Do not disturb by Helen Burge

I travelled by train this week from Weston-super-Mare to Birmingham New Street.  Sitting surrounded by people tapping away on laptops or phones, not making eye contact, sitting in close proximity without really acknowledging each other is really odd. Nobody appeared to be approachable, which led me to thinking how approachable am I? And, how approachable do I want or need to be?  There has recently been some debate on #SBLTwitter about putting a “Do not disturb” sign on your door.  It was quite fascinating and there were very valid reasons on both sides.

I was unsuccessful at a job interview once because my answer that; I would put a “Do not disturb” sign on my door at crucial points in the working year - did not sit comfortably with them.  I was gutted at the time.  Cross with myself as that sign was not my unique selling point, it is so the opposite of that, as I believe I am flexible, I am willing to get involved. I will literally drop everything and muck in and put my list of tasks at a lower prioritisation to someone else’s in order for them to achieve a time-sensitive task.

What I had intended to show the interviewers, in answer to their question of “how will you cope with all the interruptions?” was that at times, I would prioritise the complex and time dependant work over trivial interruptions. It had worked well in my job at the time, my head teacher even encouraged it, and bless him he would try his best to enforce the sign by getting to people before they made it to my door.  Just like I did for him, when time was of the essence and he had to complete a complicated task in a tight frame. I would see if I could help solve the issue of the interrupter, or encourage them to return at a later time. 

To put it further into the school context, when a teacher is teaching, unless it is really urgent, no one goes into the classroom to have a conversation about anything else, they allow the teacher to teach in the time allocated for teaching. Conversations can wait until break time, lunch time or after school. In a school office or in a SBM’s office, all time is perceived to have the same value in terms of work content, after all our job is to support the teaching and learning within the school, we are seen as fully accessible all the time.

There are some teachers whose PPA time is used effectively to plan and prepare and communicate with the office crew about all manner of things. I am sure many who work in a primary school can identify with recognising this non-contact time for teachers as the time when interruptions at the office door increase, or the phone / email appears to be a hotline to you.  You almost don’t need a PPA timetable on your wall as you just know that X afternoon there will be a flurry of what you see as minor issues, but to the teacher could be major deal breakers before they can carry on with the remainder of their work. If you know this about your teachers on PPA, do not plan to do your time sensitive, complex, non-interruptible work on X afternoon!   

Having an open-door policy is lovely. When my current head teacher first started at our school in the summer term, she said if my door is open I can be disturbed, if my door is closed it means I cannot currently be disturbed, unless it is really urgent i.e. safeguarding.  This worked fine until the autumn term when the Victorian building was less supportive of this approach and the cold draughts led to big scarves and eventually a change of tactic - if you opened the door you had to enter the room and close the door quickly to keep the heat in! This probably led to some cosy interruptions.

So approachable or not? To be or not to be? Door open? Door closed? My advice – think about what you are doing that day. Take time during the day to speak to people, catch up and check in but also be confident to shut your door. I’ve not used a “Do not disturb” sign since my disappointment at that interview. I’ve relied instead on asking my office crew please don’t put calls through to me this morning, or for the next hour.  If I have been disturbed “I’ve said bear with I’ll get back to you when I’ve finished this.”

Yesterday afternoon, the head teacher and I were having a very in-depth discussion about school and in the space of about five minutes we were interrupted five times.  We actually ended up laughing about it. All the people who interrupted us, we value, we trust and we have a positive relationship with, so we could say “we will get back to you” and they understood and knew we would. If they had known the deepness of the conversation, we were having I am sure that they would not have disturbed us. If we had known the deepness of the conversation beforehand, would we have put a do not disturb sign on the door?  No, I don’t think we would have.