Don’t think that I can’t hear you. Even from this lofty latitude, perched on a coastal shelf alongside the Highlands and Islands, I can still make out the distant mumble of your 1990’s football chant echoing round the end-of-season emptiness of the Borough Briggs stadium:
“Well it’s all gone quiet over there. It’s all gone quiet over there. Well it’s all gone quiet, all gone quiet, all gone quiet over there!”
And indeed it has. Very quiet. I’ve not posted a blog since I drove up here at the end of February with a car full of warm jumpers and sing-along CDs. True, I’ve sent a few tweets in the meantime, but mainly infuriating pics of empty golden beaches or landscapes replete with wild yellow flowers.
So why the long, golden-sanded silence?
Well, partly because I’ve been in listening mode. I arrived in a college that I knew needed a new Plan. In my first few weeks, I put aside small talk and instead engaged my new colleagues with big questions. Questions like: What is the point of this college? What do we want to be famous for? How do we want to behave?
Questions like that deserve a lot of listening; and then quiet reflection, not over-exuberant blogging. Those three questions shape how we describe the mission, the vision, and the values of our organisation. They are the three highland ducks that we have to get in a row to start our strategic planning.
I’ve also been busy putting names to faces, getting to understand the politics (with a capital and all other sizes of ‘P’), and learning new skills. I used to be a teacher, you know. The last time I had a full-time lecturing job, we were in a different century. I thought I was at the cutting edge of technology then, but recently frankly, I’ve been embarrassing myself in planning meetings with my ‘innovative’ use of flip charts and post-its. An urgent DM to some of my #ukfechat collaborators gave me some new apps to master and use. Thank you all.
So how am I? I’m surprisingly well actually. Thanks for asking. We’re not short of issues to resolve at the moment, but despite the pictorial evidence to the contrary, I didn’t come up here for a seaside sinecure. I came up here to see how great at teaching and learning we could become. I think what we can become is quite exciting.
I’ve always been a big fan of paradox, and the contrasts we have here are full of it. I’m in a college that’s relatively large for the part of the world we are in, and relatively small for where I’ve come from. We have the headquarters of some world-famous companies on our doorstep here, and yet a student cohort whose rurality and remoteness drives us to deliver learning in very different ways. We’re an FE college, and we’re a university, delivering a truly tertiary offer of further education, work-based learning, and degrees. We’re a self-standing institution and an integral member of an academic partnership that spans roughly half the land mass of Scotland. I love paradox.
I’m a sensitive soul too, or I’d like to be. I’ve tried recently not to talk very much about what goes on south of Hadrian’s Wall. That would be bad form, though I have sneaked a few good ideas across the parapets. Whatever people up here might think, the Scottish ways of doing FE and HE have very much to commend them, starting with the fact that they all come under the one unitary funding council. The ‘Scottishness’ of how we approach education and its challenges here is, I believe, a real advantage to us all.
You’ll be glad to know I’m getting over the language barriers too. I think my Northern Irish DNA has helped with this. Some local terms (like, “it’s a bit of a guddle”), I’m embracing wholeheartedly. Others I have resisted, though I’ve finally agreed to treat “outwith” as if it were a real word. I’m still opposing “timeously” though (pronounced timmy-us-lee) as a realistic alternative to timely.
I’m also learning to treat acronyms with particular caution. Although the fundamentals of running a college don’t change drastically as you head further north, there is a whole new set of language and acronyms to come to terms with. The dangerous ones are the ones you think you recognise from your old life. I spent my first three weeks happily discussing success rates (SR) until I realised everyone else was talking about student retention.
When I first arrived I said that governing bodies and senior management teams talk too much about budgets and buildings, and not enough about teaching and learning, our core ‘business’ process. I said we’d be different. We have tried to be. Through hello and high water we have talked teaching and learning. But, you can’t escape the tyranny of budgets in these cash-strapped times, and there are some of our buildings we need to escape from in the very near future. (Not the ones below!)
This blog is about me re-establishing contact with you. I’m still here, just not where you saw me last. The thing about ‘remote’ places is that although they may be more difficult to get to (and this one is only 35 miles from a regional airport), once you’re there, they aren’t remote at all. They’re full of people, and work, and culture, and learning.
There’s also 4G and broadband, so there’s no real excuse not to be in touch. You could also come and see us. There are some lovely places to stay, and I’ve invested now in a bed for the spare room. So if you want to share in British tourism’s best kept secret, or be welcomed at one of the friendliest colleges I’ve been in, then let me know. I’ll refrain from sending you any more sea view pics but be assured, our spare room is a room with a view; unfortunately the view is over the car park.