It’s only mid-June: more than a month to go until the formal end of the academic year. But Further Education colleges, already sparser than I’ve ever seen them, have definitely stepped down a gear. For a good many students, all the boxes have been ticked; Ofsted have been and gone, leaving in their wake discarded clumps of hair and the ringing, indifferent hum of chemical sedation; the External Verifiers have been propitiated like household gods with offerings of burned portfolio samples. With the exception of one difficult but very rewarding out-of-office-hours assignment, most of my time in classrooms for the next few weeks will be relaxed and sociable. This has been a difficult year but “my” students have mostly done very well. A few have struggled, more with the system and with daily living than with learning.
So it’s time to reflect and review. Recent events have led me to recall that interpreters in education have to work within a broad cast. I believe the next closest public service sign language interpreting arrangement to working in education is that of the “designated” workplace interpreter, as opposed to the freelancer flitting around the region, picking and choosing agency jobs to suit their own agenda. For designated interpreters there is that same sense of continuity and of being embedded in an establishment, of having to accommodate your client’s colleagues and behave in a way that is expected and appreciated by that specific local culture, of not always being able to have things your way. Sailing into an unknown office/classroom and behaving like the lord of the manor, bossing or even bullying the local inhabitants and making inexplicable demands, is ultimately going to reflect badly on your client/student and may jeopardise or permanently alter their standing and progress. But then so will being perpetually meek, a push-over. Like any other micro-culture, colleges and companies are an orchestrated dance of expectations, face-saving manoeuvres, superstitious rituals, and continual pitches and broadcasts to establish status and dominance. It might look on the surface like nothing more than a Level 1 Multiskills course or a Primark decked in plastic and vulgar primaries, but millimetres below the surface these settings are a sixteenth century bal masqué, all lace, illicit love-making and poisoned needles.
Where does an Educational Interpreter mesh with this stepping gyre, these wheels-within-wheels, this brass and wire engine of competition and camaraderie? Who is our primary ally? Who is the engineer of the FE train, to whom should the interpreter turn first for succour?
The answer is obvious. It’s the dinner ladies.
Let’s review the runners-up. Obviously teachers are still quite important, despite the concerted effort of interested amateurs in government. Interpreters do have a pressing need to understand their teacher colleagues and what they’re trying to achieve. There are a lot of mutual needs and there has to be a lot of organised sharing. Teaching strategies are full of hidden intentions around assessment and diagnosis that are deliberately not laid out for all to spot a mile off; and for our part it is too easy to assume that an interpreter’s motives and behaviours are plain (when in fact people regularly find us off-putting and bizarrely inappropriate if not actually rude). Interpreting is all about intention over surface. If you can’t talk to teachers, understand them – even the “difficult” ones – perhaps you shouldn’t be there.
But teaching, strangely, is not the be-all of learning. What about managers: course leaders, department heads, the college principal herself? Yes, there’s a certain amount of forelock-tugging that doesn’t go amiss. But essentially these people are functionaries. There is little need to communicate with them directly and you will spend next to no time co-operating with them in person. You might allocate a subroutine to pleasantries but let your co-ordinator and other auditors deal with the shrill demands of their spreadsheet macros.
Far more important is your relationship with the dinner lady and you should reconsider it right now. I am getting older, tetchier and more resistant to change and I don’t even know if these sustenance dispensing operatives are still called dinner ladies. It seems to me that they probably aren’t, since FE colleges are becoming more and more reluctant to do anything as mundane as feed their students, so there is little in the way of “dinner” involved. Also, I should not presume of course that they will technically be ladies, if there is indeed a technology of ladyship. Dinner ladies is what they were called when I was growing up and had to hold out my Bakelite bowl to them daily, so it’s how I think of them now.
Titles aside, we have a commonality: we are both zero-hour contract workers, external, disposable, invited within the hull of the ship of learning but not technically members of its crew. But the dinner lady has power where you don’t. They control whether you eat or starve, they control your access to vitamins, to caffeine, to the very life-giving process of releasing energy from fats and sugars. Slight them and your working year will become more inconvenient, your performance will crash earlier and more often, and you will be left rocking and wondering why it was you failed to do your basic job. Cultivate your relationship with the dinner ladies. Look after them, and they will look after you. If you think you have crap up with which to put, take a gander at their days.
In another world, I read that deaf PhD students and post-docs have trouble recruiting suitable interpreters, and it must be because it’s the end of the school year and I’m so very, very tired that this just makes me laugh manically like an idiot.