The staffroom: enter if you dare...

29th October 2010 at 01:00
Most teachers want a place of sanctuary where they can relax, socialise, share gripes with colleagues or just work in peace. But as Hannah Frankel reports, all too often that's not what's on offer

Day one in a packed staffroom and Sarah Rogers* was sitting on her own. Her new colleagues did not even acknowledge her existence. Without human contact, she became overly engrossed in her break-time snack - a Muller Crunch Corner yoghurt.

"I became obsessed with scraping all the chocolate bits into the yoghurt side," says Ms Rogers, a primary teacher in West Yorkshire. Unbeknown to her, she was also pouring vanilla yoghurt into the crotch of her black trousers.

Then she was faced with a dilemma: should she take a spoon to her crotch or waddle to the sink to clear up? "I took the second option and made the walk of shame in front of a full staffroom while yoghurt ran down my legs," she says.

"Everyone watched. No one said a word - not even a little joke to break the ice."

It was not the start to her teaching career that she had in mind. As well as having to spend the day with a dubious white stain on her nether regions, Ms Rogers was left with a more lingering sense of unease: it seemed she would be sharing her working life with a group of adults who appeared utterly unfriendly. Rather than being a haven from the clamour of a primary classroom, the staffroom seemed more like a no-go zone.

It is not just teachers at the start of their careers who face the anxiety of walking into a new staffroom. This fear can be no less acute for experienced teachers who change schools. Staffrooms can rejuvenate even the most bedraggled teacher. But at their worst, they can do the exact opposite.

"I have seen teachers in tears after just being shouted at by a parent, or having had a poor observation, being lifted by kind words, cake and wisdom in the staffroom," says Kate Aspin, a former primary teacher and now senior lecturer in education at Huddersfield University.

"But I have also seen awful staffrooms dominated by a `mafia' who make younger, less experienced teachers or staff feel dreadful and isolated. The senior management team need to watch their staffrooms. They can build and develop morale or they can divide and alienate."

For too many teachers, their precious time-out space fits into the latter category. "If a school was a zoo, the staffroom would be the snake-pit," says Rose Kirby*, a secondary teacher. "I avoid it at all costs and use the time to shift some work."

The problem in her school revolves around two warring cliques within the staffroom: the young wannabes that apparently do the head's bidding versus an older, more cynical group of malcontents who were employed by the previous head.

Age can often be a divisive issue. Steve Parker*, a secondary teacher in his mid-40s, used to enjoy his staffroom until the arrival of a group of younger, less experienced teachers. "In the past few years, we have taken on a lot of newly qualified teachers and younger staff on their first promotion, and since then things have gone downhill," he says.

"The nursery table - as we call it - is populated by some of the most obnoxious, loud-mouthed know-alls I have ever come across. The saddest thing is that it has divided the staff big time, just as we need to be pulling together."

A significant number of staff seem to relate to this more negative view of their staffroom. In a recent survey of teachers, 32 per cent described their staffroom as "poor". Half said it was "adequate", but only 18 per cent believed the staffroom "effectively" met their or their colleagues' needs, according to the 2010 School Environment Survey.

This may be partly due to the physical surroundings. Decrepit chairs, a lack of drinks facilities and a filthy kitchen sink can all make a staffroom seem less appealing. But it is the occupants of it who are the single biggest influence on whether a staffroom is a welcoming environment or one you want to avoid.

Carrie Paechter, an education professor at Goldsmiths, University of London, has seen plenty of teachers behaving badly over the years - both when she was a maths teacher and during her later research into staffroom politics.

In her first school, members of the maths department colonised their own table in the staffroom, spreading their books and graphs on the surfaces to deter intruders. Eventually, even one of their "own kind" was expelled from this hallowed ground.

"One particularly unpopular maths teacher was forced off the table because the other members of staff put a Banda (printing) machine in his place," says Ms Paechter. "He could not sit there any more and had to go off and find another spot."

Things deteriorated from there. "It got to the point where the rest of the team would not even speak to him directly. If they needed to communicate, they would send messages across to him via an NQT."

