That's my pigging chair

15th October 2004 at 01:00
Bigmouths, skivers, whistlers, sloppy eaters - every school has them: colleagues who get on your nerves. So how do you avoid losing your temper? Janet Murray offers some advice

As schools become more pressurised, it's hardly surprising that tempers sometimes fray. With mounting workloads and excessive working hours, the most seemingly inoffensive crimes, such as using a spoonful of someone's coffee, sitting in their chair or drinking out of their mug can lead to conflict. And call in sick at your peril! If your colleagues have had to cover your lessons for more than a few days, you may receive a frosty welcome on your return.

Andy Keane* is head of ICT at a large comprehensive in Merseyside. He admits colleagues' behaviour can make his blood boil. "What really gets me is the varying work ethic you'll find in a staffroom," he says. "Some people - myself included - seem to work their arses off, trying to do the best for their students. Others drift along, doing the minimum and then complain they're overloaded with work!

"Then you get the boasters, the people who have to shout about how great their results are, how much the kids love their lessons and what great relationships they have with the parents. There are one or two loudmouths like that in our place and sometimes I could strangle them."

Mr Keane hasn't punched anyone - yet. But he is not alone in his anger. A recent poll by TeachersDiscounts, a website that offers cheap deals to teachers, found that 25 per cent of staff feel annoyed by colleagues'

laziness and 24 per cent by boastful colleagues. Incompetence and persistent absence also topped the list of irritations.

"I know people can't help getting ill, but it's maddening when you lose a free period to cover a colleague who's sick," says Ruth Nuthall, a science teacher at a Kent secondary. "If you're running lunchtime or after-school activities, it might be the only free time you've got for photocopying or admin. If a number of staff are off sick, you can end up taking cover several days running.

"I know colleagues - particularly those who are known for good discipline - who are always stung for cover. It's as if they are being punished for being good at their job. It's particularly irritating when you suspect that staff are not as unwell as they make out, or are signed off for 'stress'.

"My school once employed a new teacher who went sick the second week of term and we only saw him two or three times after that. He'd reappear and then go off sick the next week, as if he was trying to get the best out of his sick pay, and we'd have to cover all his classes. Eventually they got rid of him, but it took a few years and made everyone angry."

A recent study by the University of Central Lancashire confirmed that anger is widespread in the workplace. Occupational psychologist Jill Booth, who interviewed workers in retail, health and education, was "shocked" by the scale of anger. "We found that people were becoming angry at work at least two or three times a week," she says. "There was a lot of anger about colleagues who were lazy and those who exploited positions of authority.

"There was also anger at dishonesty and false accusations and many workers felt riled about what they perceived as disrespectful behaviour - often arrogance and rudeness."

Workers are also affected by the niggly little things", such as people with annoying habits. In school, this could be hacking coughs, whistling in the staffroom or not bothering to wash your coffee mug. These things sound petty, but as Mr Keane would testify, they can be profoundly annoying.

"I get to work at around 7am to spend an hour marking while the staffroom is quiet," he says. "There's this guy who arrives on the dot of 7.30, singing his heart out. The Beach Boys usually. He belts out a song while he checks his pigeonhole, does his photocopying and reads the noticeboard - usually a full ten minutes. I can't understand how he doesn't realise that he's annoying people.

"Another guy is the noisiest, messiest eater I've ever met. At lunchtime, he gets out this massive lunchbox packed with stinky sandwiches, like egg or cheese and onion and proceeds to chomp away like ravenous dog, in between noisy slurps of tea. It's got the point where I can't bear to sit near him. I think I'd want to hit him."

Fortunately, physical attacks are rare. The latest British Crime Survey found that just 1.7 per cent of the population were victims of actual or threatened violence at work. The biggest danger appears to be the effects on workers' emotional well-being. Like Mr Keane, many workers seethe silently, but bottling up workplace anger can have long-term consequences.

"In the long run, people become stressed, depressed and may consider quitting their jobs," says Ms Booth.

Relationship psychologist Susan Quilliam believes teachers are particularly prone. "Most teachers work on a rigid timetable, with few breaks during the school day, and working with children can be very stressful," she says. "In some schools, there can be a 'them and us' feeling about teachers and students, making staff feel very defensive. And many don't even have a space of their own - a classroom, desk or office - which is why many teachers can get territorial about mugs, chairs and so on."

According to Blaire Palmer, managing director at Optimum Executive Coaching, many teachers make the mistake of not confronting their anger.

She says: "If you're feeling stressed with colleagues, it's vital to confront the issues that are bothering you. The trick is to try and depersonalise it, remembering to criticise the behaviour, not the person.

And try and add some humour or flattery if you can. First, inform them about what it is that's annoying you and tell them what you'd like them to do instead.

"So, instead of saying 'It really annoys me when you sing in the staffroom', say something like 'When you sing in the staffroom in the morning, I feel irritated because I can't concentrate on my marking. You've got a great voice, but I'd prefer it if you sang in your classroom."

Ms Palmer says you have to accept that you might not be able to change your colleagues' behaviour completely, but you will feel better for trying.

People don't always change their tune, but they might at least sing a better song.

* Names have been

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