A handy staffroom guide to covert action

5th January 2001 at 00:00
Most old-stagers in teaching recognise staffroom power junkies (you know the sort) as hostile, and develop strategies to deal with them. This is only fair because you can be sure they have well-tried measures to deal with you.

One such strategy might be called "leverage" - you indicate a preference, and they hint that it can be withheld if you don't accept a proposition of theirs.

I used to think, why worry if you're given one less free period, less agreeable classes, etc? - you only give them a lever. Often things work out differently from what you expected anyway. I was asked what room I would prefer one year, and sure enough I got the one furthest away. But it turned out to be the best room because it by-passed a troublesome one-way system that was subsequently introduced in the school.

You may be thinking, hang on, school isn't a war zone, and if it's not in your case, be grateful. It is for a lot of people. In his 1960 book, The Informed Heart, Bruno Bettleheim considers strategies that might have helped people survive the Holocaust. How was it, he asks, that Jews and other groups who were "selected" faced the advance of Nazism with inappropriate responses?

His answer is that the Nazi state became so powerful so quickly, and entered aggressively such personal areas of people's lives, that they reverted to infantile responses, clinging to petty status and possessions, daydreaming, wishing and believing things would return to how they were. They aggrandised the powerful to a scale that rendered themselves impotent.

I would not use this subject as a parallel for entrapment in the workplace, were it not that Bettelheim wrote the book for this purpose. By observing situations of extreme power, we may see behaviours that help us cope with power on a lesser scale.

In teaching one faces constant overwhelming change imposed from above, giving one a sense of worthlessness and tempting one to react in childlike, self-damaging ways. Teachers are constantly appraised, inspected, subjected to complaint and judgment from all-comers. In a school where there is already manipulation and hostility this creates a climate of anxiety. In Nazi Germany even the "meckerer", or "mutterers", people supposed to have made critical remarks in private, were singled out. I say no more.

Power merchants are particularly vexing over the question of time-wasting - not their own, which they often waste in shovelfuls, but other people's.

Actively prepare for scheduled periods of time-wasting you have to endure. Ideally, you need time-consuming but undemanding tasks that allo you to look up frequently without breaking concentration. Get into the habit of keeping these back for meetings.

Plan where to position yourself according to what you have to do. If you are doing admin, sit away from friends, preferably with colleagues who are inclined to take notes but not involve themselves too actively. Use blank pages at the back of your diary so it looks as if you're taking notes. Limit marking to work done on loose sheets.

I don't know about you, but I don't keep up with poetry and this embarrasses me. I buy the books but don't read them. Invigilation is perfect for this. Find yourself a perch, and read a single poem through. Close, stroll round the rows, cogitate. Go back and read a stanza more carefully. Stroll, cogitate. Repeat. It's perfect, not only do you read them, you read them well.

If you sit with friends during time-wasting sessions, you are unlikely to get work done without repeated elbowings and muttered comments.

Sort out pen-and-paper games for these situations: crosswords, particularly cryptic, allow one to gaze thoughtfully as if weighing up the debate - don't take in the newspaper, just tear it out or make a copy.

Doggerel: jot down a couplet on something of a personal nature and pass it on - by the end you'll have pages of libellous nonsense of innovative rhyming and metric quality, particularly if you involve PE and technology colleagues.

Hangman; sketching colleagues, like a court artist does - if you can't draw don't worry, that can be even more entertaining.

One successful activity I recall was a sweep on which colleague would have the most to say - contributions were logged to the second and totted together. There was intense involvement in the last part of the meeting as backers lobbed in points to try and stimulate their runner into a winning tirade.

Sometimes staff are put into groups to brainstorm an idea. I once found myself paired with a friend looking at school procedures: we knew the suggestions would create more work for staff, so set out to make recommendations that effectively only involved management - a whole-school chewing-gum policy for example, exterior door-mat policy, some refinements to the one-way system. This engaged us enthusiastically for the full hour, and won my friend a handshake from the head.

Nil Carborundum.

Peter Hayden is the author of the 'Stringy Simon' series: 'And Smith Must Score','The Headmaster's Daughter', etc. The gist of this article appears in his book on teenage writing, 'The Poppy Factory Takeover', published by Crazy Horse Press.

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