Beasts that stalk the staffroom

8th January 1999 at 00:00
He'll eat a young teacher alive, warns Elaine Williams. But perhaps a change of habitat could help cure the cynicism that infects so many staffrooms.

Staffrooms have always been the teachers' bunker: the last hiding place from truculent pupils, the pit where staff can moan and skulk, let off steam and exercise their gallows humour. And there's always been the old lag in the corner, the stone age obstructionist pouring cold water on new initiatives, all too ready to dampen the enthusiasm of the newly-qualified.

But young teachers are having a particularly hard time of it these days because cynicism is no longer confined to the staffroom corner. Nor is it so good humoured. Newly-qualifieds have to combine thick skin with subtle diplomacy if they are to survive professional relationships. The children, it seems, are the least of their problems.

A December survey of 650 NQTs by TimePlan Education Group, a supply agency, reveals that the negative attitudes of colleagues during teaching practice has put more than 10 per cent off the profession. Young teachers are voting with their feet. Within five years of entering the profession, less than half will still be in schools - and it's not just low pay and government policy that are making them cut loose. Teacher-trainers also blame the disparity between the exacting standards required from courses and the realities of teaching on the ground.

One primary trainer claims his students on teaching practice are still being told "never mind what they taught you at university, pet, this is what you do here". Some of his students are even refused admittance to the staffroom.

When Ted Wragg, professor of education at Exeter, asked an audience of NQTs whether any teacher had tried to put them off teaching, the response was 100 per cent affirmative. He says: "I try to warn them they will meet disaffection in the staffroom but that these are mostly good people, even if they seem bitter. Two-thirds of teachers are over 40, and they've spent the past 10 years implementing enormous changes. They are conscientious, but they fret and are saddened that this is not the profession they entered."

He recalls the staff of one school where he had a student on teaching practice; every week they played a game of trying to think up an alternative job she could do.

According to Wragg, resilience can still take a young teacher far, and staff still have high hopes of any young person who comes to fill a vacancy in school. "They want somebody who can take the netball and cricket team - and who also knows something about IT. If someone comes in who has also learnt the art of diplomacy, they can go far and enjoy themselves."

He counsels against following the example of the student who sat in the staffroom staring at two heads of department talking. When they asked him if there was a problem, he replied: "I was just thinking that in 30 years' time I could be like you."

Staffrooms tend to be places where people sort out their differences; something which can be distressing for the young and inexperienced. They can also be places where funny stories are shared and where there is great camaraderie - a sense of "we're in this together". However, one northern head says he feels some of his older staff are unable to cope with current youth culture and tend to think of young teachers - "some of whom probably still go clubbing and take drugs themselves" - as having gone native. "They resent that these young teachers get on with kids and enjoy them when they themselves have fallen out of love with them." In such circumstances, he says, the staffroom can become a "wailing wall for people in their middle years".

An experienced senior education adviser says that while there are always members of staff ready to disillusion someone young and idealistic, student teachers can be arrogant in turn, often failing to perceive "the phenomenal range of skills that long-standing teachers can have".

The key thing, she says, is for all teachers, young and old, to retain a sense of humour and "to see the stuff coming at you from all sides as a challenge, not as something to bury you".

Young teachers are often disenchanted by the physical conditions in which they have to work. As graduates with a choice of professions before them, it's a hard decision to opt for work that affords so little personal space. Staffrooms are often crowded and smelly, with internecine warfare over chairs and mugs. One teacher returnee describes how she was frozen out when she sat in the wrong chair. "Staffrooms are like feudal empires and I made the mistake of not sitting where the English teachers should sit. Now I'm like everybody else and woe betide anybody who sits in my chair which is marked out by piles of exercise books and scuzz (mess)."

Few state schools can afford to give teachers desks and their own personal space away from the classroom. One young teacher says: "If we do survive the first few years of teaching, the Government should think about improving our conditions in non-contact time. In our staffroom there aren't even enough seats. I sit on the floor with the auxiliaries."

The Government recognises the problem. In its Green Paper "Teachers Meeting the Challenge of Change", the Department for Education and Employment has applauded Lord Puttnam, the film-maker and Government education adviser, for initiating a competition - with The TES - to redesign the staffroom of the future.

