Jobsworths and Angels – extreme attitudes to work

The 'beating heart of London's West End', aka Shaftesbury Avenue

My wife Dede has a vast and complicated family littered up and down the eastern US seaboard. Some members of the Massachusetts chapter, the Thomsons, spent New Year in London. They had booked themselves into a rented apartment near Oxford Street ‘in the beating heart of London’s West End’, as the blurb colourfully and fairly correctly described it.

In view of what I’m about to say, I won’t give the apartments the oxygen of free publicity by naming them here.

The Thomsons were planning to travel to the UK without their cell phones (big mistake) but they sent us a number they had been given, which they were told was the apartment building reception. When I tried to call the number, it turned out to be non-existent so I went online to find another number. Eventually, I found the name of a company which rented flats in the building, so I called them.

A young man answered the phone. To say that his phone manner lacked a certain charm would be an understatement.

The conversation went something like this:

Man:     Hello?

Me:       Good morning. Is that the XXX Apartment building?

Man:     No.

Me:       Oh. Sorry, I got your number from the internet. Is this XXX Rentals?

Man:    Yes.

Me:    Ah, good. Well, some friends of ours have rented one of your apartments over New Year.

Man:    We don’t do short-term rentals.

Me:    Ah. Um… do you have another number for someone who does?

Man:    No.

Me:    I see. Are you actually at the XXX Apartments?

Man:    No.

Me:    Oh. Where are you?

Man:    In an office.

Me:     Do you have a number for anyone in the building itself?

Man:    No.

Me:    Is there any way that we can contact someone there?

Man:    Look, I don’t know anything, OK?

Me:    (Sounding as faux-polite as possible) Well, thank you so much. You have been most helpful.

Man:    You’re welcome.

So much for sarcasm. Or maybe he was just more adept at using it than me.

The perfect present for that special colleague...


In British English, we call someone like this a ‘jobsworth’, the idea being that they are the kind of people who will say ‘It’s more than my job’s worth’ if you ask them to do something a little bit beyond the call of duty. I’d love to hear what other names there are for people like this around the world.

At the opposite end of the work spectrum from jobsworths are angels. Angels do things well beyond the call of duty. The world of education abounds with them. My wife Dede is an angel.

I despair of cynicism and negativity of any kind, particularly in education, and I love meeting people who show great enthusiasm for their work. But there are limits. Some people just don’t know when to stop.

Dede on a chair in Antalya Turkey with sock puppets on her hand - essential angel teacher props


Dede is a prime example. She’s writing some teachers’ guides to accompany the New Standard English course for China and if she’s in danger of not meeting a deadline, she will work until 3 or 4 in the morning to complete the task.

The other writer-in-residence at our house (your humble blogger) won’t do that. I might have done that in the early days, but not any more.

Dede’s argument is that there’s an editor waiting in Beijing for her to finish the work. My argument is that if I see a potential missed deadline looming, I will inform the people who are waiting. Editors are busy people. They won’t sit on their hands until my stuff arrives, they’ll get on with something else.

Over the course of the past year or so, I’ve met (either in real life or via blogs, twitter etc) a lot of great educators who are new to the teaching business and have infectious enthusiasm for their work. New angels on the block. I persuaded several of them to write guest blogs for me and kept in touch with them, learning more about the ongoing story of their working lives.

I won’t embarrass them by naming them either, but frankly some of them are working above and beyond the call of duty, as these two case studies will show you.

I had a skype conversation with one of my guest bloggers a couple of weeks after her post appeared. I asked how she was, and she said fine, apart from a cold and a cough. A couple of weeks later, we talked again, and the cold and the cough hadn’t disappeared. When I suggested she might want to get this seen to, she said she didn’t have time. She had too many classes to teach.

Eventually, she more or less lost her voice and ended up on a course of antibiotics, but she was still giving up to ten classes a day. She defended her actions by saying that she didn’t want to let her students’ down.

What do you do with people like this? I told her she would let them down a whole lot more if she collapsed and finished up in hospital.

Teachers reading this will all say that there are lots of times when you have to teach and you’re not feeling 100%. Absolutely true. You can probably also tell me of colleagues who phone in sick when they have a hangover. There’s no denying there are different levels of commitment amongst educators, as there are in other areas of work. But I think we all know who the angels are.

My second case study is a little different. I met another of my guest bloggers at a conference and was enthralled by her infectious enthusiasm for her work. When we talked afterwards, she said she had a back problem and had been in some discomfort at the beginning, but she felt better when her workshop was under way.

Teachers and actors can usually work through some pain, which miraculously disappears as soon as we walk on stage or into the classroom. Actors call it ‘Doctor Theatre’.

But there was something more worrying that Guest Blogger 2 told me. She said that even if she didn’t feel a hundred per cent, she always felt happier if she turned up at school to work. But other members of staff were not very sympathetic. They saw her enthusiasm for her work as some kind of criticism of their more lukewarm attitude to teaching.

Having listened to her story, I realized that she was the victim of professional jealousy, a serious problem for angels, in education and elsewhere, no doubt.

The moral of the stories? Be an enthusiastic angel, think about your students and others who are affected by the work that you do, but try – just occasionally – to think about number one.


15 thoughts on “Jobsworths and Angels – extreme attitudes to work

  1. Hi Ken,

    In my country, Greece, the equivalent of ‘jobworths’ is ‘civil servants’ and the equivalent of an ‘angel’ is a ‘sucker’.

    Sad, isn’t it?

    As for passion which transcends colds, toothaches, bad backs, and more, well, you’ve met so many passionate teachers, you know how to recognise the bug.

