The importance of good communication

Physics lessonBack in the 1970’s, before I had even heard of IT service management, I was teaching physics in a London comprehensive school. I was quite an inexperienced teacher, but life was about to teach me some lessons.

One morning I was teaching a practical lesson to a group of about thirty 11 year olds and one of them came up to me and said “Sir, I’ve got a nosebleed” – it’s a long time since anybody called me sir, but let’s not go off on too many side-tracks here.

I wasn’t very good at managing the activities of 30 kids, all doing different inappropriate and dangerous things with the equipment, so I probably didn’t give the child with the nosebleed as much of my attention as I should have done. “Go and sit down at the side of the room and pinch your nose like this (showing him where to press). Come back and let me know if it hasn’t stopped in ten minutes”, seemed like a reasonable response at the time.

As I look back on this event, I am still amazed that the child did exactly what I told him. How could anyone be so stupidly obedient? Ten minutes later, almost to the second, he came back to me and said “Sir, do you know what a haemophiliac is?” I don’t think I have ever been so surprised in my life. I could not believe that this child sat there for ten minutes, knowing that the bleeding would continue indefinitely till he had the appropriate medical treatment, without thinking to mention this little detail to me. At the time I had no idea how to react. I was a very inexperienced teacher, but I did know that I couldn’t leave the class to ensure the child got the required attention – not with all that equipment being misused and likely to set off any other hidden haemophiliacs in the class! In the end I asked the most sensible looking child I could see to take him off to the school nurse, and I concentrated on managing my lesson.

The story had a happy ending. The child was treated and everything was fine.  I would like to say that the school learned from this incident and developed a way of ensuring that all staff had access to relevant medical information about the children in their care, but sadly this was still at least two decades away.

However, I did learn some important lessons from this incident:

  1. It’s impossible to avoid making assumptions. I didn’t consciously decide to assume that the boy wasn’t a haemophiliac, it just never occurred to me.  No matter how well prepared you are there are going to be times that you don’t have all the facts, and you don’t even know that you are missing some critical information. You have to accept that sometimes you will learn new things that completely change how you understand the situation. You have to be flexible, modify your plans to allow for the new information, and keep going.
  2. If you know something that might change other people’s understanding of a situation then make sure you tell them. Don’t assume that everybody else has all the facts that you do. This doesn’t mean that you have to constantly tell everybody around you everything that you know, but you do have to take responsibility for making sure that the information needed to make correct decisions has been shared.
  3. It isn’t always right to do what you’ve been told. The rules are there to support the majority of situations, but sometimes you have to break the rules in order to do the right thing.


Image credit: COD Newsroom

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