Why teachers who play together, stay together

31st July 2015 at 01:00
Whole-staff outings are a chance to escape the daily grind and get to know your colleagues. So why don't more schools try them?

I'm writing this article as the summer term draws to a close, from a terrace overlooking the picturesque seafront of Broadstairs in Kent. Below me, holidaymakers pack the beach; I can hear the sounds of laughter and breaking waves.

A large group of my colleagues surrounds me; they are having a rather loud and exceedingly silly conversation. As with any good staff social, "talking shop" is very much frowned upon - the purpose of the trip is to spend time with each other outside the school environment. That's partly why my colleagues and I have journeyed to the coast, to get away from our day-to-day concerns and simply relax. There's a good mix of us, too: support staff, middle managers, teachers and senior leaders.

One of the things I love most about the school I work at is how often we do this kind of thing together: Christmas parties, summer barbecues, quizzes, meals, even a staff MasterChef competition are regular occurrences. To us this is normal, but I am amazed by how often teachers tell me that we are the exception rather than the rule.

It's sad to hear how many teachers head straight for the hills at the end of the working day. At one school in our area, senior leaders are expressly forbidden from socialising with the rank and file - an idea that I really struggle to get my head around. Another school has numerous subject-based cliques. Rather than coming together as a staff body, departments have their own enclaves in the staffroom. While this may be better than nothing, I can't help thinking that the atmosphere must be a little stifling. Were I employed by that school, I would make the case for socialising together as a group in the strongest possible terms.

Some headteachers have the idea that "overfamiliarity" with the people you line-manage can make your job more challenging; that difficult conversations with members of staff are even more difficult if you know them really well. I have to say that I'm not convinced. A good manager of people knows how to switch between a social conversation and a businesslike conversation, and most of us are sensible enough to realise when this needs to happen.

In a way, knowing your colleagues well makes this process easier, because it allows you to compartmentalise work and social activities. In my experience, it can actually allow for a greater degree of frankness. Familiarity with other staff also better equips you to broach tricky subjects with them, and that can only be a positive thing.

That said, I do see a certain logic in headteachers remaining a little aloof, because they are the ones who have to step in on those very rare occasions when competency procedures or redundancies are on the table. In such instances, a bit of distance could allow more judicious decisions to be made and conveyed - but this is, I think, the exception rather than the rule.

The secret of staff retention

A good social environment is wonderful for staff retention. Self-evidently, staff who feel happy in their school are less likely to leave it, and continuity of teaching is a big part of successful schools. Socialising with colleagues can foster that connection to the school and to each other. This can be done within individual departments, but I think that approach overlooks something fundamentally important.

The great beauty of senior leaders mixing with newly qualified teachers, middle managers, ground staff and office staff is that we learn not only about each other as people but also about our different responsibilities and the pressures we face. It's very easy to get caught up in your own little world of stresses and strains, and this can make you overly insular. Quite often, this can lead to a failure to understand - or value - the contributions of others to the smooth running of a school.

In their shoes

Spending social time with senior leaders helps me to understand the scale of the pressure they face, and this cuts both ways. Headteachers can gain a better awareness of the stress created by all those initiatives passed down from on high, and this might encourage them to consider the implications of whole-school decisions a little more carefully.

This idea of sharing our daily trials and tribulations is embodied by a comment from our exams officer. On our little seaside jolly, she leans across the pub table and regales us with a long list of all the members of staff she has had to shush outside the exam hall. This is met with much laughter. Then the head of design technology, who is sitting beside me, issues a semi-stern reminder to cut out the work chatter.

The spirit of our egalitarian outing reminds me of the words of the late, great Rik Mayall, who once told an audience of new graduates to never forget that "all men are equal, therefore no one can ever be your genuine superior". Although one trip to the seaside with your colleagues might not quite do the sentiment justice, it is at least a start.

Tom Finn-Kelcey is head of social sciences at Queen Elizabeth's Grammar School in Faversham, Kent

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