We all like a grumble, but beware the staffroom's Armageddon brigade, Mike Fielding warns
On every school staffroom door there should be a notice: "This place can be demoralising for new teachers." It's where all the moaning takes place and the new teacher full of ideals and enthusiasm can find it very upsetting and one of the most disappointing aspects of joining the profession.
In the 1980s, David Hargreaves, professor of education at Cambridge University, described teaching as a "grumbling profession". New teachers, fired with the urge to do their best for young people, may find this difficult to understand.
Before condemning older or more experienced colleagues, however, it's important to understand the function of complaining in school life and to recognise that things are usually not as bad as some people are painting them.
Teachers live a curious life (especially in secondary schools) in which they are cooped up alone for long periods with large groups of adolescents and only get together in short bursts. It's also a highly pressured job with stress annually gaining more victims.
Grabbing a coffee at break or 20 minutes' peace at lunchtime are the only occasions, apart from formal meetings, when teachers can get together and unload their frustrations. Then it all spills out: kids, parents, resources, the head, government, weather or the length of time to the next holiday. It can sound like a litany of defeat. For most, however, it's enough just to say it and know that others are feeling the same. They go to the next lesson refreshed.
For some, though, complaining is a way of life. The real moaners will criticise anyone and anything. Some will do it sanctimoniously, others with the heavy sigh of inevitability. But, either way, they are constantly seeking soul-mates.
This is where the new teacher must beware. There is a superficial attractiveness about cynicism. It marks you out as worldly, and implies experience. To talk about children disparagingly or the school condescendingly signals a break with the naivety and optimism which carried you through college. I knew a teacher like that. Less than a year into his first job, he was classing some pupils as no-hopers ("they'll never be able to do much"), new ideas as useless ("it'll never work") and the senior team as inept ("they never do anything"). Under the wing of the school grouch, he was rapidly acquiring curmudgeon status. He was also having trouble in classes.
It took a careful examination of the connection between the two things for him to realise that the cynicism sapped his energy and made him less effective as a teacher and that he was heading down a professional dead end where his reputation for disapproval was distancing him from potentially more helpful colleagues. Because, at bottom, most people want to get on with the job and can't be bothered with the non-stop moaners.
Even so, the way some teachers talk, especially about children, can be pretty depressing. Calling a child "it"; referring to a group as "that lot"; describing a girl as "tarty" may not match your view of a professional attitude. Nor may keeping a distressed pupil waiting at the staffroom door; refusing to mark work because "it's a day late"; or making a boy write an essay on "The Importance of Being Well Dressed" because, on a hot day, his shirt was hanging out.
These examples of insensitivity and pettiness demonstrate the distance some teachers like to keep between themselves and the young people for whom they are responsible. But this is another function of the moaning syndrome: it contributes to a sense of superiority which, as ever, is more pronounced in those whose own adequacy is open to question.
This may be particularly true of attitudes to parents. For some teachers, partnership is a trendy word with no meaning. They prefer parents to keep their distance - often because they feel threatened by people to whom they owe some accountability. When a teacher complains that a parent had "the effrontery" to ask how often her child's books were marked, ask yourself whether it might be because the truthful answer is "not very often".
When you hear people complaining it's worth asking what might be behind it. What may appear an issue of principle may be the working out of some personal grievance or insecurity.
The new teacher should chose friends and mentors carefully, and understand that usually staffroom moans are no more than the small change of everyday discourse between overburdened professionals. By aligning with those who, despite their complaints and occasional descent into unfeeling rhetoric, have retained their sense of purpose and idealism, the new teacher is more likely to deal with the occasional cloud over the staffroom. Avoid like the plague, though, the "Armageddon brigade" who will announce to anyone who'll listen that the school's never been so bad and, if the head doesn't do something, will soon be out of control. That's a good time to make your excuses for avoiding the staffroom and do something positive and encouraging - like talk to the children.
Mike Fielding was formerly principal of The Community College, Chulmleigh, north Devon