Wednesday, 25 November 2015

The cat on the keyboard (and other tales of daily life as an NEC tutor)


At the centre of NEC’s model of distance learning is a personal tutor who is a specialist in the subject each student is studying. For anyone considering becoming a distance learning tutor, there’s no doubting the value the role brings to students. Time after time, when students tell us what they really like about studying with NEC, it’s their relationship with their tutor that they value above everything else.

But what is being an NEC tutor actually like day-to-day? We asked two tutors to talk about their work. Each of them paints a picture of a way of earning a living that is varied and flexible, with lots of contact with students and time to fit in other interests.

The former FE teacher

Josie, who is a biology specialist, taught in colleges of further education for almost two decades before she started working for NEC.

‘Each day is different, so it's impossible to pin down what I do on a typical day. The flexibility of the work means I can fit it around other work, gym, swimming, shopping, the dentist and whatever else I need to do. Most days I check to see if there are any new enrolees for me, then contact them with the welcome email or letter and log the contact.

‘It is a rare day when there are no queries to deal with, by email or forum, so I like to answer those as soon as possible. Queries may be from learners or NEC staff. Then any assignment marking gets tackled.

‘There is also occasional chasing up to be done, contacting learners I've not heard from for a while. All this while trying to keep the cat from walking on the keyboard and editing documents, sorting and packing in preparation for moving house in a few weeks, doing a bit of gardening when the weather gives me a chance and dealing with anything else that comes along.’

The second chance learner

Valerie is a tutor for all the English and literature subjects NEC offers, as well as classical civilisation and sociology at all levels.

‘Over the ten or more very enjoyable years I have been an NEC tutor, I have had a variety of students of all ages, abilities and from all walks of life, from the UK and abroad.

‘I can understand some of the students’ fears and problems from personal experience as I left school at fifteen with no qualifications. I was married at twenty-one. My husband was in the RAF and we lived abroad for over twenty years. So it wasn't until my 50s that I finally had the time and a chance to resume further education. I joined the Open University and completed a BA (Hons) then an MA in Literature.

‘I really enjoy my work with the students and NEC whilst also being able to work in the comfort of my own home. I would guarantee that anyone considering joining us will receive a very warm welcome and help to achieve their ambitions as a tutor.’

What NEC learners say about their tutors

Carly, Angela and Elliot have studied very different subjects, for very different reasons. What they have in common, though, is acknowledging the support they received from their tutor.

Carly, who studied the CACHE Level 3 Diploma for the Children and Young People's Workforce, says:  ‘If it wasn't for Kate I wouldn't have been able to complete the course. It was always a pleasure dealing with her, she was so helpful and nothing was too much trouble.’

Angela, who has finally achieved her goal of a maths GCSE, told us: ‘I've tried twice before at adult learning colleges so I'm chuffed! Alan was so helpful and answers assignments and queries straight away every time.’

Home educated student, Elliot, now in the final year of a law degree at the University of Cambridge, acknowledges the debt he owes to his tutor: ‘Phillip...passes on his genuine interest in and enthusiasm for his subject.’

To find out more about our tutors, our learners, and the wide range of flexible distance learning courses we offer, visit our website or speak to our team. You can keep up to date with all our latest news and events by subscribing to our newsletter and following our blog. We can also be found on social networks including Facebook and Twitter.

Monday, 16 November 2015

A tribute to an inspiring lifelong educator: Nora Tomlinson (1938-2015)

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Ros Morpeth, Chief Executive National Extension College, writes:

The death of lifelong educator Nora Tomlinson and former NEC tutor in the summer took me back to an earlier era of adult learning. In the late 1960s and the 1970’s, when Nora worked with us at NEC, we had just introduced weekend courses, a national innovation at the time. In an eloquent personal tribute to Nora, Roger Lewis, a long-standing NEC course writer and former education director, recalls a discussion about washing machines at one of those NEC weekends: ‘...some of the students were, I recall, somewhat taken aback that their tutors spent time on such matters, assuming tutors only talked about things like Platonic philosophy and Middlemarch.’

As her obituary points out, Nora was a classic (and excellent) adult tutor - patient and enthusiastic with students; enthusiastic also about furthering her own learning (a key ingredient in successful adult tutoring). The patience and enthusiasm that Nora’s daughter Jane Shore remarks on in the obituary of her mother published in The Guardian are what foster the belief in even the least confident of students that they can succeed.

