Yeoman’s Service – The Public Servants’ Commitment to Something Bigger Than Ourselves”

In memory of my mother “Stella” a dedicated teacher who did not suffer fools gladly but did her best to instruct and course correct.

Shantel Edwards

As I reflect on the current corona virus pandemic, the millions of lives lost and the numerous workers on the front lines battling this phenomenon, I cannot help but think about the concept of Yeoman’s Service and the notion of being committed to something bigger than ourselves. To all the selfless individuals who are fighting on the front lines front and center during this awful pandemic I want to say thank you, I will be writing a specific article giving thanks called Gratitude more to come. 

Yeoman Service as a concept, idea and practice has evolved over time. Indeed, throughout the centuries stemming from medieval times, throughout the Renaissance era, to the historic southern plantation classes to current navy career profiles. The landscape is rich with numerous dogmas and explanations as to the origin and source of the word Yeoman. Some of the modern connotations include:

“Very good, hard and valuable work that someone does specially to support a cause, to help a team.” (2021 Merriam Webster Dictionary).

“Yeoman service (also yeoman’s service) is an idiom which means “good, efficient and useful service” in some cause. It has the connotations of the work performed by a faithful servant of the lower ranks, who does whatever it takes to get the job done” (2021 Wikipedia), and finally the Free Dictionary describes it as “service that is good enough but in no way extravagant” – “this rickety wooden ladder has done me yeoman’s service over the years but its time to upgradeIdioms Free dictionary.

Notwithstanding the historical perspectives, explanations, and situations I am not overly concerned with the etymology of the word or its evolution over the centuries. The enduring theme throughout is the concept of efficient and faithful service. The long-standing Rotarian motto of “Service above Self” aptly describes the worker who unwaveringly on a daily basis provides public service not for profit or gain but simply put for the concept of serving. In the poem below according to Wikipedia “the sense – although not the use – of the idiom can be found in the Gest of Robyn Hode, dated to about 1500. It aptly describes Robin as vouching for Little John as a yeoman, a faithful servant who will perform whatever duties are required in times of great need.

I shall thee lend Little John, my man,

For he shall be thy knave;

In a yeoman’s stead he may thee stand,

If thou great need have.”[26]

This connotation of useful, loyal, dedicated service in times of great need is currently being provided by countless working-class men and women in the paradigm of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Another interesting perspective is Orville Burton’s classification of white society into “the poor, the yeoman middle class and the elite”. I think we can infer a modern-day connotation to his concept of the yeoman middle class and ascribe it to the hard-working middle class of today’s society. Whether we agree with Burton or not the concept rings true for almost democratic societies where the burgeoning middle class is seen as the sect that works the hardest with service that is ranges from good enough, no way extravagant to stellar, exemplary and beyond the call of duty.

The many nurses, doctors, janitors, personal support workers, garbage collectors, police officers, firefighters, store clerks, soldiers, supermarket cashiers all of whom are the front line are performing yeoman’s service. Prior to the pandemic it was often not appreciated and recognized. Sure enough we know the soldiers and veterans are frequently honored on Remembrance Day here in Canada or Veterans Day in the USA, and I too salute them. In this article I want to deliberately recognize those persons who give yeoman’s service in the backwoods where no one knows about them, some of them in heart rending conditions and thankless jobs e.g. nursing homes to serve a need greater than themselves. I am also willing to recognize those persons who through deliberate dedication and hard work or even happenstance have gotten into the upper 1% by giving loyal, faithful service. There are Yeomans everywhere, but the majority are in the working class and who are proud, humble, and just content to be where they are for such a time like this, giving selflessly without fanfare and showing up 110% and without eyeservice akin to Ephesians 6:5-8.

We all have our idiosyncrasies and quirks about who we are and what we want to be most remembered for. Some of us enter our dream jobs by deliberate actions and some find theirs by happenstance, for me however the public sector has always been my calling. There was just always something honorable, forthright and spoke to immense pride being called a civil servant. The influence of my mother “Stella” (as my dad affectionately called her) was a deciding factor in my career choice. My mother was a teacher, a noble profession that was held in high esteem in those days back in Jamaica. She was a teacher with over 30 years sterling public sector service, and she was also my greatest mentor.

A quiet, strict, steadfast, dedicated, and humble soul (may her soul RIP) who taught me the value of hard work. She was regarded in the education community as a good, dedicated teacher who taught many students inside and outside of the classroom. In her free time after school or at home, she taught many adults from the wider community how to read. Sadly, these persons had long ago passed through the education system and were still illiterate or had severe learning disabilities and could not advance themselves in their careers. In her own quiet way, she taught them using conventional and unconventional methods whilst preserving their privacy and their dignity. Seeing the immense gratitude that she received from these adults some shedding tears that stirred something deep within and at the age of 11 years I was in awe of her. That kind of self less service which positively impacted peoples lives without fanfare or reward is worthy of yeoman recognition, including the excellent pass rates she also had in her classroom.

