Hands off my personal space

30th June 2006 at 01:00
There are fewer places to hide in the modern school, reports Phil Revell. But we all need somewhere we can guard our possessions and drop our mask of control

Millions of years ago, sometime in the late Mesozoic era, I started teaching in Essex. There were lots of new things to know, not least how to sort your bladder so you could avoid going to the loo between registration and lunch. High on the list was the issue of staffroom etiquette. Don't sit in the chair in the corner; don't eat food brought from the canteen; don't deface the cover list.

The really heinous crimes related to other people's stuff. That pile of crappy exercise books is someone's marking - they are coming back to it.

Moving the pile, even by a fraction, is an absolute No. And reading the teacher's comments on pupils' work? People have been hung, drawn and quartered for less.

In the modern staffroom this is less of an issue, largely because everyone seems far too busy to go anywhere near the place. But space, personal space, a bit of the school you can call your own - that is as important as it ever was.

People with proper jobs have no understanding of how this works in schools.

They have desks, phones, offices, secretaries. Teachers have bin bags and plastic boxes. One modern foreign languages teacher worked out of a clump of resource boxes for four years. Each lesson involved a transportation exercise worthy of Eddie Stobart. Finally, after much pleading, she was given her own room, only to have it declared an asbestos hazard a week after she moved in.

In another school the head decided to create some extra teaching space by redesignating the school dining room as a classroom. A board was installed and a sliding partition purchased in the forlorn hope that it might offer soundproofing.

With low cunning he offered this dubious prize to the head of RE, who was in desperate need of a departmental base. Each morning this normally placid and forgiving teacher had to teach Year 9 against a background of half a dozen dinner ladies clattering around as they warmed up the chips and pizza. Her groups acquired some interesting new vocabulary, not entirely related to their study of the world's religions. Afternoon lessons were quieter, but suffused with the smell of stale chips.

Primary teachers, with their own rooms and triple-mounted wall displays, find it difficult to understand how secondary colleagues cope with such a nomadic existence. But they can both share anecdotes about stock cupboards and resources. Nobody in education believes the occasional stories about illicit sex in store cupboards, for the simple reason that there is never any room. Besides, someone would walk in - they always do.

Storage space is at such a premium in schools that every available shelf groans with mountains of stuff. Actually, possessing a stock cupboard is a double-edged blessing. First there will be the matter of whether the authorities allow you to have a key - after all you might store something in there. Even if you can negotiate an access agreement and storage rights - OK half of the bottom left hand shelf, the one that sags - you will find your lessons constantly interrupted as the world and his dog comes in to look for whatever they've lost.

"What's happened to the roulette wheel?" the exasperated school fete organiser will demand, with a tacit suggestion that you must have purloined said item to start your own casino.

There are luxuries of personal space that teachers can aspire to. You may start with just a pigeon-hole, but who knows where your career might lead? Eventually, if you work hard, show exceptional talent and a self-destructive capacity for hard work, you might be given an office. It may even have a door.

Some teachers have back offices from the word go. Not only do scientists have a prep room to hide in during break, they also have lab technicians who might be bribed to brew some coffee.

These departmental hidey holes can become controversial. One London school saw a long running battle between the head and the art department, who had refurnished their stockroom with comfy chairs and a percolator. Less important items such as paints and art paper were stored on open shelves in the classroom. It couldn't last - after a couple of terms of guerrilla warfare, the head issued an edict saying that every member of staff had to visit the staffroom at break in order to check the cover list and read the day's daily briefing sheet. Strangely enough, there were several art teacher vacancies the following year.

Towards the end of my teaching career, I reached the dizzy heights of management and was given an office. The head, who had only a hazy idea of the geography of the less salubrious bits of the building, told me that the disused cloakrooms in E block were being converted.

But said cloakrooms were next to my teaching room. Not only did this mean that my new office was perfectly situated, it also meant that I could bribe the builders with willing lads, who were happy to cart stuff around, hold doors open and act as general dogsbodies. As a result the new PSHE and careers office was richly equipped with shelves, chairs and filing cabinets, all of which had been liberated from other bits of the education system.

Some schools do without personal space altogether. There's no staffroom, so pupils and teachers have to "hot-desk" at work stations scattered through the building. Erving Goffman would disapprove. The American sociologist wrote in the 1950s aboutthe importance of back stages - places where people with stressful jobs could drop their work mask for a while and recuperate.

Medics, police officers, nurses and teachers need their personal space.

Make sure your reserve yours now.

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