Jenni Whitehead remembers some moments of humour from working in schools

Forgive me if I indulge in a little humour. Child protection work is such a serious business but every so often something will happen at work that just makes me smile. Forgive also if my humour is a little warped – most social workers’ humour is! Seeing the funnier side of things is one of the ways we all keep sane in a world that can seem very distorted indeed.

‘I’ve got a penis on the roof!’

A headteacher contacted me in a right old fluster. ‘Jenni, I don’t know if you can help me or not but I have tried ringing other people to no avail and a couple of people that I phoned said it could be a child protection issue.’ The head explained it was 11am and at noon the children would be going into the hall for their dinner. The school dinner hall has a glass ceiling and some one had painted an, ‘ENORMOUS’ penis on it. ‘It’s huge, and totally unmistakable!’  she told me, in something of a panic. I suggested that she contact the graffiti unit, run by the council. ‘I’ve tried them but they can’t manage it.’ Puzzled I asked why, ‘Their ladders won’t reach, they can’t get up there!’ She said. ‘Well some one got up there,’ I said , perhaps not very helpfully!

‘Anyway what should I do about the children and their dinner?’ The head was asking for my advice about whether they should still have their dinner in the hall or whether it would be better to change the routine and have them have their dinner in the classrooms. Now this might sound like a silly question to you but I am sure we have all been in those situations that for whatever reason stop us being able to think straight and I do know the head in question to be perfectly sensible intelligent woman.

Should she tell the children before they go into the hall or hope they don’t notice it? ‘How big did you say it was again?’ I asked. ‘ENORMOUS!’ she replied and obviously the penny dropped immediately! There was absolutely no way she or anyone else was going to be able to hide a ten-foot penis painted onto a glass ceiling.

We decided that it was better to tell the children in a very matter of fact way that someone had been very silly and painted a rude picture on the dining room roof. That way they would expect it, and while there might be uproar for a few minutes, it was probably better to manage it in a controlled way rather than have the whole of the dinnertime disrupted.

There was also the question of whether or not to tell parents. We decided a note would be sent home to tell parents that someone had painted a rude picture on the ceiling and that the school was in the process of getting it removed. This all happened a very long time ago but it still makes me smile when I think about it.

‘Two awful women!’

Before I came to work in education I worked as a child protection trainer for social services. My post was one of the first ever child protection training posts across the country and I was appointed as one half of a jobshare. My jobshare partner and I were young and enthusiastic and very much considered ourselves as breaking new ground.

We were breaking new ground, even social services hadn’t had such a post before and back in 1986 the whole issue of sexual abuse was beginning to be properly recognised.

On our child protection course, (which I must tell you was a full five-day course!) we ran a session on sexual abuse and our opening exercise was intended to get people to feel more relaxed about how children might tell us if they were being abused. The purpose of the exercise was to point out the importance of : (1) not being shocked by the words that children might use; (2) not attempting to correct children’s language at the point that they are making a disclosure. The purpose was also getting people to laugh, ease up on themselves and to make the training fun.

The exercise involved us standing with the outline of a male and a female body drawn on a piece of flipchart. We would then ask participants to tell us all the various slang words for different body parts, well I should say for specific parts of the body: breasts, bottoms, vaginas and penises. This exercise went down a storm with social workers and usually helped people to feel more at ease with the very very difficult subject of sexual abuse.

In 1991 myself and my jobshare partner found ourselves jobsharing two posts, one in social services and one in education; same job just different agencies.

We decided to use the exercise described above on our first course for named teachers. Twenty-five headteachers in a training room being asked to call out names for body parts! To our naive amazement not one headteacher would call out a name for a body part. They totally stone-walled us! I remember at one point asking Sheila, my jobsharer, ‘Do you know any, Sheila?’ Not a flicker from the audience – they simply refused to participate. It’s funny how an exercise that had gone down so well with workers from one agency could fall so flat on its face with another agency. We ended up coming up with some names ourselves and left it at that! We never ran that exercise again in education.

Anyway the point of this tale is that four years later I had finally managed to get one of those first  participants to come back to refresh her training. She had been very reluctant to attend but gave little reason for this reluctance. At the end of the two-day course I asked her if I could have a word. I told her that I was really glad she had come to the training but wondered why she had been so reluctant to come as she had participated fully and seemed to have got a lot from it. ‘Well Jenni’ she said ‘I didn’t want to come because the first time I came there were these two awful women..!’ She told me how the two awful women had tried to get the group to swear and that she hadn’t felt that that was appropriate.
For your information,. I didn’t let on!

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