Life lessons: Should I correct my head's mistakes?

Do you intervene if your headteacher makes a spelling mistake? Tes' maven of manners, Thomas Blaikie, offers advice

Thomas Blaikie

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

Dear Thomas, 

What if you’re specifically asked to comment on something, then get told your comments are inappropriate? 

Let me explain: our head of department put together a reading list for Year 12. We were asked to comment. 

I thought it was a good list, except he’d spelled Margaret Atwood’s name wrong – he’d written “Margaret Attwood”.

The next thing is I’m hauled in for a “chat” and the issue of appropriateness arises. I didn’t feel like backing down, I must say. What do you think? 

Name and address supplied

Take  care when highlighting a school leader's mistake

Dear Anon, 

Can I just say: these modern euphemisms! A “chat” – in other words, a telling-off or even a “rocket”, which was really much more fun than this creepy “chatting”. 

I used to think when a job interview was dressed up by the potential employer as a “chat” that they really meant it – so seriously misleading as well. Not fair. 

As for “appropriate”, it’s so stuffy and goody-goody somehow, you just long to be as inappropriate as possible. What a dreary world it would be, with everybody dressed appropriately, behaving appropriately and saying the most appropriate things. We’d never get anywhere. 

But I digress. 

Back in the 1980s, something similar happened to me. The deputy head of a comprehensive school where I was recently employed produced a mission statement, which was then a new and very daring thing to do. 

It wasn’t just any old mission statement, though: it was a missile-launch for his beautiful career. The drama was intense. 

Inappropriate contributions

There was this apparently insignificant piece of paper pinned to the board showing just a couple of sentences, which it was hard to disagree with, and all staff were asked to comment. 

So I said there was a comma that should have been a full-stop. I gathered that the mission statement was important. It was a statement of mission, after all. What could be more important than that? How terrible if it were to be incorrectly punctuated

But no! I was cornered by the deputy head, beaming and going round and round in circles until at last he came straight out with it: “I do know how to punctuate, actually. And then those fatal words: “I don’t think your contribution was appropriate.” 

So “appropriate” was going strong then, back in 1989. 

I was quite cross really. Why was this man saying he knew how to punctuate when he didn’t? Plus, if you ask for comments, surely you can’t complain if people comment? 

Avoiding superiority

Perhaps there’s another way of looking at it. Who likes having their little mistakes pointed out? 

It’s very annoying when you’ve written a six-volume novel in manuscript and all your friends say is that you’ve spelt Darjeeling wrong. 

Best not to be one of those people who writes to famous authors to tell them that the 38 bus doesn’t actually go down Park Lane or that nobody said “OK” until 3.40pm on 10 May 1929 – because that just makes you look a bit jealous and desperate to get one up. 

So maybe the next time you have to point out a spelling or typing error, don’t make it the only thing you’ve got to say. Most important: avoid superior knowledge. 

You know perfectly well where the Queen lives, but it’s always best to say, “I’m fairly sure her address is Buckingham Palace. I could be wrong…” Don’t point out errors in front of others. 

I can just imagine, though, that you were sublimely tactful in pointing out that it’s “Atwood” and not “Attwood” and still your head of department was seized with hierarchical mania and raving for a chat about appropriateness. 

Which shows undoubted weakness in leadership, with added hypocrisy, where the leader has launched a pseudo-democratic comment-inviting initiative. 

The greatest leaders know their limitations. They admit their mistakes.

For teachers, in my experience, whose stock-in-trade is knowledge that others supposedly don’t have, this can be a challenge. 

Mildly pinging inbox

I’m wondering what your experiences of email are in your schools. I remember that, when intranet email first arrived in the 1990s, the mildly pinging inbox spiced up the day. 

A lot of my colleagues couldn’t type, and it was some years before email really caught on. Still, it was necessary to undertake the heroic trek to the staffroom, where the pigeonhole would be in a catastrophic state. 

So it wasn’t until the early 2000s that you began to hear the classic corridor exchange between two teachers: “I’ve sent you an email. Did you get?” 

“No, not yet.” 

Which was obviously a cue for the emailing teacher to give a detailed account of what they’d said in the email, which the other teacher would probably end up reading at some point later anyway. So about four times over a waste of time. Patience is a virtue, etc. 

Other drawbacks of email in my experience are the “copy to all” demand for information that has given nothing to professional life: “Does anyone know how to get hairs from an English bull terrier out of my settee?” 

Or “Has anyone seen my copy of The Rough Guide to Romania?” 

In my school, we were troubled by the presence of the headmistress on the list of email addresses. Did this mean that we could email her directly? If so, in what manner? (“Hi there!”) Nobody knew what would happen. 

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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