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:
Me: Good morning. Is that the XXX Apartment building?
Me: Oh. Sorry, I got your number from the internet. Is this XXX Rentals?
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?
Me: I see. Are you actually at the XXX Apartments?
Me: Oh. Where are you?
Man: In an office.
Me: Do you have a number for anyone in the building itself?
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.
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 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.