Life lessons: Colleagues leave me to do playground duty

Are teachers who use break duty as a time to chat shirking responsibilities? Not necessarily, says Tes' maven of manners

Thomas Blaikie

Life lessons: Other teachers leave me to do school playground duty alone

Dear Thomas,

When I am required to do playground duty, I take the job seriously and supervise the children with care. I have two colleagues who are usually in the playground with me and they stand together in a corner and spend the whole time chatting, more or less ignoring the children

I do feel a bit excluded. But, more importantly, I am increasingly resentful, as I feel they are putting the onus of responsibility on me. 

I am fairly new to the school, and don’t want to make enemies, but feel strongly that this is an unfair and unsafe situation. I would welcome your guidance on how to tackle this.

Gill Battersby 

Playground duty: My colleagues shirk their responsibilities

Dear Gill,

Curious. Usually, the emails I get are about overzealous colleagues who glower with disapproval at the merest hint of levity. This is the opposite problem and, in my experience, just as prevalent. Much depends on your view of human nature. And human nature – the full, vast panoply of it – is what you’re confronted with in any school. 

We all know – although some don’t like to admit it – that, as time goes on, the edges fray. At the beginning of the school year, an inspirational speaker might be brought in to be inspirational

“Brain-function! Why didn’t we think of it before? We just love these games to get our pupils’ brains going.” Off we go, boosted, feeling that this year, at last, we’re going to get it all completely right. 

Well, after a week or two… We mustn’t say we decline into black negativity, but the honeymoon phase is over – yet again. 

You might be surprised to learn that, when I was a teacher, I was quite a maniac for doing everything properly. There was a rule in the school where I taught for 18 years that the pupils were not allowed to eat in the classrooms at lunchtime. 

The rule was regularly ignored, mainly because the dining room was miles away and a winter picnic amid snow and ice was not appealing. But I started as I meant to go on – with very little or, to be honest, no effect. After 18 years, eating in the classrooms at lunchtime was still raging on as a crime. 

Be careful what assumptions you make

I suspected my colleagues of running a slack ship. Surely their classes were too noisy. They were allowing the pupils to speak not just out of turn but all at once. They weren’t coping; they’d given up, possibly to the extent of having left the classroom entirely. 

Imaginings of this kind must be rife in an institution whose individual elements work essentially in isolation and become very often a law unto themselves. Who really knows what goes on in someone else’s classroom? You might not be absolutely sure, even if you’re actually in it. It might look very ragged and chaotic, but is it really? 

Be careful what assumptions you make – that’s what I’m trying to say. It could be that your colleagues are keeping more of an eye on the children than you think. Perhaps they feel that some distance is called for, that the pupils should have time to themselves and learn independence. 

You say you’re new to the school. I’d be careful about roaring in with your high standards. There could be some history to this laissez-faire attitude to playground management – as with the eating-in-the-classrooms business in my old school. 

Why not try to make friends with these unfriendly colleagues? Don’t let them ignore you. Casually, try to find out what their attitude is. Have they done playground duty before? What is usually involved? Are there any problems likely to occur? 

If you see a situation arising among the pupils that you think requires intervention, ask them their opinion. It could be, as I’ve already suggested, that they’ve grown idle, frayed at the edges and just aren’t bothering. A gentle prod might jolt them into action. 

On the other hand, it might become clear that there’s method in their apparent laziness. They know what they’re doing. 

Do teachers have nicknames in your school? 

I’ve been longing to write about nicknames. In the 1960s and 1970s, when I was at school, silly nicknames for the teachers were rife. 

Who had made them up? Had they just materialised from the air – or, more likely, been passed down the generations of wacky schoolboys? 

Mr Buckland, the Latin master, was Buckeye, for no apparent reason. He was a nice man whose displays of temper were plainly play-acting, although not to be ignored. 

Mr Wortham, the headmaster, was Worty Wortham, which did not even acknowledge this character’s bizarre and alarmingly mercurial personality. 

I remember with shame the nickname of another teacher, because it was to do with his disability. But he was nasty, braced permanently with fury against what utter rubbish children are, how smelly, stupid and unworthy. In his rage on one occasion, he bellowed: “I know what you think of me. I know what you call me.” Then he said it. 

It might have been that his pain and stigmatisation had got him like this, but he was senior in the school and something should have been done about him. His demeanour was not what children should have to encounter in their teacher. 

That was then. What has happened to nicknames now? Astonishingly, in 20 years in the classroom, I only ever heard the nickname of one colleague, which was Wiggy. She proclaimed it herself in the staffroom. Her smart bob did indeed look like a wig, but she was thrilled with Wiggy. 

Am I very naïve? I’ve asked quite a few teachers and none of them, they say, have ever heard any nicknames, either their own or anybody else’s. How can nicknames be rife in a school and none of the teachers get wind of them? 

Have nicknames simply disappeared as a thing? Does anybody know? Do please write in if you have any leads. Anonymity guaranteed. 

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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