Why haven’t we recognised the great value of collegiality in recruiting and retaining teachers?
In focusing on factors affecting the recruitment and retention of teachers over the past few years, researchers have concentrated almost exclusively on workload and pay and have neglected professional relationships. I can’t help feeling we have all missed a trick here.
So often, it's the toxic relationships in education that are foregrounded in the education press: the harshness of an accountability regime imposed from above, and the inequality of the financial rewards system. Quite rightly, they are dissected in the hope of dismantling the structures that cause unhappiness and disillusionment, even emotional suffering.
But there is an opposite narrative based on synergetic relationships – formal and informal. In the best schools, these dominate and form an organisational glue that retains teachers. They don’t come out of organisational strategy; they aren’t the same for every institution; you only know them when you see them.
Such synergy is a powerful recruiter. How many interviewees on the obligatory tour with a student are – consciously or subconsciously – assessing the social climate of the school?
Dare I admit that the 15-minute morning break spent in the staffroom was the deal-maker for my first job? I wanted to be part of that vibrant culture. The next seven years endorsed that first impression. During the hard times, there was an informal support network; during the good times, there were staff celebrations.
But the debt we owe to colleagues goes wider and much deeper. It’s about the fabric of our social interaction and the different roles we all assume, often instinctively.
Acts of random and necessary kindness
These days, there are designated mentors, which is important in catering for new arrivals and ensuring they know where to find everything. But placing mentoring within a formal structure depletes the spontaneity somewhat. I benefited so much in the early days of my teaching career from the range of self-appointed mentors and facilitators who were prepared to make my life easier.
A science teacher colleague drove two of us English probationers to work every day, sharing both costs and banter while also benefiting the environment. Then there was the PE teacher living locally who helped resolve car breakdowns – usually in the wettest of rain and strongest of storms – with such incredible good humour. This real gold was also to be found between other staff. There was the colleague who didn’t hesitate to stop for an unfortunate teacher whose bike chain had broken, insisting on helping him load the oily and muddy machine into the back of his new car without even a thought for the possibility of stains on his pristine upholstery.
More recently, the anonymous donations of Friday Freddos in our staff pigeon-holes has restored flagging energy levels and morale after a hard week.
Sharing ideas, advice and strategies
Peer Observation Week is one of many labelled weeks in the year, and it can initially appear somewhat contrived. But it has been a joyous experience to observe members of staff across the subjects from PE to chemistry, RS, geography, psychology and Classics to art and DT – but a humbling one as I watch gifted colleagues make subtle transitions or integrate different aspects of learning into their styles, so seemingly effortlessly.
Discussion afterwards reinforces professional values and rebuilds social contact. The observations arising from joint projects with colleagues have led to deeply satisfying realisations about what is shared and, more importantly, what is distinctive about the teaching style and the demands required by individual disciplines.
The role models
In every staff body, there are a number of teachers who naturally stand out. They are not the ones holding the floor about their latest ideas, but the ones who so obviously have excellent relationships with students. Charisma is about being rather than doing, enviable and daunting.
It’s hard to follow in the footsteps of such people; better to pick up a few things that fit your own style than try to imitate too closely. Their influence is often indefinable but you feel it when it’s no longer there after they move on.
The threats to social cohesion and support
Sadly the set-up of space within schools has changed. In some newer buildings, the staffroom has been omitted altogether, while in most places teachers no longer spend so much time together.
It might be the new kind of puritanism that is invading the culture of education, whereby every interaction has to achieve some mindblowing pay-off for teaching. Or it might be the effects of clubs, meetings and duties colonising lunchtimes, after-school periods and even breaks. Excessive workload keeps busy people ploughing a long and lonely furrow.
In some schools, the siting of subject spaces at the periphery rather than at the centre can be a bit of a divide-and-rule mechanism, whether consciously or unconsciously determined. Secure managements would be more likely to bring staff together than to compartmentalise; insecure ones prefer to concentrate power in the centre, to direct relationships via the geography of the school, and to keep staff in assigned places.
A life-affirming dynamic
As I think back to what the various social and professional interactions have meant to me over the years, one line from Tennyson’s "Ulysses" springs to mind: “I am a part of all that I have met”. Inside my head are the many wonderful people I have been influenced by over the years. Their wit has diffused anxieties through laughter, their wisdom has offered new methods – or, at the very least, a more balanced perspective. Their confidence, skill, charisma and kindness have kept me in the business far longer than I expected. As monetary reward cannot be guaranteed, and workload is still growing, schools need to promote a life-affirming social dynamic to recruit and retain good teachers.
The writer is a head of English and drama in the South of England