Such experiences could easily descend into staffroom bullying. The Teacher Support Network receives numerous calls from new teachers in particular who are struggling to deal with the complexities of staffroom etiquette.

If they receive no support, staff retention can become a serious problem. "Staffrooms are an important tool in helping to manage the wellbeing of the teaching workforce," argues Julian Stanley, the network's chief executive.

"They can not only substantially reduce the cost of sickness absence and ill-health - they can improve the quality of learning. They are often the heart of a school community where teachers can learn and share information, experiences and advice."

Ms Paechter agrees that good social spaces can be hotbeds of continuing professional development and fruitful work. "So much collaboration depends on friendship and chance," she says. "At one of my schools, I worked closely with the design and technology teachers, simply because we shared a phone and all used the same bike shed. Information has a habit of flowing through friendships."

A staffroom can be a versatile space: both a communal workplace with good internet connection and computers - vital for those without their own classroom - and an area for relaxation with comfy chairs. But first, people have to venture in.

Science teachers may prefer to ensconce themselves in the prep room, where laboratory technicians feed them refreshments. Or home economists may prefer to stay on their turf, closer to homemade food. Some schools have a strong departmental culture in which teachers tend to stay in their own subject-specific staffrooms.

Others may simply steer clear because the atmosphere is toxic. Jane McGregor, a humanities teacher turned researcher who has studied the effect of school spaces on behaviour, recalls one school where staffrooms were largely deserted because the staff hated each other. Next to a large clock on the wall, another had been drawn on the noticeboard in indelible ink. It read 3.30pm: permanently stuck on going-home time. "That really said it all," says Dr McGregor. "It was like watching a terribly dysfunctional family at play."

The "staffroom" sign had fallen off the door some years earlier and never been replaced. In its place was a laminated notice that read "no pupils allowed". "The staff did not identify themselves as a coherent group," says Dr McGregor. "Their only identity was as not being pupils."

As well as creating an unpleasant environment, she says the staffroom culture affected work outcomes. Unable to share ideas or concerns in an informal setting, teachers stopped taking risks in their classrooms, so teaching suffered as a result, Dr McGregor says.

But even the most gloomy staffroom can be transformed, argues Professor Cary Cooper, a workplace psychologist at Lancaster University and co- editor of the Research Companion to the Dysfunctional Workplace. Simple measures are often the most effective, he says, such as free drinks and biscuits twice a week.

But it will take more than that if teachers are not just going to grab the goods and leave. Most crucially, heads and their senior management team must make staff cohesion and collaboration a top priority. "It is their responsibility to ensure staff come together to share concerns, unwind and unload in a supportive atmosphere," he says. "Without that, morale, motivation and wellbeing are at risk. If the staffroom is not being used it is indicative of deeper-rooted problems."

Heads should involve staff and ask them what improvements they would like to make to their staffroom, he says. A more inviting environment can boost the staff's outlook and help heal existing divisions.

Ms Paechter also encourages teachers to take charge of their staffrooms. "At one school I worked in, the cleaners would put the chairs back in two straight lines facing each other every morning," she says. "It was like waiting for a bus. No one hung around for very long."

But if classrooms can be arranged to encourage group work, so can staffrooms. Alison Westwood*, a languages teacher in Worcester, says her staffroom is used more as a computer room than for socialising - teachers are just too busy. But at her husband's school in Bristol the staffroom has been arranged like a modern cafe. "It forces communication," she says. "The low, comfortable chairs are arranged in a circle, which encourages everyone to talk to each other."

Teachers should feel empowered to drive through these sorts of innovations, argues Professor Cooper. "A staffroom is symbolic of relationships in a school, be they good, bad or indifferent," he adds. "It is the head's job to ensure it is as good as it can possibly be."

This will be much harder if the school leader in question has never stepped into the staffroom. Heads may or may not be welcome in the staffroom, depending on the school culture, Ms Paechter says. If an outgoing head never entered a staffroom, the new head is unlikely to start.

