Building a sense of community can be hard in FE

15 Nov 2021, 7:00

Graduation day is one of the rituals that can help students feel they belong, writes Daniel Phillips

“She worked so hard. We’re so proud.” 

It’s in that moment that graduation is no longer about daft hats, but glistening eyes and proud smiles. That’s when you find out what it means to your students. 

The weight of word counts, observations and grading criteria is lifted, replaced with recognition. 

This week was the turn of our college students from both 2020 and 2021 to don gowns and take the stage. While 2020 had a smaller ceremony last year (thanks to you-know-what), this time they had the full treatment.  

And it was during that smaller occasion that I saw the meaning of passing through and being accepted as a degree holder. 

When I was a student, I just rented the gown last minute, skipped across the stage and went on to the next thing. I’m not sure I saw the point of pomp and ceremony.  

But when I hear the cheer from my students’ families at their graduation, this rite of passage, this public display of togetherness, gives wider meaning to that piece of paper. I’m talking about a sense of community and a shared meaning that I think we can forget as teachers.  

Away from making our lesson objectives, workshop and classroom practices ‘just right’, how do we build that wider sense of belonging that cannot be described through data? Do we have time to create community in our colleges? Why does it matter? 

You’ll be pleased to hear that I’ve done the research so that you don’t have to.  

For many students enrolling in education, but especially those who are the rare breed of ‘HE in FE’, this process of starting a degree feels new and ‘risky’.

For these students, who may be the first in their family to do this route, the delayed gratification of graduation can feel distant on day one.  

As teachers we may bemoan that students look to what their friends are doing, but this is a phenomenon that has an impact on outcomes.

Students’ “investments in education… depend not only on individual benefits, such as test scores and grades, but also on social benefits, such as whether a particular level of effort is consistent with the behaviour of one’s social group”.

That’s according to a 2014 paper by Lavecchia et al in the National Bureau of Economic Research. 

So anything that gives your experience a broader community meaning creates the ties that bind. In other words, it’s not just about teaching the technical ‘how-to’ of a subject or course.  

It’s also about finding the space for students to develop their perspectives, come together as a student body and have the opportunity to make an impact in their college society.  

But coming together is a huge challenge in further education. Our students’ timetables are more fluid than those of a school, and the campus does not have the ‘completeness’ of a university. 

Our student timetables are more fluid than a school’s

And austerity’s screw has turned tightest in FE, leaving us with limited capacity to build links and ‘do extra’. 

The building of a community also needs direct sustained leadership. Perhaps, for example, this week your staff and students marked Armistice Day together.

As a teacher, I’ve often been guilty of forgetting this social aspect of learning, too consumed by my technical tasks to see the community.  

My colleagues have been better, with new student mentorship schemes, cross-course projects and social events, especially after lockdown. But before I become another ‘do as I say, not as I do’, I’ve started to find the time to do this. 

Because how students experience this small society while at college has as much potential to shape their approach to learning as our pedagogy. 

That’s really why graduation day matters so much to them. 

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