Life lessons: 'People ignore me in the staffroom'

Tes' new maven of manners, Thomas Blaikie, answers questions of staffroom etiquette and classroom mores

Besuited, bearded, bespectacled man, in armchair

I don’t want to start off on the wrong foot. I was an English teacher for 25 years in secondary schools. Teaching is an art, not a science. There’s no exact method that will produce certain results. 

Often, the going is precarious. There are so many variables. There is always an element of improvisation. How can you know – really – that you’re doing a good job? There’s a built-in insecurity, giving rise on occasion to rather bizarre and even brutal conduct in the privacy of the staffroom and beyond

Can manners help? I’ve been the manners and etiquette correspondent for The Lady magazine for the past eight years, almost. Before that I wrote a book, Blaikie’s Guide to Modern Manners, published by 4th Estate. 

I hadn’t expected the subject to loom quite so large in my writing life, but it has.

Daintiness and rigid behaviour

Often people think that manners is just daintiness and rigid learned behaviour. Children usually put manners low on any list of qualities they value in others. Manners aren’t the real person. Emphatic enthusiasts for manners are often the rudest of all, relishing any chance to find fault and obsessing over complicated rules, designed to expose lesser persons as lesser. 

As a manners correspondent, I’ve been a disappointment – insufficiently outraged, failing to hark back to a glorious past when people didn’t wear trainers, but put on their Jaeger suits to go to London's Oxford Street and knew which knife and fork to use. 

After 15 years in the manners field, I still don’t know what manners really are, whether trivial or serious. 

Some people feel they don’t have any small talk. They lack confidence. They feel their lives have been transformed by one’s (I’m keen on "one") advice and send a Fortnum’s hamper for Christmas (this really happened). 

If manners are trivial, well, so is most of life. Think how much time we spend thinking about food, or what to wear, or having little bits of banter and small talk with people we’re not very intimate with. These little encounters might make your day. Or give rise to those small gritty anxieties and irritations of daily life. 

Never is this truer than in the workplace. Do you really want to hear any more about the history teacher’s new dog at breaktime? For the umpteenth time, you’ve spotted that young physics teacher walking down the corridor with your mug. As for Miss Edgar and her interminable dramas with her dishwasher… 

Manners in the staffroom is a new departure. How will I fit in? Do please write in with your dilemmas, whether little or large. Who knows – maybe great philosophical truths will emerge. At the very least, entertainment and diversion, I hope. 

Send your problems to tes.lifelessons@gmail.com. 

Someone is sitting in my chair 

Dear Thomas, 

I’m an NQT, just starting in a new school this term. Four weeks in and, contrary to expectations, I’m loving the job. I know new teachers are supposed to have a terrible time, but I seem to be getting on with the kids just fine. 

The only thing I don’t understand is the staffroom etiquette. It’s very strange. There’s a group of older maths teachers who sit together in one corner. They’re not very friendly. In fact they don’t even say “Hello”, except one of them approached last week and said, “I hope you’ve thought about your pension?” in quite an alarming way. I’m only 24. Another teacher, not one of this group, warned me on no account to sit in “their” chairs. Is this normal? Can you explain? 

Melissa


Dear Melissa,

We like to think we’re on a continuous upward trajectory of ever more delirious progress and improvement.

Thirty years ago, when I began in teaching, this kind of thing was common. I remember hearing of a group of teachers, barricaded into their corner of the staffroom, who made a point of not speaking to newcomers for the first three years. Although one of them did make an exception for the occasion of Mrs Thatcher’s sensational resignation in November 1990. 

So it’s disappointing, but perhaps not surprising, to hear that this cliquey thing is still going on. If it’s any consolation, you might find that after 20 years you’re exchanging Christmas cards with these people and even going to their funerals. But it might be a bit long to wait. 

The point is: they may not be nasty through and through. Fear of the unknown, dislike of change, clinging together in a gang – this is what people do when they feel threatened, and you could say that teachers feel threatened permanently. 

It might be also they don’t like it that you’ve plunged into teaching and got off to a brilliant start. They can see the old giving way to new, and that their days are numbered. They’d rather you were struggling. Then they could feel more comfortable in their superiority. 

Extreme environments

I hope doesn’t sound too warped and brutal. But I do believe that, as workplaces, schools are an extreme environment, particularly when the children are out of the way. Maybe not quite the Antarctic or the top of Mount Everest – more somewhere glorious but challenging, like the Outer Hebrides. 

You could make a fuss and report this cabal to your mentor or one of the deputies. Strictly speaking, “excluding from the group” is bullying. But I wouldn’t advise this. It would be heavy-handed and possibly unfair. After all, what are they doing? Nothing more than not saying “Hello” and sitting in “their” little corner in the staffroom. 

Speaking of saying “Hello” in general anywhere on school premises, or at least smiling: so unfriendly not to. All staff members should greet each other, and pupils too, if they know you. 

I wouldn’t worry. I think these so-and-sos will come round eventually, if you keep on beaming at them and saying “Hello”. Don’t be intimidated. As for your pension, if they’re maths teachers, they might be of some use. 

Thomas Blaikie was a secondary English teacher for 25 years. He is author of Blaikie’s Guide to Modern Manners (4th Estate). Send your problems to him at tes.lifelessons@gmail.com 

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