Man the staffroom barricades

11th August 2000 at 01:00
WHEN Glasgow teachers first caught a whiff of plans for the new secondary schools to be built under the city's public private partnership arrangements they immediately targeted the proposal to do away with traditional staffrooms and replace them with smaller department bases.

There were other concerns, such as smaller classrooms and insufficient storage areas and, famously, the disappearance of a number of swimming pools, but the staff "social areas" issue featured as prominently as any of these.

Opposition to the proposed demise of the large common room was not wholly based on the professional paranoia of the conspiracy theorists, who claimed that it was part of a grand scheme to divide and conquer and further fragment school staffs, denying them the chance to moan, groan and agitate over their coffee and Jaffa cakes. There were other reasons.

If, as Disraeli is reputed to have said, the parks are the lungs of the city, then a good staffroom could be said to be the cerebrum - "the dominant part of the brain in man, associated with intellectual function, emotion and personality" - of a school.

Disraeli's "lung" metaphor would not have applied to the staffrooms of my schooldays and early teaching career. In the days when it was acceptable for teachers to send pupils out of school on an errand (ah, the innocence), I arrived at the men's staffroom in St Pat's, Coatbridge, to give my English teacher his (I think) bottle of Irn-Bru, and was assailed by the reek of cigarette smoke and the smell of fish suppers. I was immediately reminded of the "Stygian cave forlorn" I had been reading about in Milton's "Il Penseroso".

My first staffroom was all-male, all-smoking and all-card-playing. I couldn't help comparing it with the description of the "interminable card players" of the First World War trenches, described by Robert Graves in his autobiography Goodbye To All That.

The wartime analogy was not inappropriate. The street gang warfare of early sixties Glasgow often spilled into the schools and there was more than one teacher who walked into his or her classroom to find "Tongs Ya Bass" graffitied on the blackboard.

Even in that unlikely environment there were two people on the staff with hom I could have mature discussions about subjects other than football - an essential antidote to the strains of dealing with testosterone-driven Glasgow adolescents (it was an all-male annexe).

Let's face it - no human being should ever have to go through the working without adult company exposed to the challenges and frustrations of dealing with children andor adolescents. Some have tried it, and they were a sorry sight.

As a student I was once in a school where the principal teacher of physical education prided himself on the fact that he didn't mix with the rest of the staff, preferring to remain in his department. He was a sour, embittered man. I never did find out which came first, the self-imposed isolation or the bitterness, but in the end did it matter?

A "good" staffroom to me was one where the majority of staff went at lunchtime, and those who could also visited during intervals. I should make it clear that I am talking about secondary schools, though I suspect that the same principles apply in primaries, where rooms tend to be of the "all-in" variety anyway - though one of my former school's associated primaries had adjacent rooms for men and women, linked by a hatch with a sliding door. There were only two males on the staff at the time, so it must have been very lonely for one when the other was absent.

I can understand some teachers staying in their subject areas at intervals, especially if they have classes before and after the break and the main room is too distant. But I can't identify with those who ignore the main staff area as a matter of policy, a practice that seemed to be on the increase during my last years in teaching. The Glasgow proposals could institutionalise this trend, resulting in a honeycomb of small rooms or bases. Not a pretty prospect.

So let's hear it for the cerebrum campaigners. Staffrooms have had a bad press: too cynical, too frivolous, not professional, were some of the accusations. Well, give me a frivolous, cynical unprofessional adult that I can choose to argue with or walk away from, rather than a whole day exposed to the mixture of contentiousness and hassle, mingled with occasional highs, that is a teacher's lot.

John Cairney

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