Friday 16 November 2018

Open for Business

Yesterday all classes were cancelled at The Institute, so that we could host the annual Open Day. This is when many bus-loads of school kids are delivered to the campus in the hope that the visit will help them decide what to do at college in one, or a couple of, year's time. I am required to stand at a tall table, answering questions and handing out dull-dull-dull brochures for the various course we offer in the biosciences.  It is like nothing so much as an Attenborough documentary about coral reefs. Schools of identically coloured creatures drift past without much obvious sense of purpose: Voice-over "Here, in their characteristic green sweater and skirt, comes a group of Loretto kilkennensis; notice how the tall melanic individual leads the others from one feeding location to the next. But wait, here comes a smaller school of bright-red St.Leo's carlovia, also an all female group: they are studiously ignoring the other species".

One of the heart-warming positives of such events is to see solid evidence of Irish multiculturalism. This manifests as black teenagers speaking perfect idiomatic, locally accented, hiberno-english; and why not? they were born here, schooled here and GAAed here. Not so much when my friend and work-mate Aspinas came with his family from Zimbabwe 15 years ago. His boy was A God on the GAA pitch in Tullamore but his accent retained a southern lilt until he left school a tuthree years later. The other evidence is the make up of pal-clutches: these are typically 2 or 3 in number and often come in a palette of colours. Maybe the current teenagers are not only down-with-the-gays but also colour-blind.

Having concluded that the brochures had no information that was of any use to a 16 y.o would-be student, I decided to play an empathy game. If I, even silverback crotchetty me, can come across as interested and engaged, or even interesting and engaging then it might shift the scales so that a bright, curious student falls into our clutches in 2020. My standard patter was to tell anyone who would stand still long enough:
  • For god's sake take a year out after school! If you go to Perth or Perth Amboy or Prague for a visit you may never come back to Carrick-on-Suir and then you won't need to worry about which college to go to . . . you can skip that whole schtick.
  • Don't over-think the decision. Our [generic] Bioscience degree is no better, no worse, than the equivalents in other colleges. The vital details in teaching quality are not captured on the brochure. In any case the most significant variable (and probably the source of your life-time Significant Other) is the group of kids whom you meet in your first week in college. Their composition is completely beyond your control.
  • Never go to any college in order to get a job! Imagine trudging through four years of your life getting marks but marking time, to get a job that will have been Taiwanised or robotised 5 years from now.
At the end of a long day, I spoke with one Mum who quizzed me about how we would manage her son, who was fifteen, ASD, dyslexic and colour-blind. Put those in order of burden, if you can. I remember being fifteen, it was not a pretty sight. I think I was able to reassure her. Every year about this time, and again in January, we have a Retention Meeting where we compare notes on All our students. If Jimmy has been mitching half my classes, it may be because he has to leave early on Tuesday to go to work; if he's missing half of all his classes then we intervene. In the first instance, we collar him in the corridor and ask him what's going on because he's not getting his money's worth out of classes. That never happened when I worked in Universities: nobody was pushed if a student was struggling or consistently absent. Indeed, my impression is that those, more likely from stable middle-class homes, university students were less likely to have work-life issues that couldn't be balanced. So, at The Institute, we care. At about the same time of year we get a <strictly confidential> list of students who need extra time or special conditions for December and May examinations: ASD, dyslexia, dyspraxia are the commonest conditions on the list, but impaired sight, wheelchair-needed and other surprising conditions feature. I said to Mum "As we're talking, students are passing my mind's eye each of whom was special: they were accepted, accommodated and, well, cherished". I think that's true. My dyslexic star Project student a few years ago, never thought of dyslexia as a handicap, that's for sure.

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