Fifty years ago, in the centre of every school was a sanctuary for teachers, the only place in the entire building to guarantee two things – an absence of children and an unwritten permission to be one’s self.
Although on the surface merely another room in the school, and perhaps an unattractive one at that, its value to those teachers who used it (which would be most) was substantial. Once you walked through the door, whether at break, lunch or during a free period, you were immediately free of the constraints of a classroom or corridor. You could let your hair down, let out an audible sigh and say, “year 8 nearly killed me last lesson”. Waiting there would be a dozen voices offering everything from advice, commiseration or a biscuit.
This, of course, was the staffroom, a place for recharging, rethinking, resetting, resting and ranting, reasoning and realising, raucous laughter and relative abandonment. This was your home away from home.
And yet in schools across the UK, they are now empty, derelict shells of former glories, left to wither and rot.
This hasn’t happened because teachers suddenly decided staffrooms were useless. The response to this tweet categorically shows that teachers still recognise the power the staffroom can have in supporting teacher wellbeing.
The slow extinction of the staffroom as a physical hub for teachers has been aided by a number of factors.
The first centres on budgets – schools have been squeezed so much that the idea of having an empty room for teachers to simply congregate in has died a death. Every available space has been utilised.
Second, teachers simply haven’t had the time. The sight of a teacher scoffing a sandwich in a corridor before dashing back to their room has become commonplace. Detentions, interventions and clubs have been crammed into lunchtimes and have stopped teachers having a dedicated lunch break. Some schools now ask their staff to eat their lunch amongst their own students, negating the need for a separate space.
Finally, and most controversially, the accusation that has been levelled at some senior leadership teams is that they have made accessing the staffroom more difficult than it could be, whether that be by positioning it awkwardly in the school or by splitting it into mini staffrooms – the idea that some SLT have followed a “divide and rule” strategy is one that has gained traction over the years. There is a theory that leadership teams have looked to prevent communal spaces for “gossip” or the forming of “camps” by restricting staffroom access or in some cases eradicating the staffroom completely. But is it myth or reality?
The result of all this is that that the positive impact of a 30- or 40-minute period of “headspace” has been replaced by the “buzz” of the day continuously whirring from 8am until after 5pm for many teachers. It’s my contention that this lack of time and space for teacher “downtime” is hastening “burnout” for many.
The staffroom plays a crucial role in blowing out the cobwebs of anxiety and enabling teachers to reconnect to the human version of themselves, important in the sometimes claustrophobic and intensely pressured environment of the modern school.
I think we need to take staffrooms seriously again. Much has been made of the importance of teachers work life balance outside of school but shouldn’t we be giving equal measure to that prescribed within the walls? In other industries, the right to a break and a proper lunch time have been much better preserved; in education, it seems to have been a right frequently infringed upon.
Teachers have accepted the status quo for lack of the time or energy to fight their corner over what appears to be just a room to eat inside, but its surely so much more than that.
Some headteachers still look to plan their schools around the staffroom, with Katharine Birbalsingh being the best example of a school leader who wouldn’t compromise with her governing body over the need for an accessible and well-resourced staffroom. Some heads insist on “a staff room, a PPA room and a roof terrace for staff” when designing their school buildings; others appreciate the “negligible financial cost put significant impact on staff wellbeing” of an effective staffroom.
Instead of spending infinitely more money on flashy wellbeing schemes, perhaps requisitioning an underused space and creating an amazing new staffroom wouldn’t be a bad shout for schools who have a particular problem retaining staff.
The most valuable resource in a school is undoubtedly those teachers on the front line, hammering away for six or seven lessons a day. These teachers need somewhere they can go to get away from it all and it doesn’t need to be Barbados or a staff wellbeing residential centre. A humble staffroom will perhaps suffice.
For more columns by Tom, view his back catalogue