As well as her work for NEC, Nora worked at the OU for over 30 years, teaching English Literature, but also initially helping out with teaching the foundation Arts course (known as A100). She wrote teaching material for Arts preparatory and foundation courses and for second and third level literature courses, including a unit on the Nineteenth Century Novel – George Eliot remained one of Nora’s favourite novelists. It is clear that Nora was particularly good at communicating with her students and engaging them in lively debates – stubbornly and provocatively declaring, for instance, that Wordsworth was ‘boring’; and many found her an inspiring and subversive teacher.

There can be few places more constricting for adults learners than a prison cell. Understanding this, Nora’s sense of social justice led her through the gates of Bedford Prison to read to prisoners, something she managed to make time for alongside teaching for the NEC and the OU, protesting at Greenham Common, promoting fair trade, singing in several choirs, playing the piano and offering accommodation to striking miners.

The will to make prisons places for learning seems to have weakened over the last decade or so but there may be a new commitment to offender learning. At Conservative Party conference, the Prime Minister set out the vision of his government for prison education, a development welcomed by, amongst others, The Prisoners’ Education Trust. The announcement followed the news that Justice Secretary Michael Gove plans to give greater powers to prison governors for the education of prisoners to reduce re-offending rates.

Twin tub washing machines may have been superseded by front-loaders in most households since Nora shocked her students, but the wide-ranging curiosity that was such a central part of her character is at least as important for tutors now as it was then, whatever the history and background of the young people and adults who come to them for a second chance at learning.

Thursday, 5 November 2015

Victoria’s pebble pledge gains her GCSE maths at last

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All her working life, Victoria Foster had been frustrated by not passing her maths O level when she was at school. Victoria works full-time in London in a senior management position in childcare. The problem of her lack of achievement in maths continued to haunt her as she advanced up the career ladder. It became particularly acute when, early in 2014, the government announced that only students who had achieved a minimum grade C in GCSE maths and English would be eligible to take the new Level 3 Early Years Educator qualifications being launched later in the year.

Swimming in the sea on holiday that summer brought a moment of illumination for Victoria. As she emerged from the water, she said to herself: ‘Other people achieve a maths GCSE in their 50s. Why not me? Why not go for it?’ As a pledge that she would pull out all the stops to gain the maths qualification that had eluded her more than 30 years before, she picked up a pebble from the beach and put it in her bag.

Choosing NEC was relatively easy for Victoria once she realised there was no institution near her home in Suffolk that offered maths classes at a time when she could attend. What’s more, she knew what distance learning entailed as she had completed a degree with the Open University at the age of 42. ‘It was the quality of NEC’s course materials and the tutor support all students are offered that clinched it for me,’ explains Victoria. ‘My tutor was immensely supportive and my experience of being a student with NEC was all I hoped it would be.’

Victoria knew from the word go that all distance learners must be highly self-disciplined to achieve what they set out achieve. In her case, that meant studying while she was commuting between Suffolk and London from Monday to Friday and setting aside Sunday afternoons as well. ‘There are plenty of things I would rather have been doing, and I’m sure that’s true for everyone,’ says Victoria. ’But if it’s for a defined period of time – in my case, nine months – and that does make it seem manageable.’

Victoria’s self-discipline paid off: GCSE results day arrived. In her dressing gown, she opened the door to the postman and ripped open the registered envelope he had delivered. ‘I burst into tears of joy in front of him!’ recalls Victoria. ’36 years of regret at what I saw as my failure in maths were washed away in an instant. I had to reassure the postman that my tears were happy ones.’

What was it like being a student again after so many years in employment? ‘Going back into a large school sports hall to sit the exams was rather odd – us few adults surrounded by throngs of young people,’ says Victoria. ‘With GCSEs, there’s no escaping the fact that exams have to be sat at defined times. That’s why it’s essential you keep up with the workload. Even more structure in courses would help students with that, in my opinion.’

An unexpected bonus is that Victoria’s employer sees her maths GCSE as something she can speak from personal experience about studying to colleagues now studying it themselves.

Victoria concludes: ‘At last, I have put to rest the distress that had been with me for so many years of my failure to pass O level maths. Now, it seems ridiculous that it had become such a big thing. I didn’t need the qualification to progress in my career but I feel in a position to advise others who are looking to progress because I have achieved it myself.’