Which tribe are you?

20th November 2009 at 00:00
Forget playground clans: who's the queen bee or the top jock in your staffroom, asks Meabh Ritchie

Teacher training offers copious techniques for dealing with difficult pupils and a thorough understanding of different types of learners. But what isn't covered - despite being every bit as nerve-racking for a new teacher as first day at senior school for a pupil - is the chaotic world of staffroom politics.

Dr Carrie Paechter, an education professor at Goldsmiths, University of London, has written about staffroom behaviour, which she says is rife with clues about different groups of teachers and the dynamics between them. "Individuals can manipulate staffroom space and the groupings within it. 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."

So which group do you identify with? Should you consider building alliances with some while avoiding others like the plague? Our tribes guide provides you with all you need to know to survive - and thrive.

The eager beavers

With the exception of a very cynical few, most teachers will have been an eager beaver at the start of their career. You will never catch them sitting down, having a cup of tea and a biscuit. Instead, they will be submerged in a pile of marking, peeking out to smile briefly, before hiding behind another stack of books.

This tribe won't cause too much of a problem to the rest of the staff, primarily because they are hardly ever in the staffroom, preferring to spend their lunchtime in their classroom marking or hosting a club of some kind. When you do come across these eternally enthusiastic teachers, their boundless energy and endless droning about how busy they are can be irritating. Especially when this is accompanied by disapproving looks when you express anything that verges on a complaint. We all know niceness shouldn't be irritating - but it is, especially when it inhibits you in launching into a good rant or indulging in some gossip.

Professor Cary Cooper, a workplace psychologist and one of the authors of the Research Companion to the Dysfunctional Workplace, says that this tribe is good to have onside. "Channel their energy and harness it in a way that helps you achieve your objectives," he says. "If you put them off, they are the ones who become the jaded cynics."

Keeping the eager beavers onside will owe much to the management style and culture of the school. "Praising and rewarding, as opposed to fault- finding, is always more successful," says Professor Cooper. "If you don't like their idea, explain why it won't work for the school, or why it's not feasible, but then encourage them to do something else."

It is not only NQTs who belong to this tribe. Some teachers become fully- fledged members long after their induction year, maturing into career- minded, middle-management types. These are the ones you see swanning around the school looking important. When they do check in to the staffroom, it's usually to pass on a vital piece of information or to discuss some very important business with fellow clan members.

Conrad Watts, an English teacher who has been in the profession for just two years, has already come across a fair few of these career obsessives. "Their main motivation is making a name for themselves," he says. "If they get really enthusiastic about something and start wetting their pants with excitement, it's not because they care about the initiative but because they want to be able to put it on their CV. They're the kind of people who really annoy the older, cynical teachers who got into teaching for different reasons."

You know you're an eager beaver when .

You're never without your stash of highlighters and green marking pens and always wear a business suit to school to project an image of how seriously you take your job.

The lefty liberals

If the eager beavers are keen to please management, the liberal lefties will do all they can to challenge them. They have principles, but you will find that they are usually in direct opposition to those of senior manager. And they won't take anything they don't agree with lying down.

In the past, the lefty liberals would protest about teachers' rights and resort to strike action at every opportunity, but in recent years they have turned their attention to the wider issue of the state of education.

The growth of academies and non-teaching professionals entering senior management are anathema to this tribe, and they will happily bend your ear about it when they get the chance. Fuel this determination with alcohol, and before you know it, they're writing their own education policies and coercing their comrades into signing petitions.

They might put up a strong fight in school, especially if they see the senior management team as too corporate, but they are fully behind some of the child-led government policies. The new breed of lefty liberals have embraced their responsibility for pupils' pastoral care and are happy to let their subject drop by the wayside in favour of shaping society's next generation. Shirley Lawes, a lecturer at the Institute of Education, chaired a debate about how staffroom culture has changed at the Battle of Ideas festival in October. "These teachers are much more about being interested in their pupils' social education," she says. "They see themselves less as a traditional teacher, teaching their subject, than as someone looking out for the well-being of their pupils."

The lefty liberal will be a pleasure to work with provided they feel they are doing something worthwhile and advancing the future of the human race. You might have to put up with the odd righteous liberal rant, but it will be worth it when you need them fighting your corner.

You know you're a lefty liberal when .

You spent all weekend making banners for the school protest (that you organised) against the airport expansion down the road.

The jocks

The core of this tribe is often made up of PE teachers, whose conversation revolves mainly around sport and drinking. You know that when they were kids themselves, they were all in the most popular gang. Now they're all grown up and earning a proper wage, they are happy for it to stay that way. When it comes to older secondary pupils, these teachers are the best of friends with the sporty boys and the pretty girls and will think nothing of heading down the pub with them after a good game.

It is impossible to get some teachers off the subject of their jobs, usually in the form of a complaint or a moan. But the jocks are one of the few sources of non teaching-related banter - and are the most likely among colleagues to initiate staff trips to a local hostelry.

Even if there are only a couple of them around, jocks dominate the staffroom and are guaranteed to talk more loudly than anyone else, which can be intimidating to the less domineering teachers. When Katy* was on a PGCE placement, the staffroom jocks made her more aware than ever of her age and lack of experience.

