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'Shared desks can turn teachers into grizzlies'

Having to share her sacred workspace with colleagues has led to Sarah Simons coming over all territorial...

desk college FE workplace sharing hotdesking

When I started work as a teacher 10 years ago, my first desk was from a skip. This isn't a metaphor. After some over-enthusiastic "out with the old" interior design moves during the summer, the "in with the new" budget never materialised, so colleagues had to furtively bin-dive for what they could rescue.

I wasn't bothered. In fact I was thrilled. It was my first grown up, desk based job after decades of showbiz, so the whole thing felt like I’d fallen into a Mike Leigh style improvised play. The skipdesk fitted in well with that narrative.

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Lovely lumps of wood

Over the years and the places of work (I teach on a sessional basis so move around a lot) I’ve had some lovely lumps of wood and melamine to call my own. Small plains, where I could arrange my marking and admin, and give my stationery nick-nacks a home. Occasionally my space would be adorned with an antique computer, which would invariably make the sound of a clapped out motorbike revving whenever it started its drawn out process of firing up for the day. I’ve also been pointed towards hot desks where lack of available space has necessitated a less personal approach. Fair enough.

The least effective approach has been a desk share. This usually means that someone who has lived at that spot for years, but perhaps works across a number of sites, or is on a more secure contract than me, has been landed with a desk-mate they’ll rarely, if ever, meet.

If I'm working at a place where I feel welcomed and secure, as I do now, this doesn't matter one jot. It’s the people that make the place, not the stuff in it. However on the rare occasions in the past where I’ve felt like a necessary inconvenience I have been prone to getting a bit territorial about my allotted time at a shared desk. This is not a good look on me.

Sitting at my desk

At one such place, a few years ago, I trudged down the corridor to the staff room ready to grudgingly endure a "learn about the business of the college" day. It was a misjudged attempt by the SMT to help the lowest ranks feel included in the strategic decision making. But everyone knew it was really just a marathon omni-bollocking intruding on rare, precious, marking and planning time. To say I was "not really up for it" is a droopy understatement.

As I entered the staff room I felt my jaw tense. Someone was sitting at my desk. She was all casual like, as if it was her’s, coffee mug in hand, indulging in repartee with her next door desk neighbour. I quietly stormed over, like an armoured tank on stealth mode. As I approached, she smiled and without a hint of hostility breezed “Oooh it’s Tuesday isn't it? You want to sit at my desk don't you?”.

I smiled. Took a deep breath. Buying time. Trying to get a claw hold on the rage that was inflating inside me like a blood red meat-balloon. My inner voice had adopted a Brian Blessed boom “My desk? MY. FUCKING. DESK?” I thought.

Not a joke

By this time my smile was so forced I can only assume I was sporting the grimace of a haunted ventriloquist dummy. “Yes it is Tuesday,” I said, “But I'm fine with you sitting at my desk”.

Luckily she didn't seem to notice the disquieted staccato in my voice and giggled.

Goldilocks thought I was joking.

In the storybook ending, that thieving bastard Goldilocks sneaks out of a window and skips off into the woods after breaking and entering, ladling porridge down her gullet and kipping in their bed (no doubt leaving a massive turd in it as a dirty calling card, like robbers used to do in the '80s). In the storybook ending, the bear victims bottle up their feelings, shrug, and carry on regardless. I can only hope they took the time to talk through their concerns later that day, as PTSD can emerge when one least expects it.

When Goldilocks was sitting in my chair on a day when she shouldn't have been, I felt like all three bears rolled into one. Not those forgiving fictional ones either. Real ones. The type that’d happily rip your face off with one elegant swipe.

I recent years I've decided to shun the idea that I have any claim to a shared desk, even if I spend far more hours at it than the "owner". I think it’s for the best. 

Sarah Simons works in colleges and adult community education in the East Midlands and is the director of UKFEchat. She tweets @MrsSarahSimons

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