Dare to share?

4th April 2008 at 01:00

Should after-work bonding sessions in the pub come with a health warning? It can be good therapy, but letting off steam with colleagues could get you in trouble, reports Adi Bloom

It is a harsh but not altogether uncommon situation: you are in the pub with friends, fourth drink in hand, expounding at great, if unequivocally hilarious length about Jonny in Year 9 and his inability to understand that semi-pornographic comments really have no place in an English lesson, even if you are discussing Romeo and Juliet. And then one of your friends interrupts: "OK. I get it. Can we not talk about your work any more?"

It is a moment Tom Prunty recognises. The 42-year-old music and drama teacher believes there are certain conversational topics only other teachers will appreciate. "There are definitely things, all work-related, that you just talk to colleagues about. Non-teaching friends get irritated if you are talking about classroom behaviour or unfair treatment by line managers.

"Like-minded people tend to flock together in teaching. There's a lot of socialising in the pub."

Forming friendships with colleagues is helpful in most jobs. But it can be vital for teachers, according to Ros Taylor, one of Britain's leading psychologists. "Teachers don't work together directly," she says. "Their classrooms are their own little fiefdoms. So the only support they get from other people is after-work socialising. And children can be a challenge. It's important to have like-minded people listening to what you're saying and taking it on board."

For Hannah Rockliff, who teaches PE at Hayfield School in Doncaster, her department's shared interests in sport and pupils' extra-curricular activities are invaluable. Every Friday evening she and fellow teachers play a friendly sports match and retreat to the pub.

"When I'm talking to non-teaching friends, their eyes glaze over," the 26- year-old says. "I don't think they understand the realities of it. They look at you quite blankly."

But while heading to the pub for a shared rant about recalcitrant pupils might be deeply satisfying, Stephen Overell, associate director of The Work Foundation, which campaigns for better workplaces, says it is not without risks. "The whole thrust of recent debates about work-life balance is that you should limit the degree to which work interferes with your life," he says.

"Spending time with colleagues in a social context can be easy and enjoyable. But it's important not to take it too far. You need to maintain outside links and a sense of perspective."

Kath Tonkin, senior teacher at a special school in Devon, is particularly aware of this. Over the 56-year-old's career, the working day has lengthened considerably, meaning that she is often desperate for non- teaching company. "The amount of time you spend in meetings with other teachers goes on ad infinitum," she says. "The job of teaching is all- encompassing. We have so much contact with educationists that I breathe a sigh of relief when I'm not socialising within education.

"Teaching can be stressful, so you think the grass is greener elsewhere. But by socialising with people from other professions, you find it's not that bad."

Stephen agrees. "If you spend a lot of time socialising with colleagues, it can erode your perspective. Things that seem small to an outsider can seem jaw-droppingly important if your life is wrapped up in the workplace."

And there are other disadvantages. "You have to watch the extra couple of drinks," says Ros. "Otherwise you find yourself saying: `You know, I've always wanted to tell you . `. That can be difficult to overcome next day at work."

Tom acknowledges that discretion is the better part of staffroom socialising. "I have had quite a turbulent personal life and sometimes, after a few drinks, I have given away far too much information about myself," he says. "One thing I regretted is telling colleagues I'm gay. It's resulted in well-meaning but rather ignorant attempts to set me up, by people who assume that because two people are gay, they will get on like a house on fire."

In particular, teachers should be wary about delivering slurred home truths to colleagues. What may seem a helpful hint over a double vodka is usually less than welcome the following morning. While colleagues may claim to have forgotten the previous night's indiscretions, this is often a judicious lie, says Ros. And being on the receiving end of dirty looks or muffled whispers is unlikely to enhance the working day.

This is something Tom knows from experience. Relaxing with colleagues, he once lapsed into a finely honed impression of his line manager. When he turned around, he realised that his boss was standing directly behind him. His apologies were not well received: the manager scowled at him and ordered him to get out.

To avoid such situations, Stuart Edmonds, head of Flintham Primary in Nottinghamshire, often chooses to absent himself from staffroom socialising. At the end of every day, Flintham teachers gather in the staffroom for a cup of tea and a chat. "A team that gets on socially often works effectively together," he says. "The staff pass on ideas and talk about pupils. I bet they share endless ideas in those 20 minutes.

"But they also need time to relax and have a gripe about what's going on. So I don't go in every break, lunchtime and after school. They need time to say: `this hasn't worked today,' without worrying what the head will think."

Bitching with colleagues about senior management may feel like healthy catharsis, sparing non-teaching friends from having to listen to school- based whinges. But Ros says such off-loading sessions can become addictive.

"Group moans are fine if they're purposeful," she says. "But if it's just a matter of whingeing and moaning, it's not helpful. You're bringing out negativity in each other and it ends up being a group downer. It's just stagnating."

Kath has seen this for herself. The lure of the bitching session is so attractive that she and her colleagues have a name for it: the BMW, or bitch, moan and whinge. "We all do it. We're all human," she says. "But if you do too much of it, you can end up in a negative spiral. It breeds negative feeling."

"Talking about work can become all consuming," adds Ros. "The more you socialise with different people, the more you find out how other businesses and institutions work and find out other ways of doing stuff. That becomes healthy and creative.

"If you start taking yourself too seriously, the microcosm becomes the whole world. It really happens if you only have other teachers as friends. That should be the government warning on any packet of teachers."

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