"One new head gave her news briefings just inside the staffroom door, before quickly retreating back into the corridor," she says. "Others will feel comfortable being in the staffroom. Staff may like it, or it may cause resentment among those who feel they are being spied on."

Supply teachers are more likely to be tolerated, but only if they know their place. "They are always found in the darkest and least hospitable corner of the room," adds Ms Paechter. "Unless they are on long-term supply, they usually get the rawest deal."

But teachers can do more to help themselves, says Ms Aspin. She encourages her teacher-training students to take the first few weeks in a school to learn the staffroom rules of engagement. Sitting in the head of science's favourite chair can cause ructions. It is also worth picking up what conversation is taboo.

"You can really cause trouble by asking what everyone thought of Shameless if no one approves or watches your sort of programme," Ms Aspin says. "I remember talking with enthusiasm about watching Big Brother when it was new and one of the older staff members turned and said, `I can't believe you watch that.' It made me feel like the lowest form of worm going."

Swearing can be equally frowned upon - or encouraged. "Some staffrooms are very laid back, but you may have parents of children or governors in there," Ms Aspin warns. "If you walk in swearing or moaning about children, it will go down badly. I have also been in staffrooms where teachers have been swearing like billy-oh when a child walks in. It's not great."

Some new schools have been built with no designated staffroom. If the powers that be are trying to encourage team-teaching or a house system, they may purposefully scatter teachers across the school into departmental offices or break-out spaces, says Ty Goddard, director of the British Council for School Environments.

"The school may want to work on behavioural issues, so use the space to ensure teachers are more accessible to pupils at all times," he says. "It is fine to try different models, but we cannot continue to overlook staffrooms. They have an amazingly powerful effect on staff, both as social and professional spaces."

They can also act as a vehicle for getting ahead. "Teachers wanting promotion or to get off the treadmill can change the management's perception of them by sitting with a different group, or by staying out of the staffroom altogether," says Ms Paechter.

She has researched schools that have a "top table" for heads of department and a sarcastically named "knitting circle" for a group largely made up of young women. Getting in, or out, of such cliques could be difficult - but not impossible.

"Moving away from the periphery, such as a space by the door, into the main body of the staffroom can make a new teacher feel like they have finally arrived," Ms Paechter says. Similarly, "a regular member of the supply staff may eventually be allowed to join a mainstream staffroom group", she adds.

Such staffroom game plans may sound extreme, but ambitious teachers will make subtle allegiances from day one to get ahead. Learning how to play the system, rather than becoming a victim of it, may be the fastest route to staffroom harmonyn

*Names have been changed


- Make sure you are not accidentally stealing someone's favourite mugchairmilknewspaper.

- Do not hide in your office; be social.

- Do not get drawn into staffroom feuds or cliques.

- Be careful what you say: a parent helper may overhear your rant about their child.

- Search for jobs at home, not in the staffroom.

- Steer clear of the perpetual moaners or the "escape committee" - they will bring you down.

- Befriend the school secretary, teaching assistants and caretaker - they know how the school ticks.

- Do your fair share of making tea, washing up and answering the phone.


- The biscuit rota is pinned on top of the fire procedures.

- The cutlery drawer contains knives, forks, spoons and emergency tampons.

- The tea urn has been given an affectionate nickname.

- No one marks, ever.

- No one is eating fruit and rich tea fingers are banned.

- Someone has taken their shoes off.

- There is a communal parents' evening washbag containing perfume, paracetamol, and Arrid Extra Dry deodorant.

- Everyone talks about sex, SMT and shoes.

- There is only ever one person crying at any one time.

- A sexy priests calendar covers the short-term planning grids.

- The most commonly used words after "tea" and "cake" are "twat", "fuck" and "wanker".

- Everyone knows everyone else's birthday.

- Calls from outside lines are ignored.

- The person with the most teaching and learning responsibility (TLR) points washes the dishes.

- No one hears the bell.

According to Diana Gooding*, a teacher in Northumbria.

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