Sticky truths of a gum story

29th September 2006 at 01:00
The other day I stumbled on the story of the chewing gum fence, as told on an online blog by a splendid person called Abi Sutherland of Edinburgh.

Abi noticed something peculiar about the spiky iron fence around her workplace. On each spike - every one, more than 300 in all - was a lump of chewing gum. That was bizarre enough. But what really got her going was that one day some workmen turned up to paint the fence.

Yes, you've guessed it - they painted the gum, too - first with primer, then black enamel. Abi posts the photographs to prove it.

"Really - who paints over a lump of chewing gum?" she asks. "Surely, if you want the paint to stick (which is why you prime) you should remove any extraneous substances?"

Ah, the naivete of youth. (And don't you love "extraneous substances"?) Well, Abi, it's a good example of someone who, presumably unlike you, simply doesn't care enough about what they're asked to do.

Either that, or it simply was not possible to do a thorough job, picking off the gum and sanding down, in the time allowed. Presumably, the painter was afraid or couldn't be bothered to find a supervisor and talk about the problem, so he just (forgive me) glossed over it.

The leadership failures here are clear, and it's easy to see their equivalents in school life.

There's the head, for example, who assumes that everyone is as single-mindedly fired up about the job and the school as she is.

The belated realisation that, in truth, it's not quite like that, and that responsibilities might be shirked and problems not chased down, is demoralising and a well-proven cause of stress in school leaders. Then there's the leader's failure to explain all the complications of what's being asked - perhaps because she hasn't fully taken them on board herself.

"It turned out there was much more to it than she told me. I didn't like to go back to her because I thought I was supposed to know."

It's easy for us to see what the painting boss should have done - an arm round the shoulder and, "Look Jack, it's a messy old job, but if it's done by Friday there's a drink in it for you."

Try it on your head of maths next time he throws the strategy document through the window.

Story of the chewing gum fence at abiarchives20050605the-gum-fence-the-final-chaptermore

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