I have been teaching since before the National Curriculum was introduced and I have supported hundreds of students apply for university both as a subject teacher at A level and head of sixth form, however I had never been invited to attend a university graduation by one of my ex students before until today and i was invited by Charlotte
I taught briefly in FE on Access to HE programmes, it was meant to be a stop gap while I recharged my batteries after redundancy, redeployment and bereavement. I was not prepared for the life change impact that this programme of study had on the students in my classroom or on myself. The Access to HE Social Science course was very popular, particularly among women. Their ages ranged from twenty to fifty-one – incidentally the same age as me at the time. Their stories were full of emotion, mostly centred around the desire to make a good role model for their children, to prove someone at school wrong, or to do something “worthwhile”. Many of this group of women made an impact on my own decision to return to study and to guide my research focus, but for now I will consider Charlotte and her achievements.
Charlotte pictured below who invited me to her graduation had left school at 14 without qualifications and then drifted into some low paid jobs before having her son and becoming a full-time mum. She went under my radar for much of the time of her studies because she never had a drama, was an excellent attender and always met deadlines. Increasingly however her style of writing her engagement with reading and the development of her critical world view grew on me. We stayed in touch after she completed the course and gained her place at university. We met up during her 3-year degree for breakfasts with her son and another student. Gradually developing a strong friendship mainly via text and Facebook. She would send me questions and we would chat about her course, her deadlines and her many conspiracy theories about the world. My concern was always would my students stay the course and complete the degree, but I never thought this for Charlotte. She was always determined to complete, though many times she doubted herself and experienced crises of confidence. Though I don’t want to suggest that all the working-class women in my class lacked self-confidence, many of them did lack academic confidence. They like Charlotte wrestling with their school narrative that they were useless, going to fail and were not got to achieve much in life. In this respect Charlotte was just part of the long list of students trying to make a transformation in their lives. Charlotte tells me that many of her social science group at college did not complete the degree. So why did Charlotte? Is she more academically able than the other students? Was it just bad luck for them and good for Charlotte? I think her achievement is her unflinching desire to prove others wrong, to stand up for women like her and to change the academic trajectory of her son, who at age 8 has always seen mum studying. The other supporting factor is her family and partner. The women in her family are strongly committed to the caring of others.
It was a proud moment to sit next to her mum and nan at graduation and I had to resist the desire to shout “go on Charlotte” at the top of my voice when her name got called. I did cry though because I know how tough it had been completing assignments to deadlines, working around her caring responsibilities, and fighting those academic demons and those voices constantly with you telling you to “pack it in” “you are not clever enough” to get a degree.
I know we will continue to stay in touch, only for the fact that I make her the best coffee and walnut cake she had ever tasted. The future is bright for Charlotte, she already has secured a job supporting care leavers in their transition to independent living, but she is already thinking of returning to study – PGCE definitely MA possibly.
My year in FE was a turning point for me and students like Charlotte. She once said to me “You`re clever but not posh” I now wear this description proudly and I hope Charlotte does too.