A little thanks that went a long way


It’s one of the joys of writing this blog that I have cause to think back over my career and consider what I’ve learned along the way. Here’s an anecdote about one of the many things I learned in my first year of teaching.

Rewind the clock to the last day of school for that first year of my teaching career. All the departing staff were being farewelled. I was one of them. I’d been a student at this school myself for 6 years and my dad had been a highly respected member of staff before me. Also, some of my siblings were still students here and this all added up in my mind to one inescapable conclusion.

If I don’t leave now I probably never will.

So, having arranged to work the following year in the UK and handed in my notice, I was being farewelled. We’ve all experienced these ceremonies. A senior member of staff will say complimentary things and wish their colleague well before the departing staffer says a few words. I don’t remember too many specifics of what was said about me except to say I thought that it was all very complimentary, indeed highly flattering, and not at all how I had perceived myself.

In my mind I was a work in progress who had just managed to keep his head above water. Someone for whom the word ‘potential’ was particularly significant. Not ‘hopeless’ so much as ever hopeful that I would eventually come to rely less on hope. If you’ve ever seen episodes of MASH where Corporal Klinger struggles in his role as Radar O’Reilly’s replacement, then you’ll have a pretty good idea of what I thought I was like. I felt I had floundered through the demands of each day’s lesson, day by day, week by week, term by term.

So, when it was my turn to respond to those kind words I wanted to thank everyone who had helped me get through that first year. I thanked the Head of Campus for giving me an opportunity, the many colleagues (most of whom had once been my teachers) who had been supportive, and the photocopying lady who I referred to spontaneously as my “silent partner”. The whole thing took no more than a minute. After all, I’d only been there a year.

What happened minutes later though, has never left me. Jenny, the photocopy lady, came over to chat. She was curious as to why I’d mentioned her. That had never happened before and she was more than a little surprised. So was I when I heard that. Here was a person who took all my stuff and made class sets of it for me. So long as I gave her a few hours notice it would appear magically in my tray in time for a lesson. I felt I was scrambling from day to day but at least I knew this was one aspect of the job that was assured.

I mean, come on, virtually 20 minutes ago I was a Uni student but now I get paid and someone else does this stuff for me! What’s not to be thankful about?

It was 20 years ago. I’ve forgotten almost everything about Jenny but I haven’t forgotten the fact she was noticeably shocked at being mentioned in a staff farewell. It was no-one’s fault but here was a school officer performing an apparently thankless task.

That’s just plain wrong. Schools depend on non-teaching staff. They are just as essential as good teachers.

Fast forward to today. I pop into school to get a class set of work I want to correct before the next term begins. This is the sort of thing that I do all time because I still retain vestiges of the hopeless case I was decades ago. In the staff car park are signs that the Easter holidays won’t start for a great number of my colleagues until Good Friday later this week. We don’t have a photocopying lady at this school but that’s not the point.

Everyone knows the school machine keeps running long after the students have gone home. How many of us notice it keeps running when the teachers go home too?