A Sense Of Duty

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John Dabell

I trained as a primary school teacher 25 years ago, starting my career in London and then I taught in a range of schools in the Midlands. In between teaching jobs, I worked as an Ofsted inspector (no hate mail please!), national in-service provider, project...
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Are teachers playground professionals?

We know teachers enjoy loads about their work and we know what they don’t like. But what’s the one thing that most teachers hate with a passion? You might be thinking it is marking: warm. Is it twilight meetings? You are getting warmer. Parents evenings? Hot. Residentials? So much choice. Give up? Well, its playground duty of course.

‘Doing’ playground duty (or break duty if you prefer) is a lot like being a lifeguard, except you don’t get the red and yellow uniform, you don’t get binoculars or VHF radio; there’s no quadbike, jetski, rescue board, first aid responder bag or defibrillator. You might have your own personal issue sunglasses and wear them whatever the weather, but generally speaking playground kit amounts to a whistle, coffee and nerves of steel. You might need a hard hat too – speaking from a primary perspective, my last call of duty involved some local secondary lads throwing full tins of Pepsi into the playground ‘for a laugh’.

On Active Duty   

Everyone does their duty differently.

Some teachers behave like holiday reps and feel it is their duty to entertain the moment they enter the tarmac zone of freedom, and children lap it up and respond with manic energy – they also expect it every time you are on duty and they think teachers who don’t do this are ‘boring’ – and it’s not uncommon to hear ‘I wish you could be more like Mr Johnson, he’s fun, he dabs’. But teachers aren’t play facilitators. We are charged with keeping all children safe, and we can’t be doing that by having a sneaky game of football.

Then there are the ‘statics’. They monitor sea conditions and do their duty from one spot, either in the middle of the playground but more commonly from the perimeter. They rarely venture beyond a 1m chalked circle of respect with both hands clutching a thermal coffee mug, they have their vantage point and they like to stick to it. They chat amiably with children and give the occasional ‘whistle blast’ to a child miles away, who hasn’t a clue what it is they were supposed to be doing wrong.

However, teachers need to move around, and the playground should be split into supervision zones to ensure all bases are covered. Teachers need to be separated and supervising their zone as standing having a chat, draws their attention away from what is going on.

The wanderer is the type of teacher who makes playground duty look like a pleasant Sunday stroll; its playground duty in slow-motion and they take it all in their stride dealing with incidents with good grace and humour. They know that playground duty is something they have to do, so there is no use resenting it, so it might as well serve as a bit of exercise and a chance to get some fresh air! They do their duty and go with the flow.

Sink Or Swim  

Joking aside, how you behave on playground duty is down to you, because no one gives you a guide book saying this is what to do.  The reality is, is that playground duty is something you learn on the job. Qualifying as a teacher doesn’t qualify you for playground supervision – does anyone actually get formal training in this? What it amounts to, is shadowing someone and that’s your lot! Are we trained like lifeguards to deal with any situation? No. Should it be compulsory for all teachers to be first aid trained rather than rely on a handful of staff? Yes.

Playground duty is serious responsibility, but it doesn’t come with much training, if any, and it is often a case of sink or swim.

In The Line Of Duty

If you have ever done a risk assessment for playground duty, then you’ll know what a minefield it is for potential incidents. The main hazards include children absconding, psychological harm, physical injury, improper use of equipment and playground furniture, and injuries or harm from weather.

Playground duty is an awesome responsibility. You have hundreds of children letting off steam, many moving at high speed in multiple directions and two staff on duty ‘keeping an eye’ on things. It can be more like the Pamplona bull-run at times and it is a ridiculous expectation for two staff to supervise everything and everyone; inevitably so much gets missed.

How can we be vigilant and be everywhere? The recommended ratio for playground duty should surely be equal to that of a classroom; 1 adult to 30 children, but where do you ever see that happening?

Above And Beyond

I worked in a school once that had classrooms that looked over the playground. Nothing unusual in that you might think, but this was an old Victorian building with stature, so that some classrooms on the third floor had an impressive birds-eye view of proceedings. Whilst two colleagues ‘covered’ the playground it was always the case that another member of staff supervised from above: staff took it in turns.

This offered remarkable insights into what went on at ground level and added a superior layer of supervision to the chaos of playtime. It revealed that the playground was very rarely covered especially when staff were responding to collisions, arguments, lost souls and fights. Once staff were drawn into dealing with an incident, it became obvious they lost sight of the big picture. Many incidents that would otherwise have gone unreported were duly noted and followed-up. When it was your turn to supervise from Class 8, you were able to see your own class in a whole new light too. It got even better when walkie-talkies were introduced!

Give Us A Break

This school had it covered and it clearly showed what an incredibly demanding and complex 20 minutes playtime was and why staff should never be given a lesson observation after being on duty.

If anyone can deliver an outstanding lesson after being on playground duty, they are truly outstanding, because some playtimes can leave your head in a mess for a good 20 minutes after the event.

In fact, whoever has been on duty rarely gets an opportunity to follow-up incidents until the next break, or can spend the first half-hour of their next lesson dealing with the aftermath. If a staff member is on duty, they shouldn’t be expected to ‘teach like a champion’ whilst still picking up the pieces and needing a ‘comfort’ break themselves.

Duty Calls       

Okay, okay! So we can’t all perch from above and watch what’s going on like a lifeguard, sitting on one of those tall chairs, but it makes sense. Too much of what goes on is at eye level and the crowd effect makes it hard to see the detail. So what’s the solution? Drones are out because they can crash into the playground and you’ll need a pilot’s licence anyway. More staff on duty is paramount and video technology is a must. Do we have cameras pointed at the playground? Rarely but why not? Staggered playtimes can work, but they can be disruptive. Use the children as ‘deputy’ supervisors? It’s been tried and can work, but children supervising children isn’t really the future.

Playground Supervisor Training

Playtimes can be fun … if you are a child, but for school staff it can be a nightmare.

No one wants another meeting, but heavy-duty playground training is a must to address the health and safety of everyone. Teachers don’t just teach, they supervise, and so they need playground supervisor training to include injuries, dealing with problem behaviours, hazards, legal liability and insurance claims. Training ensures continuity to all break times and so needs to involve lunchtime staff and anyone else involved in supervision.

Effectively trained, equipped, and attentive playground supervisors are essential to protect children. Having a PGCE doesn’t equip you for supervision and schools need to recognise that shadowing an experienced member of staff doesn’t constitute ‘training’ either.

4 thoughts on “A Sense Of Duty

  1. Are there any rules regarding nursery school teachers wearing sunglasses during summer in the playground.
    There is a lot of information pertaining to children wearing them, but nothing about teachers.
    Please help if you have any ideas.

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