Good will hunting

30th March 2001 at 01:00
It's easy to feel isolated from colleagues in a new school. But, says Gerald Haigh, you can break down the barriers

Once upon a time, students and new teachers were given the "Don't-sit-in-someone's-staffroom-chair" talk. The subject of many a joke, it had the serious purpose of preventing new teachers from getting into unnecessary difficulties that could affect professional judgments made about them.

School life is different now, and you're not so likely to cause Batemanesque gasps by plonking yourself down in the staffroom chair that Mr Jones has used for 30 years.

The general point is true, though, which is that it's easy to get off on the wrong foot with colleagues and correspondingly harder to get back on good terms with them.

Teachers, unlike many other workers, spend most of the day isolated from each other. Informal contacts between them are brief, limited to stolen moments before and after school, and during breaks. That means it can take a long time for new teachers to get to know the people they work with. As time goes by, they and their colleagues are making judgments about each other based on flimsy evidence.

Another facet to this is that a good school runs on teamwork - people giving support, heading off each other's problems, reinforcing success. Which is fine, except that a busy team does things on the fly, each member depending on the other to understand, with little explanation, what's needed. It goes a bit like this:

A teacher pops a head round the door of the staffroom, where a colleague is doing paperwork, and says: "Jackie, I have to nip down to see JB. Can you... ?"

"...See to your group? Okay. Do they... ?"

"They know what to do. You could try them with that thing we talked about?"

"In the green books?"

"If you have time..."

When it's like that, a new member can find it hard to find acceptance. There's too much going on, and too little opportunity for anyone to stop and explain things. Where time is pressing and tasks are being divided up, it's too easy for the team leader to throw jobs at tried and tested people. It can make you feel excluded - you might even go home wondering if you've offended someone, or thinking that colleagues find you somehow wanting.

So it is that one of the paradoxes of school life is that a happy staffroom is sometimes off-putting to newcomers, because it's a tight, exclusive group with its own jokes and private language. It has an air of confident capability that can make a new teacher feel inadequate.

There are mentoring arrangements for NQTs, of course, but they aren't always the key to building relationships because they usually, and understandably, concentrate on classroom practice and management.

So, how do you work on being accepted in the staffroom? See the panel at the foot of the pagefor a list of the dos and don'ts.

* Dos

If you feel left out, instead of keeping quiet or dropping hints, ask your team leader or head of department to find time for a one-to-one chat. Go in knowing what you are going to say. Point out that you want to take a fair share of planning and discussion.

When a colleague is on duty, offer to go along to help. It's a good opportunity to talk.

If the staff make coffee for each other, make sure you take your turn - willingly, and with alacrity. As you hand it round, you'll have friendly eye contact and a word with people who may have hardly spoken to you before.

At departmental and staff meetings, don't just sit there, make some points - but frame them diplomatically and, if possible, in the form of questions.

If possible, seek advice for problems before someone else has to tackle you about them.

Use the staffroom at break and lunchtime. You have lots of work to do but, in the medium-to-long term, it's a mistake to shut yourself away in your teaching area.

During breaks, make a point of talking to a wide range of colleagues.

Spend time with support staff: show interest, and ask about their work.

Try to support social events. As time goes on, you'll be able to select the ones that suit you.

If you have a useful skill - basketball coaching, piano playing, making samosas - quietly volunteer when the opportunity arises.

* Don'ts

Don't take materials or equipment without asking what the routine is - the data projector that you waltz off with might be already booked out to someone.

Don't ask the office for word processing or photocopying at short notice when you should have asked hours or even days before.

Don't leave your teaching space unnecessarily untidy or dirty without apologising to your cleaner.

Don't push your ideas loudly and assertively, even if you know you're right.

Don't criticise one colleague to another.

Don't criticise a colleague's class.

Don't leave spaces untidy after using them - storerooms, the staffroom, other people's teaching areas.

Don't be late for anything at all.

Don't go over your line manager's head in an attempt to get your own way.

Don't complain in the staffroom about your workload. If there's a genuine problem, take it up privately with your mentor or head of department.

Above all, though, be assured that, in most staffrooms, most of the people are tolerant, generous and generally nice. The person who's quiet and distant is likely to be preoccupied with a problem rather than stand-offish.

The one who snaps at you may be under barely tolerable pressure. Keep calm, smile, listen, and be your good-humoured self. You impressed at the interview, after all - so it's likely you'll impress in the staffroom too, given time.

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