"There was a group of male teachers who were always laughing and joking about something, which is fine, but they would exclude other people from it," she says. "They would congregate near the staffroom entrance and when I had to get past they'd always make some kind of comment, like I was getting a bit too close, which made me feel quite uncomfortable and then blush, even if I tried not to."

Dr Paechter has a theory about this group that would cut them down to size. She has put their behaviour down to a need to assert their status, compensating for the lack of power they feel in other areas of their lives. "PE is a very marginal subject - it is considered non-academic by outsiders, even at GCSE level," she says. "This group is therefore physically dominant out of all proportion to their actual power within the school. They are the biggest noises in the staffroom, but only at breaktime, not at staff meetings."

It might be that their energetic outbursts are aimed directly at a particular individual, but they are often unaware of the impact they have on others and simply want to fit in with the group, says Dr Emma Donaldson-Fielder, a psychologist specialising in well-being in the workplace. Looking beyond the jock group to the individual is one way to make them seem less intimidating. "Realise that it's not personal, and if you can build individual relationships the group will be less of a threat," he says. "But also, find other people with whom you do feel comfortable."

The jocks might make the rest of the staff feel hopelessly inadequate in the popularity stakes, but you have to ask yourself whether you really care.

You know you're a jock when .

You spend most lunchtimes playing table tennis with your pupils and think nothing of making them cry even if the majority of them are eight years old (they're an opponent and they need to stick to the rules).

The cynics

Every workplace has a hearty group of cynics. Among teachers, they're the ones who groan at every new initiative brought in by the senior management team and sigh every time they have to actually do some teaching. This group would be much better suited to a world of long lunches and coffee mornings where they can put the world to rights. As teachers, they have to suffice with a half-hour break in a dingy staffroom. Nonetheless, they will try to pretend they are elsewhere by burying their head in the paper, sharing an occasional grunt with fellow tribe members or shouting "preposterous" to the world at large.

Dan Clay is a secondary drama teacher. In one of his former schools, there was an "inner sanctum" of cynics in the staffroom. "You had to be invited to sit in their circle in the middle, where they did a quiz every lunchtime," he says. "I got invited once, only because one of the others hadn't shown up. Most of them were in their 50s so they could see the light at the end of the tunnel. I suppose they felt like they could do what they wanted."

Many teachers are resistant to the sheer scale of change in education. Staff turnover is at an all-time high, with 30 to 50 per cent of new teachers leaving the profession within five years, according to research by the think tank Politeia. Enthusiasm among governments of all hues for a regime of permanent revolution in public services impacts on every facet of teachers' lives. It's enough to make anyone foam at the mouth.

But cynics take widespread exasperation to a whole new level. "The problem occurs when the cynics are resistant to internal change that people actually want within the school," says Professor Cooper. "If the senior management team in agreement with most of the other teachers want a particular change and you have a couple of people who don't want it, you just do it. You marginalise them. I know in schools that you want unanimity, but you rarely get it."

You know you're a cynic when .

You find yourself about to slap a supply teacher over the head with your newspaper when they are sitting in what everyone knows to be your seat.

The bullies and backstabbers

Bullies and backstabbers crop up at every level, from headteacher to NQT. It is difficult to put your finger on exactly what it is they do, but you know the Look of Death when you see it - and they are able to undermine you when you least expect it. The bullies and backstabbers can turn the staffroom into a minefield, especially if you are new to the school or a supply teacher who does not know the correct etiquette.

This kind of behaviour usually arises because of stress in other areas, according to Professor Cooper. "In a school situation, you get people who are put in a job they can't cope with and they start to bully people below them. In a way, the bullying is a stress manifestation: `Why aren't you doing your job?' The overloaded bully is so stressed that they just can't manage so they undervalue and demean other people, trying to get stress off their case," he says. "In schools, we appoint really good teachers into management roles and we don't give them very much training. If somebody's the head of a big school, that's an organisation where they should have an MBA or equivalent."

Cliques are often formed as a result of this kind of aggressive management because individuals feel the need to stick together and fight their corner, whatever the cost. When Linda* was head of English at a large secondary school, she noticed that her colleagues' behaviour changed after a new head started to pile on extra work and berate her staff on a regular basis. "The rapid, successive changes which were occurring had had a strange effect on other teachers. I was deliberately excluded from conversations, both personal and professional. Social events, which I had only really ever attended through a desire to get on well with my colleagues, suddenly seemed more frequent and secretive."

At one of Conrad Watts's (see eager beavers) former schools, a group of teachers got so fed up with a member of the senior management team (who, incidentally, fell somewhere between a career-obsessed eager beaver and a bully) that they decided to fight back. "She would hold a meeting and ask for something to be done and people would sit there and say, `No, I'm not doing it.' They just defied her completely and walked out of meetings."

The Teacher Support Network advises those who fall foul of this tribe to maintain eye contact with them in order to let them know you refuse to be shouted down and intimidated. The trick is to maintain a confident front without appearing aggressive. The worst thing you can do in dealing with this tribe is to show a lack of confidence: you will inevitably be led, lamb-like, to the slaughter.

You know you're a bully when .

You think it's funny to "steal" your colleague's prize mug over and over again and to put half-eaten chocolate bars into the bride-to-be's pigeon- hole for everyone to see just before she heads off to WeightWatchers.

Are you a paid-up tribe member or is there no such thing? Join the debate at www.tes.co.ukforums.


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