Moved by the awful dinginess and neglect he has seen in some staffrooms, Puttnam - who is also the brains behind the new teaching awards - has drawn up draft plans to improve teachers' working conditions. He aims to raise awareness through a national competition for the perfect staffroom which would include suitable work stations and other professional equipment. The opinions of style gurus who can brighten the lives of teachers are now being sought - Sir Terence Conran, founder of Habitat, Lord Rogers, the architect, and Sir Colin Stansfield Smith, former chief architect of Hampshire County Council. Teachers will be closely involved in the choice of winning entries and private sponsorship will pay for the construction of a winning design in several pilot schools.

But one head sounds a note of caution. He initiated a redesign of his staffroom, creating extra space and providing new furniture and redecoration. Yet staff hung on to their former chattels, rescuing their old chairs from the skip. Teachers, he says, cherish a good mess: "All staffrooms are dustbins. Teachers lecture the kids about dropping litter, but staffrooms are often the world's worst tips, and their kitchens should be condemned. We've had mice-droppings in ours and we've found worse in the fridge."

Yet the messiest staffrooms, he claims, can be the most chummy.


Those entering a staffroom for the first time might do well to have a mental picture of the nature of its inhabitants. Forewarned is forearmed! 'The TES' asked a sample of teachers to categorise their colleagues, and this is what they came up with: Old lags, stone-age obstructionists,dinosaurs: Cynics, usually male, sometimes sons of the working class and the product of grammar schools. Powerful vocal cords can make them good crowd controllers and disciplinarians. They may bully kids but can turn around the most poisonous. As long as younger staff worship at the altar of their experience they are fine. They always think senior management is out of order and can often be heard to say: "We've done it before and it didn't work."

The knitters: Women who sit knitting while keeping an eye on bouncy young teachers with grand plans. The Greek chorus pronouncing doom. Can be heard to say: "I wouldn't if I were you - I taught his mother."

Old-fashioned lefties: Softer cynics, they mostly toe the line but hark back to the glorious days when teachers could decide for themselves what to teach. They are often good with pupils but lack rigour and tend to be over-ambitious. Very touchy-feely, readily admit when they cock up. Can often be heard to say: "Oh God, that was a disaster - 9Q have just ripped me to shreds." They tend to hang out with...

Groovy young chicks (male and female): Enthusiastic, understand the national curriculum, love the job. Don't seem to have classroom problems, never complain about kids being out of control, even if they are. Supportive of lefties when in trouble (dinosaurs sneer). Share sweets and have a lighter view of teaching. They like a laugh and a drink. These are the ones students tend to attach themselves to.

Slick charmers: Really good at IT and write lots of memos. Into power and often members of senior management but still do a bit of teaching. Say things like: "I'm sorry you don't agree with what I'm saying but I hope you can live with that decision for now" (which they've learnt on a management course).

Arm chair hysterics: Passionate about their work and children's achievement. Describe their lessons to you all the time. Complain constantly about how hard they are working and how shattered they are. Say things like: "How can I be expected to get results when they're always going away on trips?" or "I brought in an orange four days ago and I haven't had time to eat it yet."

Subject devotees: These are actually rarely sighted in the staffroom and include: art teachers, who are still looking for the staffroom; food technology teachers who stay in their own classrooms because they have nice kitchens and can make nice things to eat; scientists, who tend to stay in their own labs because they have equipment (test tubes and things) and slaves (technicians) to make their coffee; and modern linguists, who like to sit together because they have tape recorders all over the place and they speak foreign languages which nobody understands.

Memo man: Aspires to be a slick charmer, but writes so many memos that he never has time to talk to anyone.

Marks amp; Sparks: twin setsBring cakes and remember each other's birthdays. If one gets pregnant, they spend much time buying and comparing presents.

Macho boys: Mainly PE, sporty and science types.Entrenched and dangerous. They rush round in circles fighting off the Indians (young teachers who've gone native) and strong women. Bring coffee in a flask and run the staffroom sweepstake. They don't eat cake and they don't celebrate birthdays. Often have the noticeboard behind them, daring people to cross into their territory. Become unhinged if strong women sit with them. Complain and salivate about the decolletage of young female teachers. Can be heard to say things like: "It wasn't like this when I was a young teacher." (They're usually about 34.) Staffrooms arelike the Tardis in reverse - people age quickly.

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