has a spreadsheet for you to record homework marks. This is monitored to see if pupils are meeting the college's high standards for their pupils. The emphasis here IS on the monitoring of the students and THEIR progress.(Although I'm sure it's something to do with monitoring teaching too, but there isn't a big deal made about this.)
  • Lots of admin is require for lesson obs - lesson plan, pen portraits, Scheme of Work you are using. 

At the moment I'm really focusing on the teaching and the marking. Am just starting to get to grips with some of the admin. 

9. Lessons are still graded and Ofsted are in for a week

It's a bit of a step back in time! As a new member of staff I'll get a developmental, ungraded lesson observation prior to a graded one. If that's the system, so be it. However, I'll not plan lessons on the basis of worrying about a one-off lesson observation or 'what Ofsted might want'.  Having said this, my mentor/buddy type person is also the UCU union rep and is steering 'The Powers That Be' into un-graded lesson observation process. 
  When I started teaching, Ofsted visits lasted a week and it is likely you'd be seen more than once. Thinking about this, I think that part in particular is FAR less stressful than the '20 minutes to prove your competence under untenable pressure' system we have had to deal with in Ofsted's recent history.

10. I am not a form tutor

Here, pastoral responsibility is with a PLA (Personal Learning Advisor) on each course. They act as a Head of Year and form tutor rolled into one. Ours is a force of nature and brilliant. 
  You don't notice or realise how much time a tutor group takes up until you don't have one any more. Therefore, I am free (yes FREE) to focus on what I am employed for - the teaching of my courses. I love that I can focus on this. 

11. How I don't feel - I am not:

Stressed, frustrated, overwhelmed, exhausted, paranoid and neurotic about errors I may make, scared of speaking to my boss, frightened to express an opinion, in a constant state of worry, miserable, defeated, lonely, isolated, or undermined. 

12. Lastly, but most importantly, the students

They are:

  • Very compliant - not in the 'Stepford Wives' sense of blind obedience, but they pretty much do as they are asked by lecturers. This is taking some getting used to. 
  • Part of a very wide and different catchment to Coventry - Rugby definitely seems more 'well-to-do' than the catchment of my previous place. Even walking around the nearby Tesco and even just walking around the college site, the LACK of expletives in general conversation is very noticeable. (The most swearing has occurred in my History Boys lessons - ALL Alan Bennett's fault). 
  • That is not to say they are spoilt and none are vulnerable - there are plenty of students with a range of potential barriers to learning, but whatever that barrier might be, they don't seem to want to let it get the better of them. 
  • They seem to have higher expectations of themselves than the pupils that I have taught over the past few years. Is this to do with them making the choice to come here? Surely it must be a factor. 
  • They call me by my first name, 'Gwen' which is odd, but rather nice. It is all part of the expectations of them behaving like adults. I'm getting used to it and think I like it more than 'Miss' - a perennial reminder of my potential to mutate into Miss. Havisham. 
  • Are here for a second, or even third chance at A-Levels and know they are in the 'palace of second chances'. I love that. 
  • They are patient - they know I am new to the college and many have passed on resources about our texts to help me out. I thought that was really sweet! 
  • They want to have feedback and can take a bit of harsh marking and detailed, honest feedback on the chin. 
  • A stern 'bollocking' -  no shouting - is really enough to get them back on track when they are not quite at their best. 
  • They are very, very, very likeable. I think I've bonded really well with all my classes, even the tricky, truculent reluctant re-sitters in my GCSE night class. 

In short, it's damn lovely. I am still busy, but I am more productive because I am less stressed, much, much, much less stressed. I wish I'd done this years ago. 

For an FE to Secondary Education transition - please read my dear, beloved friend @rlj1981's blog here