The talk was invariably about what they had taught that day, what they were going to teach and how they were going to teach it. Colleagues were asked for opinions on particular lesson subjects and whether any material was available to use. Problem students were discussed and different techniques for controlling disruptive or defiant behaviour suggested by the more experienced staff. After maths training on a Thursday evening, the majority of the staff would retire to a local pub for a quick drink.
Essentially, the maths department was a professional, cohesive, self-contained unit, which was supportive of its staff . This was good, but there was a down side. Because all the time was spent in the maths staffroom, few of us ventured outside the department to interact with other teachers: and few outside teachers bothered to visit the maths department.
The school was a collection of independent silos with an excellent network within the department, but with non-existent links to other departments.
By contrast, my second placement was the opposite. Here I was in a new school, designed so that each department had its own staffroom to create what existed at my first school. Unfortunately, there were not enough keys to go around so I was never able to use the maths staffroom unless there was someone to let me in. Consequently, I have come to the end of my placement without ever having spoken to two of the maths teachers.
The department has met twice since I've been at the school but there has never been a 100 per cent turnout or a willingness to meet colleagues; some fellow maths teachers chose to eat their lunch at their desk with the classroom door locked. As a result, I've got to know more non-maths teachers.
Additionally, I now know my fellow students in the school, from my own and other universities. Being in the same boat together - usually adrift - has formed us into a small group who meet regularly, eat lunch together and talk about what a difficult time we are all having. We swap ideas: "How was your last lesson?" "Oh such and such was playing up". "I teach him, have you tried merit stickers, he loves collecting them", and so on. We can also bring ideas seen in other placements at other schools.
If it were possible to set up a kind of inter-borough twinning scheme and transfer half the staff from my first placement school to my second school, and vice versa, we might create an ideal.
As the novice, I have definitely benefited from a strong department where the staff support each other and can bounce ideas and problems around. But that department has to have a place in the whole school and not be isolated from other departments. It's only through creating successful networks within the department and within the whole school that teachers get new ideas and improve professionally.
A 40-year-old trainee maths teacher