No bullying on menu

4th March 2005 at 00:00
I met a dinner lady during the recent holiday. Actually she's a cook, making and serving dinners in a big comprehensive. She talked a lot about her job, and it became clear that she really wanted to offload her feelings about being bullied. Her supervisor, she said, picks on every aspect of her work, tries to turn the other women against her (they're sympathetic but powerless) and generally makes her life a misery.

"I dread going to work," she said.

The phrase rang a bell. Long ago, when I was a child in South Yorkshire, I remember my father's youngest brother, also bullied as I later discovered, saying to my dad, "I fair dread of a morning."

His exact words, and his anxious face are clear in my mind, and in later years I've continued to use the memory as a measure of what's tolerable and what isn't in a person's working life. So when anyone - a friend, a colleague, my daughter - is disheartened about work, I always say, "On Sunday night, do you dread the thought of Monday morning?"

And I mean dread. I don't count the mild Sunday night blues that we've all had. I mean the sick feeling that makes your supper tasteless and overshadows everything and in the end is going to keep you awake and feeling doubly bad the next day. "If it's like that," I say. "It's time to do something about it. Life is too short and too precious to let it go on."

The dinner lady who sparked these thoughts is nearly 60. Why should she have to take the sort of bullying she is enduring daily? Is there no one in her school who can see what's happening and offer her advice and moral support?

I don't think this is entirely a matter of procedures and lines of management. I believe that an experienced teacher, presumably with some clout around the place, ought to be able to spot when a person's in trouble and be ready to lend an ear and give support. You don't have to be a counsellor, or an advocate.

The person who needs help is often demoralised into inaction and just needs someone to say, "Take control. Make things happen!" It might be something really simple such as "Contact the union. You pay enough in subs". Or "Talk to the deputy, I know her, she'll listen to you."

We're ready enough to tell our children, after all, to speak up about their problems.

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