Monday and snow falls on the Holloway Road. 9.30am on the dot and the shutters rattle and rise on the entrance to the learning centre behind the library. Like sheep through a dip I count them in, one, two, three, four, five snow-capped students so far shuffle past the tutor-gatekeeper escaping the cold, leaving laughter-filled vapour trails in their wake. They’re a good humoured bunch and head straight for the radiators, kettle on and a packet of biscuits already broken open. “Who’s in charge around here?” I ask. “We don’t usually have tea until eleven! Well, just this once; it’s not often we have snow after all. No, I opened the shutters bang on!”
This is an adult and community learning class for unemployed residents in a North London borough. It’s an introduction to customer service in hospitality and catering course at Level 1. Next week is International Women’s Day and we take a group photo and reflect on the fact that the entire class today is comprised only of women and they are almost all originally from someplace else and no two women are from the same place. Albania, Jamaica, Bangladesh, Nigeria and DRC are all represented here today, as are Ireland and a London ‘born and bred’. Our colleague originally from Ethiopia is not. But she did ring earlier to apologise for not being able to make it. Over the weekend she received a call from back home to say two male family members have been killed; allegedly by government forces. “Things are not so stable there,” she explains. “So sorry I can’t make it today”, she says. “No, not at all” says I, “take all the time you need. Is there anything we can do to help?” There isn’t. She says she’ll be back next week, she can’t afford to go home for the funeral, the kids have school and, besides, it’s too dangerous.
Tuesday and snow turns to sleet down St John Street. Madelaine, the cleaner, has been in since before 8 o’clock and has kindly turned up the heating already. It’s 23 degrees. There’s time to put the kettle on. Almost a full house; 10 adult students in attendance. Introduction to administration, Level 1. We’ve a visit today, across the floor of the main library and a step back in time to the local history centre. We’re all of us mostly rooted from somewhere else, but this is home now. As if to prove the point the antipodean archivist has prepared a talk, pulled out artefacts, laid out maps, will comfort us as we peruse the workhouse records and explain to us the reason for the higher level pavements along the aptly named Upper Street. (To prevent the soiling of ladies’ skirts and gentlemen’s shoes by the rivers of waste discharged from animals on route to the meat market pens just outside of the city.) Several students have their own line of enquiry to conduct and vow to return with a daughter, a son, by themselves, out of interest, to research a name, a street, a building of importance to them. And all the time, all have made connections of their own with the course during the visit: communication skills, maintaining records, IT skills, filing and photocopying, internal and external customers, team work, attendance and punctuality. Everyone was on time today.
Wednesday is wet and windy as I return to the Holloway Road. I can still make out somebody else’s class on the whiteboard from yesterday, a different subject altogether. So I decant some of the hot water for my tea into a spare cup and start cleaning it. In my first year of teaching a moonlighting Ofsted inspector told me ‘you can lose points in an observation for a dirty whiteboard’. I don’t know if that’s true, I’ve never chased it up, but ever since I’ve never taken any chances either and kept my whiteboards spotless. And left them that way too when I’ve finished. Nice cup of tea that.
I’m helping cover an employment support drop-in session for the next 3 hours. There are two of us, me and my Spanish colleague (see, we’re all of us from someplace else). We get along well, between us we have it covered and the 3 hours go quickly as we deal with forgotten passwords, inappropriate email addresses, personal statements, online competency tests, third person CV’s, application forms, covering letters, the hidden jobs market, speculative letters and interview preparation. That’s the easy stuff.
Over the years I’ve heard so many stories of personal trials. The frayed nerves of long-term claimants; carers forced to seek work; the despondent who tries so hard and does everything by the book; the abandoned single mothers (there are so many) with the asthmatic child in temporary accommodation, the bloke with more than 40 years’ work experience searching for work in a new century; the recovering alcoholic; the former inmate with a portfolio of qualifications from almost every awarding body and nobody willing to give them a start and many, many more. But all are working hard to move forward, piecing together their next steps, filling in gaps, taking refuge in the benign setting of a high-ceilinged community classroom. A cup of tea, anyone?
Thursday’s picked up a bit. It’s still chilly, but we’re in Barnsbury all day and a quick walk through the Culpepper Community Garden helps me find a dash of vitamin D to pick me up too. Today’s classes are in the local JCP office. I don’t have access to tea making facilities there, but one of the coaches has taken pity on me and makes me a cup of coffee out of her own stash. This is the only time I drink coffee these days. I think it’s decaf’.
It’s heart-warning and humbling to find here, in this possibly unlikely setting, students who want to learn more about adult social care. Perhaps some will make the transition from ‘informal’ carer (unpaid, unqualified, unrecognised, under the radar) to that of a ‘formal’ carer (paid, trained, recognised, valued) now that the loved ones they have been caring for have passed on. They share their stories and realise they are not the only ones. It seems we’ve all lost someone. And we all shed a tear when the woman from the hospice plays that beautiful video about ‘Sam’s Team’. Then we all need a cup of sweet tea and two or three of the learners nip out to the café in Chapel Market and cleverly sneak the hot brews back in to the JCP. I won’t tell you how – and you mustn’t say anything – because hot drinks are not allowed to be brought in by claimants in case they’re used against staff. Or maybe they know us well enough now and turn a blind eye to the steaming carrier bags gingerly carried across the reception. Oh yes, and someone’s brought gingernuts.
Friday, back on the Holloway Rd and the sky is on the ground. It’s grey and miserable, like the expressions on the Spenser and Bacon statues above the library frontage. They look like they could do with a mug of hot tea the two of them.
Despite the uninspiring atmosphere outside, inside, the class of 11 students are all looking for inspiration to help them perform better in job interviews. ‘What’s the worst thing about going to interviews?’ the teacher enquires and hands out whiteboard markers to the students (carefully ensuring that they are not flipchart markers) and invites them to come and write their suggestions on the whiteboard for all to examine and deconstruct. ‘Not knowing how to get there,’ suggests one. ‘Not knowing what to wear,’ another. ‘Not knowing how to answer the questions,’ a third. ‘Not knowing anything about the company,’ number two again. ‘Nerves,’ shares number four. Five and six are in there now with ‘Not knowing anything about myself’ and ‘Getting lost’ (both from number five) and ‘Not knowing what questions to ask at the end’ (number six). And before too long we have about 15 ‘worst things about interviews’ to overcome. Who wrote ‘not knowing anything about myself’, says I, and the whole class collapses in good-natured hysterics.
These are all pretty bad ‘things’ about interviews I concede. But they’re not the worst thing. What’s the worst thing about interviews really? The teacher leaves the question hanging in the air, a Pinteresque suspensive pause from the former actor’s toolkit. “Not… preparing! That’s the worst thing about interviews.” And slowly at first, 11 glorious lightbulbs come on.
This has been a glimpse into a week of teaching in an adult and community learning setting. My students are amazing, I learn as much from them as I hope they learn from me, but that is only possible if I prepare for their learning. I’m reminded of when I was training to be an actor of Stanislavski’s ‘An Actor Prepares’. So too must a teacher prepare, if they are to leave an enduring impression.
© Colin Gardiner 2018
This was one of six pieces of creative writing shortlisted for UNISON’s 2018 writing competition.