Life lessons: Should I send my head a Christmas card?

What do you do when it becomes clear that the headteacher expects a card from all members of staff? Tes' maven of manners offers advice
6th December 2020, 12:00pm
Thomas Blaikie


Life lessons: Should I send my head a Christmas card?
Life Lessons: Elderly Gentleman, Sitting In Leather Armchair & Smoking Cigar

Dear Thomas, 

I'm new in a school this term. My head of department has given me some advice: it would be "in my interests", she says, to send a Christmas card (this year probably an e-card) to the headteacher

But I don't like the head, and I like the servile attitude of most of the staff to this person even less. What, if anything, should I do? 

Henry K
Address supplied 

Should I send my headteacher a Christmas card?

Dear Henry, 

Will the head be sending you a card, I wonder? That's the usual idea. Management pour forth their Christmas appreciation for the staff under them at Christmas time.

But not in your school. This sounds odd, but maybe it isn't. 

I only discovered too late in the school where I taught for many years that staff were in the habit of sending the head cards of every kind, including for condolence. 

I'd always assumed it wasn't my place to do such a thing, especially since we were required to address her as "Mrs…", while she called us by our first names, as if we were all housemaids in some Edwardian set-up. We were at least permitted to keep our actual names, rather than be assigned a different one because "We've already got a Ruby or a Timothy".

Such was the family feeling in that school that, when the head's mother died (at a ripe old age), the funeral procession made its way through the school grounds on a January afternoon, and some pupils were roped in from the choir to sing at the service. 

As far as I know, nobody else - neither staff nor pupils - ever asked for similar rites for their loved ones. It could have been awkward if drear entourages trailing past the classrooms became a regular feature. 

Not in the spirit of Christmas

Your letter makes me rebellious. I hope I don't become a liability. Sending Christmas cards isn't supposed to be a way of currying flavour and sucking up. It's all wrong. Just so unChristmassy. 

My father used to get in a spin if he got a Christmas card from someone he'd left off his list. My mother would always say, "People don't send cards just to get one back." Well, maybe they do, but they shouldn't. 

But this is even worse. Nobody should ever be expected to send a Christmas card. And, by the sound of it, there's no chance you're going to get one back. 

What do you want to do? From what you say, there's a lot riding on this wretched card. Your head demands obeisance, especially at Christmas. It's almost as bad as King Lear insisting that his children show how much they love him. If you refuse to comply, you might end up like Cordelia - done in. 

The autocracy of your school leader

It could be that the autocracy of your leader has been exaggerated. In my experience, teachers are always complaining that the head's got it in for them and that they're about to be sacked. It's all part of the inherent insecurity of the profession. But this never happens. 

Who knows, your head could well be quite fed up with all these cards piling in. "Not another sucker," they might be thinking, as they wearily open them. 

I doubt, though, that this is what is happening here. I'm concerned about your school. There's some kind of group-think going on. Or perhaps the head really is overbearing. 

You have two choices. You can show character, sacrifice popularity and do what you think is right. Or you can decide it's easier to fit in and do what everybody else does. 

The first is unlikely to end up in some heroic To Kill A Mockingbird-style confrontation with authority. But I worry that, if you choose the second, it'll be a slippery slope. You'll be quietly giving up, and you'll end up staying in that school for longer than you should. Or maybe for ever.

Take a stand now, before it's too late. 

What's really going on during that confidential chat? 

What to do about confidential chats? How often do you see a pair of colleagues or, more rarely, three or even four, stationed at one remove from the crowd in the staffroom or in a corridor, perhaps leaning up against a wall? 

You know at once what they're up to. Now and again, they look furtively around, to see if anybody's noticed them. They're having a confidential chat. 

Or really - let's be blunt about it - gossiping. One of them will have said, "I need to talk to you about…Keep it under your hat for the time being."

Nobody else is supposed to know, which is why the ideal location for these conferences is where absolutely everybody can see them. If you're incredibly nosey, like me, you're desperate to find out what they're talking about. 

If they glance in your direction once too often, then you have the answer - they're talking about you. Whoever it is they're picking over, if that person is nearby, their eyes will flick towards them. It's inevitable. They haven't been trained for this kind of undercover work. They'll give themselves away. 

Of course, this sort of thing happens in all offices. But I like to think it's more spectacularly rife in schools. More stress? More opportunity? I dare you to bowl up to such a group and say, "I see you're gossiping. Do tell." 

Thomas Blaikie was a secondary English teacher for 25 years. He is author of Blaikie's Guide to Modern Manners (4th Estate)

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