Life lessons: Is it OK to talk about frivolous things?

Times are tough and teachers have a lot to worry about – but is it all right if that includes the results of ‘Strictly’? Tes’ maven of manners offers advice

Thomas Blaikie

Maverick teachers: Where have all the eccentric teachers in schools gone?

Dear Thomas, 

How do you know if you are meant to be a teacher? I often get odd looks from my colleagues, usually for talking too much about clothes and Netflix. They seem to think I’m a dangerous subversive who doesn’t take her work seriously. 

It’s OK for the men to talk about sport, and all of them say quite negative things about the children sometimes – which I know they don’t mean. 

It all came to head just before Christmas, when a member of the biology department had a real go at me: “We’ve got better things to worry about right now than how you think Jamie Laing should win Strictly.” I was stunned. I didn’t mean any harm. I’m not sure what to do now. 

Melissa Foxall

Coronavirus: Is it OK to talk about frivolous things right now?

Dear Melissa,

That biology teacher was very rude. The present “disagreeable” circumstances (I’m borrowing the adjective used by Jeremy Paxman on University Challenge) are what must have caused that person to snap. 

It goes without saying that teachers have been at the forefront of those greatly burdened by the viral crisis this autumn and winter. While extreme circumstances undoubtedly bring out the best in everybody, nothing is gained by averting the eyes from the more chilling effects which we may have read about but never expected to see. 

“Don’t you know there’s a war on?” was the classic slapdown for anybody showing thoughtless signs of frivolity – such as wanting a peppermint sweet or a nice hat – during the Second World War. Mrs Churchill wouldn’t let her daughters go to dances. Enjoyment of any kind was a disgrace. 

So now, amid the Covid crisis, a similar kind of clamping down is only to be expected. The comfort I can offer you is that your biology teacher probably benefited from his or her outburst. As we all know, when a class is playing up and you’ve tried everything that empathy and caring prompts, a good burst of fury is just the thing. Everybody feels better for it afterwards. 

Although at a personal price, be assured that you’re contributing to morale in these frightful times. It would be wrong to say people enjoy getting annoyed, but it does them good. 

Responding to a difficult situation with evasion

Besides, you are not alone in responding to this situation with evasion – if that’s what you’re doing. I notice many people sticking religiously to other subjects, which is curious in an age when “it’s good to talk”.  It’s good to see tact enjoying a revival. 

No, it’s not always good to talk. There are certain words I never wish to hear again and I’m sure others feel the same. Creating a diversion, as you might try to distract a distressed child, is a perfectly legitimate way of keeping calm and carrying on. As far as I’m concerned, that’s what you’re doing. 

I think also there’s a sexist aspect to your predicament. Men have more leeway, or think they do. They don’t have to prove constantly their professional dedication. They can afford to show that they have another life outside school. 

But if a woman – especially a young woman – is last on to the school premises in the morning and found not to be entirely consumed with her job, but to have perfectly usual outside interests, such as, in your case, clothes and TV programmes, then she is instantly branded a silly frivol. 

You mustn’t give up. In normal times – which will return – there’s a place for all kinds of people in schools. 

In certain staffrooms a grim orthodoxy might prevail, but even there, you can be quite sure, your colleagues will be taking a secret pleasure in your freedom, however churlish they might seem. So please carry on just as you are. 

Why can't people leave clear voicemail messages?

What to do about clear pronunciation? Now, more than ever, it’s vital to be able to hear people – on Zoom calls or when they leave a voicemail. 

We’ve all had that maddening experience of replaying a voicemail again and again. You just can’t hear a thing. Who is speaking? What organisation are they from? What are they saying? It’s not because the line is faulty. They just don’t speak clearly. 

Almost always you get “No caller ID” on your screen. They dictate the number you’re to call them back on at lightning speed, like someone ripping off a plaster. The main point seems to be how brilliant they are, how masterly and super-efficient in being able to reel off their phone number in this virtuoso fashion. 

People from outside the world of schools have no idea how minute are the amounts of time teachers have to deal with this sort of thing. It would be sensible to brutally jettison the whole idea of replying but we’re just too conscientious. 

Making yourself heard

As for the content of the message, well, I’m going to risk sounding even more annoyingly fuddy-duddy than usual, but it really is difficult to understand what a lot of people are saying these days. It’s nothing to do with class. It’s the way they speak. 

There’s been a lot of complaint regarding TV dramas. The younger actors are just unintelligible. It’s not that a second or two later you can work out what they said. No matter how hard you try, there’s just a smear of sound. It could be anything. 

But watching a show once with an older actor, RADA trained no doubt, I could hear everything she said. It’s not difficult to make yourself understood. Speak slowly and say the consonants as well as the vowels.  

Don’t worry if you sound like a throwback to the days of elocution lessons. At least you’ll have a voice. 

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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Thomas Blaikie

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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