Who can I turn to?

11th November 2005 at 00:00
You face a last-minute printing crisis. You get lost trying to find a cover lesson. Stephen Manning introduces you to the people who can show you the way.

Who will help you when you lock yourself out of your classroom with the keys inside? Or you can't work out your timetable? Or the printer jams with the worksheets for next lesson still not ready? For the new teacher, getting to know who's who in the school is an important early lesson.

Identifying the right people can make all the difference at the start of your career.

To begin with, keep away from the headteacher. In between wrestling with the local education authority over budgets, conducting assembly and writing letters to the editor of The TES about why the latest government policy won't work, heads are far too busy or stressed to chat with you, even if they proclaim an "open-door " policy. Trying to start a conversation about golf will only appear to be toadying, and it's too soon to cross the us- and-them divide. That time will come later.

Beneath the boss is a tier of management that can be as prickly as it is confusing. Schools may have deputy or assistant heads, or indeed several of both - primary schools are more likely to have two assistants than a deputy - and delineation may not be immediately apparent.

"When starting a new job, the NQT needs to know who the senior management are," says Anne Barnes, PGCE secondary course leader at the University of Warwick. "The hierarchy can be vague to a newcomer, so putting names to faces is crucial.

"I knew one teacher who, on her first day at the school, mistook the deputy head for the secretary in front of the kids, when the deputy walked in to give her a message. It was difficult to recover after that."

Somewhat inevitably, necessity seems to be inversely proportional to status. "It's always wise to stay on the right side of admin staff because you never know when you will need them," says Professor Barnes. "You will find you suddenly need the secretary's help to get your printing done urgently."

You can easily fail to appreciate the skills your colleagues have - there are lots of things they can do that you might not know about. One of the best people to keep in with is the caretaker. This mythical figure seems to provide anything that might be above and beyond the call of duty. He - it usually is he - will know the physical school better than anyone and will have important, but understated, responsibilities, such as liaising with the fire service, or possibly even driving the bus to a sports match with another school.

"If you get on the wrong side of one, it can be rather awkward," says Sara Bubb, a lecturer at London's Institute of Education. "I worked with one who wouldn't allow any pictures or posters on the windows. But how damaging is Blu-Tack?"

Certainly, it's hard to tell who has an appetite for pettiness, but, as in any job, it's fair to assume that lower paid staff have to put up with stuff you don't know about; a personable attitude may offset any unforeseen resentments.

Odette Jacobs, who teaches at Kingswood primary school, south London, and has lectured newly qualified teachers on who to get in with in the school environment, says: "Our school has a very sociable atmosphere. It's like an extended family. Everyone is thrown together and so it's important to find ways to get on.

"I would say that if there isn't a social life in your school, make one. We go to the pub on a Friday after school and teaching assistants, office staff and others are all included. It's important that senior figures, the head or heads of department, don't appear to be stuck up."

Harry Dodds, PGCE English lecturer at Oxford Brookes university agrees: "I think the whole principle is to accept that, without all these guys, institutions would collapse, that they are human beings, and they thrive on appreciation and a bit of banter."



Responsible for everything but unlikely to know how the fax machine works. Rating 010

Deputy assistant head

Deputies have more experience and more to do with whole-school responsibilities. Assistants may feel the term is belittling, so always be sure to tell them how senior they're looking Rating 210

Heads of department

They recruit staff and plan the curriculum in their subjects. Best person to flaunt your knowledge and skills too, although don't overdo it Rating 710


Volunteers (teachers, parents and others) coming into the school a few times a term, involved in budgets and senior recruitment. Can seem like do-gooders with no practical advice, but parent governors in particular might know more about what's really happening with the kids Rating 610

School secretaries

Their main role may seem to be guarding the senior management from contact with the outside world; or, as in any organisation, they may well be the de facto power base. Good for inside information Rating 810

Dinner ladies

Will probably know everyone in the school, whatever its size.

Be nice and you might get extra food. Male NQTs could suffer from their maternal streak. Avoid calling them Mum in front of the kids Rating 710


Revered or feared by pupils and staff. Can probably identify troublemakers faster than you can. And will wade into quicksand to retrieve your mobile phone, if asked nicely.

Rating 1010

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