    But we should all be looking after ourselves more because, at the end of the day, despite the joy we get out of teaching, connecting, training, writing, responding to blog posts or other stuff we have written…. (Cough!)


    1. …which just goes to show that, though we know you’re an angel, you are a good enough actor to play the part of a jobsworth 😛

  2. Great post! Well down here in Brazil the equivalent of ‘jobworths’ would be ASPONE, which stands for ‘Assessor de Porr* Nenhuma’ a very negative adjective that has fallen into the sarcastic trash bin. Now, one way to refer to the ‘angels’ could be ‘caxias’, but take into account that sometimes this can be a bit negative.

  3. Ken,

    It’s good to see you posting on this topic! The sad news is that a large number of teachers, 50%, leave the career in the first five years of teaching. Many report leaving due to the very symptoms you describe here – their enthusiasm and work ethic burn hot and fast, and then sadly they run out of ‘fuel’ and *poof* they are done and wondering what happened to their career, and why they don’t have a life.

    Balance and self-care are VITAL to longevity in this career. Thank you, again, for writing about it. (I’m going to share this with my readers.)

  4. It’s incredible how much I liked this post, Ken. Because you were able to, at the same time, write about the downfall of human kind and the exact opposite. Isn’t it funny (?!?!) how it seems like more and more we are getting extremes on both sides? Maybe people / humanity itself feels one trend growing and increases the other for balance purposes?

    Do you have that feeling too?? Because I have to say I have, more and more frequently, run into the most awful kind of people (who sometimes dare blame modern life and lack of time, traffic, stress for being rude or selfish), who only think about themselves. On the other hand, I have never known as many of the “angels” that you describe, people who inspire and make you smile just for knowing there are some fabulous, giving people out there.

    But I agree with you those angels have to look after themselves and every once in a while put themselves first, because they’re VERY necessary in the world.

    What a lovely/positive way to blog the new year, Ken! I had a great time meeting you and Dede in London. I guess I’lll see you in Brighton now!


    1. Thanks, CC!

      Like you, I’m impressed by the levels of energy shown by the new generation of angel teachers, tweeters and bloggers. There’s always the chance that they don’t practise what they preach, of course but, by and large, I find that when you meet these people in person, they are exactly as you expected them to be. From our conversations, I think you have had the same experience.

      And the REALLY exciting thing is what I’m going to call the ‘upwash effect’ (although I’m sure someone has already coined the expression). I mean that we older educators have been affected in a positive way by this burst of new energy.

      I count myself very lucky to be a recipient of the upwash effect! 😛

      See you in Brighton and hopefully in Recife, too.

  5. I enjoyed your blog very much.Thanks for sharing.I can’t think of any equivalent word in Persian or in Turkish for jobworths but we have “Melek” for angels in Turkey.I believe that regardless of what our job is ,it is important to do it perfectly.As we are teachers but we are human,we are engineers,but we are human.We are waitors yet we are human.And what I think a good quality 100 percent pure human should do is to do ones job perfectly well and whats more to be creative and to do something positive for this world.But I also believe that we are not robots and we need to be happy,motivated, and have enough time to a certain extent….-:))

  6. Ken,
    In Argentina the equivalent term for jobsworth is “empleado público”. I don´t know one for “angels”. In my case, I´m a teacher of English and some colleagues say “ah, but you do love teaching…” as if they were refering to an exotic endangered species.
    Sometimes I find it difficult to realize I have to take a leave when I´m not feeling well.
    My twin sister is a teacher too and last year she worked too much, even not feeling healthy.She´s now suffering from a viral infection that has caused her many problems. Her doctor said that this was probably caused by stress.
    Although we both love our careers I hope we learn a lesson from this situation. Regards

  7. Hi Ken,
    I think its wonderful that you are calling us angels. Teachers need to get these kind of positive feedbacks. Because it requires too much work and sacrifice a lot in this profession. We are faced with some health problems like sore throat, backache, headache, varicosis etc. But the matter is not just these little problems. Morever, we are always dwelling on tomorrow’s lesson plan and activities when we back home! I mean teachers are physically and emotionally spent most of the time. About the argument you defined as jobsworth, I don’t want to generalize but teachers can’t be like that. It doesn’t work to read a coursebook, chalk something up and examine your students if you really want to teach something. Learning and teaching methods are developing day by day so we need to change our attitudes towards this profession. This requires hard work and being an angel 🙂 Think of it this way, you have to tell the students all aspects of a topic but you have limited time to do this. Then you choose to be a jobsworth by persuading yourself that these are extracurricular activities. Is this right? When I think of my students, I cant do this to them!

    Apart from all these matters, I regretfully inform that teachers have to jump through hoops in my country. Because we are the volunteers to be angels but we have to pass a silly exam after graduated and this exam includes so many courses. For example, I am an English teacher but I have to answer difficult math questions! I don’t have any idea about how can we do this after the years without taking any math lessons? And this is the easiest problem when comparing with other tortures. There are so many teachers who are waiting their assignments for many years. Unfortunately, economic problems force them to do other jobs. I am straying from the point but I just want to give voice to this problem. Thanks for sharing this post with us!

    1. Hi Selcan,

      the situation you describe for teachers in your country seems very demanding and rather puzzling at the same time. But you also come across as a teacher who cares passionately about your work and your students. Despite the ‘tortures’!

  8. I can understand why half of all teachers give up after 5 years. It’s emotionally draining and if you’re a caring person you actually give part of yourself in each interaction, but with all the bureaucracy and negative interactions teachers usually give more than they receive, hence burn-out. It can be a hard balance between being a jobsworth on the one hand and burning out on the other from giving too much.


    1. So true… and I’m glad to think that blogworld gives teachers a chance to meet up with other burnt-out angels 🙂

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