Getting to know you

15th August 2008 at 01:00
Friendships with colleagues can make all the difference to your NQT year. Tom Bennett looks at how to be a success in the staffroom

Bad enough that you're starting a new school and trying to spin 100 plates at once. But something that's just as important - and often ignored - is developing good relationships with your colleagues.

It's no surprise that this comes at the end of a long shopping list of to- dos for the new teacher, given all the pressures rushing up to face you. But it's vital to develop good relationships inside school. Why? Because everyone you work with is part of an immense web of support. Everyone needs everyone else, even if it doesn't seem like it at first. And pupils need you to hit the ground running, so you can't afford to waste time battling your peers.

Other members of staff will be your guides through the minefields of teaching; remember, they've walked the path before you. Finally, you're not just a teaching machine, you're a human being that needs to relate to colleagues and be recognised by your peers. Some might even become your friends.

So how do you turn the staffroom from a lion's den into a comfort zone? Like any relationship, these things take time to grow, but follow these short cuts and you'll plant the seeds of camaraderie as soon as you get there.

Everyone is your colleague

It's amazing how many teachers become blind sighted to members of staff who aren't teachers. What is it, a school or a Georgian country manor? Everyone who works in the same building as you is your colleague, so cultivate professional relationships with everyone: cleaners, dinner ladies, office staff and the janitor.

Treat them as you expect to be treated. If you've accorded them the dignity they deserve, they will be far more likely to stick their necks out for you when you need help. And remember to do the same for them.

A colleague at a previous school who routinely bitched long and loud about the shortcomings of IT technicians found himself whistling in the wind whenever his whiteboard turned mutinous. What did he expect?

Do your homework

It amazes me that a teacher perfectly willing to plan the seats of every pupil in their charge will fail to do the most basic personal admin to keep track of the people they will encounter.

Here's a newsflash: people like it when you remember who they are. It feeds a basic need to feel respected and valued. So try to remember their names. Use every trick at your disposal - mnemonics, word association, whatever works for you.

And if you forget their names, do what bartenders have been doing for ages when an old face walks in that they can't put a name to - get another new colleague to walk up to them and introduce themselves, and be close enough to listen in. Then walk proudly up to them moments later and say: "Martin. Brilliant to see you again."

Read the environment

Ever see the monkeys in the zoo? They have a pecking order and complex social groups that relate to each other in seemingly unfathomable ways. So does the staffroom. There will be as many social groups pre-existing in the staffroom as there are potential combinations of people, so don't try to work out what they all are at once.

My PGCE placement turned ugly when my colleagues and I hijacked the staffroom computers for essential social networking. Unbeknown to us, the old guard was seething with murderous thoughts towards these upstarts. Anonymous notes appeared in pigeonholes threatening vague consequences. The moral is to watch out for sensitive toes and don't tread on them.

Spend the first week or two getting to meet as many people as possible. Teachers are usually incredibly busy people, so don't think for a moment that they are being rude if they haven't introduced themselves. They just have a lot of balls in the air.

Don't irritate them

The ones that are rushing about waving papers and pasting things to the wall are probably not in a good place to have a welcome chat with you. The ones on Facebook probably are.

If you want to get in touch with someone and it's not urgent, then use school pigeonholes or staff emails as much as possible.

Have a heart for the people who might not have as much time to talk as you and let them deal with your questions and requests in their own time. It will reap you the dividend of professional respect, as opposed to the compound interest of annoyance.

Use the right channels

You will have been assigned someone responsible for your induction, and possibly your introductory year. You will probably have a head of department and faculty. You may have a buddy or mentor.

Use these people. They will have been picked because it is their job to help you, they have good skills in this area, or they just care a lot. In any case, this means that they have time for you, so use them to discuss any burning issues you have in the first instance.

Get involved .

Make a point of getting to know people outside of work hours: there might be talent nights, clubs or lunch events you can help with. Rumour has it that some teachers even visit the inside of a pub on rare occasions. Why not drop in, help out and get your face known at these events?

Getting invited should be easy if you keep your wits about you. Some are automatic, such as formal staff parties and celebration evenings. Others require a bit more detective work. I guarantee you that at the end of every parents' evening there will be a gang of thirsty, chalk-faced warriors retiring to the pub, so find out who and where, and see if you can tag along.

If the groups are big enough they'll not mind a fresh face. Or better still, why not ask some of the teachers if they want to go for a drink with you? Initially, have a drinkchatlunch with as many people as you can, refusing as few invitations as possible.

It's hard work but worth it. You might even enjoy socialising. Every school has a mixture of friendly and not-so-friendly natives. Only trial and error over the next few months will show you which is which.

. but not too much

You are new. As such you are an unknown factor to the tribe. Let them sniff around you a little and learn to trust you: squirrels will come over to you only if you hold your hand out, but make any sudden moves and they'll be up the nearest tree. So be friendly, but don't kill any overtures on the part of others by being so keen that people think you're scary. Be polite, sincere and modest. Nobody likes the new kid to be too cocky.

Like it or not - and I don't - most social groups have a hierarchy of dominance connected to familiarity. So even if you know that you're a fabulous, funny person with a heart of gold, let them find out for themselves and don't blow it by being overbearing.

Play it cool until you have formed bonds with people. A stranger might just be a friend you do not know, but these strangers are also colleagues, so the sooner you get them on your side, the sooner you can get on with teaching

Tom Bennett is the head of religious studies and philosophy at Raine's Foundation School in Bethnal Green, east London.

Five routes to success in the staffroom

1. Keep tidy. Find out where your stuff goes and keep it there. People get territorial in a small space and infractions on someone else's patch can trigger war.

2. You will need a mug, preferably as personalised as possible. This will avoid incurring anyone's wrath by daring to use their World's Greatest Teacher cup.

3. Think you're a laugh-a-minute and all those grumpy faces could do with a cheer-up? Think on. Button it, at least for a few weeks, because nobody likes a smart Alec, and the point is to build bridges, not get backs up.

4. Be prepared to say yes. You will be asked to help out in lots of minor ways and if you can manage it without compromising your primary tasks (induction, teaching) or your worklife balance, do it. It will generate emotional capital with colleagues.

5. Be prepared to say no. You will be asked to do a lot of pointless jobs just because other people are being lazy and think you're a soft touch. Learn the art of polite deflection ("Sure I can help - but not right now. Perhaps I can give you a hand at 5pm?") That should sort most of them out.

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