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'It's hard to turn off teacher-mode out of the classroom'

A recent altercation in a shop prompted Sarah Simons to step in - and her classroom skills were put to good use

It's hard for teachers to switch off outside of the classroom

I've gone and done it again haven’t I. I fell prey to my own inbuilt twang of teacher responsibility and without warning, or invitation, stuck my snout into a situation that had naff-all to do with me.

The instinct to step in and protect people who need a bit of help is one that lots of teachers have in spades. In another life I’d have been a copper, or a nurse, or Kerry Katona’s agent.

It’s not the first time it’s happened. Unasked, I’ve taken charge before, radioing shopping centre medics when a customer collapsed in a Yours Clothing and the very young, very new assistants (whose manager was on her lunch) were in an almighty flap.

I've prepared myself to look after a group of frightened young people on a train full of football enthusiasts who were getting a bit shouty. I've stopped traffic when a confused older lady was wandering into the road, dodging cars like a cartoon chicken to get her to safety. 


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All of the above makes me sound like a much more benevolent person than I am. These are just the edited highlights from an otherwise perma-hostile battle axe. I'm usually a right old cow. Ask anyone who knows me.

Anyway, there I was in a quiet WH Smith’s, considering whether to splash almost six quid on Oprah’s glossy mag. I do adore her, but decided I really didn't need to see any more pictures of Ms Winfrey relaxing under a tree on her Hawaii estate, regaling us with life lessons she picked up from Maya Angelou (oh who am I kidding? I can't get enough of seeing Oprah outdoors, costumed in elegant leisurewear, being the billionaire version of “ever so down to earth”).

While I was having that internal convo with myself, my thoughts were interrupted by a kerfuffle at the till. A bloke, maybe in his 50s was being incredibly rude to the assistant who was on her own. My teacher-senses had been alerted.

As I moved nearer and began to hear the actual conversation rather than simply being aware of an unfolding incident, it became clear that the man had learning difficulties. The woman behind the till knew this too and was trying to patiently manage her own response to his increasing combativeness, while remaining resolutely calm and professional.

'I reassured her'

She was aware I was there and kept glancing towards me – there weren't any other staff around – but she was doing a good job of de-escalating the situation, so I didn’t barge in. The man left, and the woman’s face flushed. She looked at me. “I wasn't rude was I? I didn't know what to do. I was okay, wasn't I?” She was almost in tears.

I would have been just as upset before I was a teacher, before managing conflict and de-escalating potentially aggressive behaviour was just a normal part the day.

I reassured her that she'd done a great job. I told her that I'm a teacher and I work with adults with learning difficulties and disabilities and the man communicated with her in a way that is very familiar to me. He might not have even known that his behaviour could be perceived as rude or even threatening.

Overstepping the mark?

This is the bit where I overstepped the mark…She was shaking. She was visibly upset. So I sent her off to have a break, “go and get a cup of tea and have a sit down in the back until you're feeling better”. She thanked me and hurried off to the staffroom.

By the time I got home, I was slightly concerned that I might have caused a rumpus at WH Smith by accidentally acting as the shop’s manager. I regaled my husband with what had gone off, and he was both outraged and delighted by my over-confidence. He is very keen for me to take up “going around other people’s places of work and giving them permission to go on a break” as a new hobby.

Now, does anyone need a sit down? I’d be happy to pop round and send you for a cuppa. It’s no trouble. Probably best if you don't tell your manager though.

Sarah Simons works in colleges and adult community education in the East Midlands and is the director of UKFEchat. She tweets @MrsSarahSimons

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