While I was in high school, my mother gave me my first foray into the concept of public service by sometimes letting me assist in teaching her 2nd, 3rd, and 4th grade students and by reviewing test papers. She was a strict disciplinarian and I had to be smartly dressed in my secondary school uniform, and I had to control my classroom, and engage the students all under her watchful eyes. She also made me correct all her students test papers with a pencil, then she would do the final marking of the test papers with a discussion to follow on all the items are marked incorrectly. That early exposure in the classroom made me very confident and assertive.  The young impressionable students were so receptive and they basically looked up to me as I was a high schooler smartly dressed in uniform teaching them.  She may have had her motives for letting me do that (like ensuring that I did not forget formative teachings), however what she did instilled something deep within me to give back.

Another key influence on my becoming a public servant was when I first heard the term “Yeoman Service” coined as part of one the tributes given to a distinguished public sector official who recently died. The tribute aptly described him as having given yeoman service and his contribution had made an indelible mark on our nation’s fabric.  I thought wow just wow, when I heard those descriptive words, I decided I wanted to identify with that type of individual. What ever he did in life I wanted to do that too. Prior to him only my mom had me awestruck and dead set on entering the public sector.  In the 1980’s becoming a teacher, principal, police man, fireman, doctor, lawyer were all seen as “Big Job”. The common whisperings in the community would be along the like of “do you know Miss Eddy daughter, she got a “BIG JOB” in the government. Entering the public sector then was seen as a thing of awesome pride. So every parent in the community had high hope that their pickney (Jamaican term for child) would one day get a “BIG JOB”.

The lure of the private sector has never overtaken me, sure I acquiesced to the economic theory of the “rationale man” and worked in the private sector in a bid to provide for my family having resigned my government job in Jamaica and moved to Canada. That was an eye opening experience whilst I waited to fulfill certain basic requirements to work in this side of the Canadian public sector vineyard. Whilst I am eternally grateful for the private sector opportunity which allowed me to gain valuable human resource management experience in my newly adopted country, the experience only cemented further my resolve to work in the public sector. The civil service in my blood and stamped in my deliberate and natural attitude (DNA).

The public sector was once seen as a career of noble calling, one did not become a civil servant for monetary reasons, in fact it was seen as a career with modest outcome compared to the private sector. A colleague of mine gave up his cushy private sector job where he was earning twice my salary and he is far younger than me. Why did he do that? Simply put for family reasons, work life balance, pension, and most importantly the altruistic reasons of service. The important message here is that he felt it important to give up double the money for sanity. The modus operandi of the private sector continues to be driven by the concept of the bottom line while the public sector is driven inherently and enduringly is driven by the concept of service (that is for another healthy debate – article to come).

The public sector in any society is usually the largest employer of any workforce when compared to other individual organizations. People choose to become public sector workers for various reasons the most important of which is the stability of employment. Whilst that may be so, my sojourn into the public sector was formed on the concept of service. I will never be rich doing my simple ordinary job but am I happy, yes I am and I grateful for that each day.

In the absence of an awards scheme such as Yeoman’s Awards for Service (not a far-fetched idea by any stretch of the imagination), this article will not only gives honor to exemplars like my mother but I also choose to give honor to all the workers who have contributed to the overall growth and development of their neck of the woods, pre-pandemic, during pandemic and who will continue to do so post pandemic. Those who continue to give thank less service without fan fare but with a quiet and dedicated humility. Whether it is your contribution to a team effort in your work organization, in your community, church, charity organization, in service to your country currently serving or retired army vet or simply being a kind neighbor. Your honest dedicated labor in your respective fields and selfless contributions wherever and however is appreciated.

So, as I ask myself the question, have I been giving Yeomans service? I deeply reflect on my 25 cumulative years as a public servant spanning two countries Jamaica and Canada. I would like to think that deep down I am committed to something bigger than myself. A good life and the means to provide for oneself and family is important and I have been blessed to have that. Most importantly I have felt immense pride in giving of my best whilst teaching in my mom’s classroom and I have been giving my best over the years as a government auditor, manager, trainer, lecturer, director, administrator, passports, and visa officer, briefing coordinator and more recently as a senior advisor.  I will continue to give of my best in this part of the public sector vineyard n the true north strong and free. So my final question to you is this? “Have you been giving Yeoman’s service in your neck of the woods?” If yes, continue to blaze the trail, if not there is still time to make your indelible mark. Until next time as we Jamaicans say walk good!

Works cited and Consulted.

  1. Burton, Orville Vernon. In My Father’s House Are Many Mansions: Family and Community in Edgefield, South Carolina (1985) – cited from Wikipedia.https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/yeoman’s/yeoman%20work/service
  2. Rotary mottoes | Rotary International
  3. Yeoman’s service – Idioms by The Free Dictionary
  4. Yeoman – Wikipedia
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