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Adventures of a staff tutor

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Over the Christmas break I managed to acquire a new affliction: ‘Netflix back’. It’s a short-term physiological condition that is caused by lolling about on the sofa watching too much telly.

I really needed a break from everything over Christmas, and thankfully I was able to get a bit of downtime, which involved watching loads of Scandinavian crime dramas.

In my last column I wrote about feeling on the edge of burnout. The feeling of “just about getting everything done” returned within a couple of weeks.

It has now been over a year since I have last physically seen my staff tutor colleagues. The last time was at an event about the new AL contract which took place in Leeds. In normal times, we would be regularly meeting in the Computing and Communications staff tutor room at Walton Hall. In that room (a real one) we would regularly chat about what is going on, find out about what has been said in various meetings, and collectively solve all kinds of little problems and glitches.

Those friendly but essential informal meetings over a cup of coffee that we used to have (or ‘hub chats’ as some of us call them) have become a whole lot more formal. A chance encounter and a quick catch up has morphed into a complex multistage process, which begins with an email, moves on to a diary check, moves on to another email, and then finally on to a virtual meeting. This partly reflects the significant increase in emails I have been receiving over the last year.

We’ve discovered some new phrases.

The most obvious one is: “you’re on mute”, followed by the slightly more esoteric “is that a legacy hand?”, which refers to a spurious virtual hand that had been raised in either MS Teams or Adobe Connect meetings.

In the last few weeks, some staff tutor colleagues have been sent some very sensible queries by tutors that we ought to be able to answer, but are not equipped to answer, such as “what does my projected FTE contain?” and “what are my additional duties?”

All this confusion led to one thing: anxiety.

At the heart of this was a fundamental issue: I had no understanding of how I might be able to support tutors under the terms of the tutor contract, and everyone was telling me that the new tutor contract was to begin in October.

At the beginning of March, the new tutor contract project team appeared to have finally woken up to the fact that they need to understand what staff tutors and student experience managers actually do. To help to unpack this puzzle, they asked staff tutors from each of the faculties to sign up to an impressive number of workshops. From my perspective, it was almost impossible to participate since I’ve been busy preparing for an April presentation.

Amidst all my day to day activities, the emails to tutors, the online conferences, the induction events, and grade appeals, the new tutor contract occupied my thoughts and worries.

I was anxious since there were questions that I couldn’t answer. I was anxious because I didn’t know what tools and systems I might be using to make things work. I was anxious because I want to do the best possible job I can to help all my tutor and staff tutor colleagues but I didn’t know how to do this.

I started to have trouble sleeping, and I know this wasn’t down to all those Scandinavian crime dramas I’ve been watching on Netflix.

On 22 March, I received an email from the university secretary, Dave Hall, saying that the implementation of the new tutor contract had been paused.

The challenge for us now is to encourage the project team to take stock, and begin to consider how we can all practically realise the contract in a way that is pragmatic, sensible and realistic. Any future implementation plan must also be incremental and inclusive.

The university will be a better place when ALs are on permanent contracts. We need to continue to make the case for sensible tools and processes. From a staff tutor’s perspective, we’ve got a lot of work to do to make that happen.

This article first appeared in Snowball Issue 99, March 2021. Snowball is the newsletter for Open University associate newsletters and is published quarterly.

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